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“Disney Prep & Landing” : The making of a modern Christmas classic

“Disney Prep & Landing” : The making of a modern Christmas classic

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When you really think about it, it’s entirely appropriate that “Disney Prep & Landing” – ABC’s new holiday special which is built around an elite group of elves – started out life as a short.

Elves. Short. Get it? … Never mind.

Lanny the elf tells his boss Wayne that he should join the office Christmas party
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Anyway … As veteran producer Dorothy McKim recalled, “Prep & Landing” was just one of the concepts that “Bolt” director Chris Williams came up with when John Lasseter put out the word that Walt Disney Animation Studios was getting back into the theatrical shorts business.”

“This would have been the Summer of 2006,” Dorothy remembered. “And Chris actually pitched three different ideas to John and two of these got put into production: ‘Glago’s Guest,’ which has been out on the animation festival circuit, and ‘Prep and Landing.’“

And Lasseter … Well, as McKim so succinctly put it “John’s a huge Christmas dude. He just loves all of those animated Christmas specials from the 1960s. Which is why he kept bringing up ‘Prep and Landing.’ What a cool world this was, how there was so much more story to tell about this elite group of elves that got houses ready for Santa.”

Lanny and Wayne measure the space under the Christmas tree with the latest technology
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which is how what was originally supposed to be a 5 minute-long short eventually wound up becoming this 21 minute-long holiday special. The first ever to be produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, I might add.

“John just wouldn’t let go of this idea,” Dorothy continued. “Which is why – after Chris had been tapped to direct ‘Bolt’ – Lasseter asked Williams if it would be okay to hand off development of ‘Prep & Landing’ to Kevin Deters & Stevie Wermers-Skelton, who had just finished directing ‘How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.’  Chris gave them his blessing and Kevin & Stevie just took his idea and ran with it.”

But that whole time, Lasseter was there to help shape & mold “Prep & Landing.” Constantly noodging Deters & Wermers-Skelton toward story choices that would make Lanny & Wayne’s world seem that much more real.

Miss Holly Santa
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

“John’s eye for detail is just amazing,” McKim said. “He was the one who suggested that – if the Prep & Landing elves were supposed to be such bad asses – then they should really wear bomber jackets. He was also the one who said that the color palate for the North Pole should only be the classic Christmas colors: red, green and gold.”

But that said … Deters & Wermers-Skelton also had a huge impact on this holiday special. With Kevin’s work experience at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida ultimately providing the key to Wayne’s story arc in “Prep & Landing.”

“Kevin tells this great story about what it was like to work at the Florida studio, how easy it was to get jaded about what you were working on, until you actually went outside into the theme park,” Dorothy explained. “That’s where you saw all of those people lining up to see the parade, those happy families who had traveled so far to come see the Disney characters. That’s when you realized that what you did as a Disney animator really mattered to these people. That they actually cared about the characters you helped create.”

Wayne and Lanny the Prep and Landing Elves
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Speaking of characters that Disney animators create … As production was proceeding on “Prep & Landing,” McKim couldn’t help but notice that Magee, the North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator was starting to look familiar. Very very familiar.

“You have to understand that hair is very hard to do in CG,” Dorothy laughed. “So – at first – they were just borrowing my bob hairstyle. But then I caught the storyboard artists studying my mannerisms. Truth be told, Magee is a mix of myself and Jenny Magee-Cook, who works in development here at the Studio. But it’s still kind of a kick to see a little bit of yourself in a show like this.”

McKim’s had all sorts of odd adventures while working on “Prep & Landing.” Like that trip to the Burbank Airport, when McKim and her story crew  got to watch air traffic controllers land planes. So they could make sure that the elves who work in the North Pole's tower, who talk Santa through his pre-launch sequence looked & sounded as authentic as possible.

Magee in the control tower
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

The end result is that “Prep & Landing” – just like the very best Pixar films – features this compelling story that’s set in a fantastic-but-still-believable world which is then populated with characters that you actually care about.

