Fred Claus
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SCENE STEALER: ‘Fred Claus’

Fred Claus
By Ron Magid, Special to The Times

Making Santa’s brother (Vince Vaughn) and an elf (John Michael Higgins) fit proportionally when slow dancing was no small feat for “Fred Claus” visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell, especially because the actor playing said elf was a full-sized man. “Director David Dobkin insisted that Vaughn and Higgins shoot their scenes together so they could riff off each other,” Bicknell says. To do that, Bicknell had to figure out how to reduce Higgins’ scale while enabling him to improvise, and such rigorous visual effects shots don’t exactly lend themselves to freewheeling dialogue. Fortunately, Bicknell had some previous experience milking comic chemistry from full-scale humans and effects-induced little people: his prior visual effects supervisor gig on “Little Man,” a comedy in which comedian Marlon Wayans played the pint-sized titular character. Bicknell had Jorgé Rodero, a little person, portray Willie the elf from the neck down. For every shot involving dialogue, Higgins performed just off camera. Later, Bicknell digitally married Higgins’ head to Rodero’s diminutive body. Sound simple? Hardly. (Jaap Buitendjik / Warner Bros. Pictures)
Fred Claus
Not only did Dobkin shoot the scene with full physical contact between Vaughn and Rodero, he got double the improvisation. Rodero, who was made up to look like Higgins, waltzed in full elf garb, matching his movements to Higgins’ off-camera vocalization. “Jorgé didn’t speak English, but he bobbed his body and gesticulated with his hands to the rhythm of John’s dialogue,” Bicknell says. “If Jorgé misinterpreted what he heard, once we put Michael’s head on, we got a character who appeared slightly quirky.” (Warner Bros.)
Fred Claus
On the blue screen stage, Higgins sat in a swivel chair, his rotations mimicking each twist, turn and vertiginous spin of Rodero’s dancing body on-screen, while re-recording his dialogue to parry Vaughn’s verbal thrusts. This low-tech approach, one of Bicknell’s many “Little Man” innovations, allowed more improvisation while avoiding costly shooting delays caused by computerized motion-control camera work. But there was a tradeoff. “It demanded lots of concentration,” Bicknell says, “but with no electronics moving him around, John was able to fully control his performance.” (Warner Bros.)
Fred Claus
“Dividing John’s dimensions by 1.7 reduced his head so it fit onto Jorgé's body, but when we just locked his head on, it felt stiff,” says Bicknell, who mainlined coffee while watching each head replacement shot 100 times on a QuickTime loop until the solution dawned. Adding a two-frame offset between the footage of Higgins’ head and Rodero’s body solved the problem. “We’d get a pretty good lineup in two days, then spend two weeks refining it. Little things like that delay gave the character more life.” (Warner Bros.)
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