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FRED CLAUS

Santa's Elves
Besides Santa Claus, the most famous residents of the North Pole are Santa's elves. John Michael Higgins stars as Santa's Head Elf, Willie, one of Santa's most trusted aids, who is in charge of piloting Santa's sleigh. "Michael was the guy I had in mind from the start,” states Dobkin. "I've always loved his work. He is a truly wonderful actor; he's very good with physical comedy and so expressive. He and Vince had such great timing and chemistry in ‘The Break-Up' that I knew he would be excellent for this role.”

For Higgins, "Fred Claus” represented a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a new holiday comedy. "Films about Christmas serve as a portal for all sorts of joy and reflection,” he says. "It's the end of the year; it's your last shot to set things right for the year. While Fred and Santa are struggling to find a way to tune into each other for the first time, Willie is struggling to find his confidence.”

To create the illusion of the nearly six-foot-tall Higgins as one of Santa's elves, Dobkin relied on the expertise of visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell, who mastered the technique called "digital head replacement.” This process, which involves digitally placing an actor's head on the body another actor, required shooting every one of Willie's scenes twice. Higgins' body double was Spanish actor Jorge Rodero, a little person standing at just over four feet tall, who was filmed on the principal set while Higgins worked closely with him to establish Willie's movements. Dobkin later separately shot Higgins in front of a blue screen as Higgins meticulously matched Rodero's movements frame by frame.

"When capturing the blue screen footage, the trick was to carefully match Michael's upper body and head movements to Jorge's on set performance," explains Bicknell. "Then we digitally removed the head and neck off of Michael and, utilizing a myriad of compositing techniques, married it back with Jorge's body with the end goal of creating a singular, seamless performance."

"We spent a month shooting Michael in front of a blue screen,” Dobkin notes. "The process required tremendous patience and Michael really came through for us. He is an astute, disciplined performer with great endurance. He was focused and incredibly patient the entire way.”

The North Pole's resident radio disc jockey, DJ Donnie, played by actor and hip hop recording artist Chris "Ludacris” Bridges, was also created with the "digital head replacement” technique. Unlike Higgins, who was on set to observe the filming of Rodero, Bridges had to work from footage of DJ Donnie's body double that was shot months in advance.

Dobkin notes, "Chris had to do all of the blue screen work without the benefit of having other actors around. He always gave 100 percent. For him, it was all about body control, inflections and finding those rhythms to match his body double. It was amazing to watch him work because he was able to create the rhythms on the spot.”

Coincidentally, both Bridges and his body double, Ntobeko Mbhele from Durban, South Africa, have experience as DJs. "It's funny to be cast as a DJ in this film because I started my music career as a DJ at a radio station in Atlanta,” says Bridges. "It's something that I've always loved doing, and I believe I still have the voice for it.”

Bringing his radio experience to the character, he adds, "DJ Donnie is here to motivate the elves. That's what being a DJ is all about. He plays music that gets everybody in the holiday spirit. Of course, this being the North Pole, the only song on his playlist is ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,' which he plays over and over...and over.”

"Hearing ‘Here Comes Santa Claus' again and again...and again eventually drives Fred up the wall. Besides the annoyance of hearing the same song played repeatedly like a broken recor

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