When asked what her favorite moment in this new holiday special is, Dorothy was quick to point to a short-but-important moment in “Prep & Landing” ‘s second act (SMALL SPOILER AHEAD) when Timmy – having been put back in bed by Wayne and Lanny – reaches out in his sleep and hugs the disillusioned older elf, saying “This will be the best Christmas ever. Thank you, Wayne.”

“We debated for a long time about whether Timmy should actually say ‘Thank you’ to Wayne,” McKim stated. “We wanted this to be a very poignant scene in the show, when Wayne finally realizes how important his job really is.”

Timmy hugs Wayne instead of his stuffed giraffe
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Having seen the finished version of “Disney Prep & Landing” several times now … I can tell you folks straight out that McKim, Lasseter, Deters & Wermers-Skelton made all the right choices when it comes to this new ABC holiday special. “Prep & Landing” is a perennial right out of the box. It was the same skillful mixture of humor & heart, the same economy of story that you find in only the very best animated Christmas specials (i.e. “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).

In fact, Wayne and Lanny – the Christmas Elves – are such appealing characters that I flat-out asked Dorothy if there was any talk yet in-house about possibly making a sequel to “Prep & Landing.” McKim laughed, then said “Well, I know that the crew here at Walt Disney Animation Studios really enjoyed working on this holiday special. As people rolled off their assignments on ‘Bolt,’ we put them right to work on ‘Prep & Landing.’ So there’s a lot of affection around here for Wayne & Lanny. So maybe – if this special gets really good ratings – we'll check in again on these characters sometime in the future.”

Mind you, over the next two-and-half weeks, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to check out “Disney Prep & Landing.” This new holiday special airs on ABC from 8:30 – 9 p.m. ET / PT, right after “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Starting tomorrow, “Prep & Landing” begins streaming on Disney.com.

Disney.com has a special page for Prep and Landing
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

And speaking of Disney.com … Now through the end of December, this website has become the online command center for “Disney Prep & Landing.” Here you can view an original short, “Tiny’s Big Adventure,” which feature Magee’s diminutive administrative assistant. You can also play the online “Kringle Academy” game to see if you actually have what it takes to become a stealthy elf.

And if you’ve got an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you can then download three “Prep & Landing” mini-games onto those devices. Or if you’d prefer more tangible toys, head out for your local Disney Store. Which currently features plush versions of Wayne, Lanny and Magee. Not to mention a "Disney Prep & Landing" sticker book, several types of pins as well as a Christmas ornament .

FYI: If you miss “Disney Prep & Landing” on ABC tonight, not to worry. This new holiday special will be airing two more times on the Alphabet Network. On Wednesday, December 16th from 8-8:30 p.m. and – appropriately enough – on Thursday, December 24th (Christmas Eve) also from 8-8:30 p.m.

And speaking of Christmas Eve ... If you've still got some holiday shopping to do and were thinking of checking out Amazon.com to see what sort of online bargains could be found there ... Well, could you please do JHM a favorite and -- before you begin shopping on Amazon -- please click on the banner above?

If you do that, Jim Hill Media then gets a teeny tiny chunk of whatever you spend. Which would be a really nice way to show your appreciation for all the great stories that you've read on this website over the past year.

Happy Holidays!

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  • PingBack from http://tickingnews.com/2009/12/08/prep-and-landing-abc/

  • So, Disney made a Christmas special that wasn't a sequel, didn't feature any known characters, was contemporary without mass amounts of pop-culture gags, and worked on the child and adult level equally.  If you had told me even a year ago that this would happen, I would have thought you were nuts. In two days my family has watched it three times, and will probably watch it again soon (have to try to avoid burnout).  I am no Disney apologist, and am more than welcome to point out their failings, but Prep & Landing is a true classic, possibly on par with The Grinch and Chalie Brown's Christmas.

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