large man in elf costume sits in classroom with much smaller children/elves

Annual ‘Elf’ Viewers Owe It to Themselves To Watch This Documentary

Elf. You say that one word at this time of year, and we all know exactly what you’re talking about. The 2003 Christmas film is ubiquitous at this time of the year, but if you want a little more insight into how your favorite holiday movie was made, then you need to watch this documentary.

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Will Ferrell absolutely shines in this movie and is one of the big reasons for its success, but a lot was going on behind the scenes that also deserves our praise and respect. Season three, episode eight of the docuseries The Movies That Made Us is dedicated to the Christmas film and everything that went into bringing it and its character to life.

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The mini-documentary reveals just how the filmmaking approach itself contributed to the movie’s unique feel and timeless quality, which was an intentional choice on the part of director Jon Favreau. Favreau did not want to use heavy CGI for Elf, as CGI would eventually age the film. This meant the crew, especially the director of photography, Greg Gardiner, had to get clever with the use of forced perspective. “It’s done by compression,” he explains in The Movies That Made Us. “They’re supposed to be next to each other, but, the actors are literally 10 feet away. No ones where they seem and none of this has been done for 50–60 years.”

The lack of CGI wasn’t the only element of realism among the film’s more fanciful elements. Many scenes in Elf are not only actually shot in New York, compared to many New York-based films that are shot in Canada or Atlanta these days, but guerilla-style, rather than the controlled nature of most film sets. Director of photography Greg Gardiner recalls,

I was walking around trying to figure out how to shoot these streets. How do you get the energy of New York City? How do we do that and not have it come out fake? The best way not to have it fake is to have it real, and that’s why we just put him out there in the streets!

The anecdotes about how that went are highly entertaining for any Elf fan (so … anyone?), and the details of their approach to the imaginary locations—and the surprising legal ramifications of that approach—are no less fascinating. If you’ve already rewatched Elf as much as you can handle this holiday season, this documentary is great supplemental material that will give you a new appreciation for a movie everyone already loves.

There is so much more to know about this iconic Christmas classic, so check out the full documentary over on Netflix!

(featured image: New Line Cinema)

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Laura Pollacco
Laura Pollacco (she/her) is a contributing writer here at The Mary Sue, having written for digital media since 2022 and has a keen interest in all things Marvel, Lord of the Rings, and anime. She has worked for various publications including We Got This Covered, but much of her work can be found gracing the pages of print and online publications in Japan, where she resides. Outside of writing she treads the boards as an actor, is a portrait and documentary photographer, and takes the little free time left to explore Japan.