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Christmas Magic is Unreal!

TRICK 3D unwraps The Jolliest Elf

EXCLUSIVE: When its airline and hotel clients dried up, The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf's Story studio turned to real-time animation to fast-track a new holiday IP.

With the most wonderful time of the year fast approaching, Atlanta’s TRICK 3D is gearing up to launch The Jolliest Elf, a new family-friendly holiday IP that taps into the popularity of reality competition shows and industry growth in real-time animation technology.

An original five-minute scripted short will premiere on YouTube for American Thanksgiving on November 26. It will serve as a pilot to a 12-episode series that showcases a talent competition at the North Pole, where participants from all around the world vie for the coveted title of The Jolliest Elf.

Along with introducing the show’s host and judges, the pilot will feature Lil’ Rey, a young reindeer competitor voiced and performed by eight-year-old Kansas City rapper Macyn “Mac Sauce” McMillian.

The Jolliest Elf is created and directed by TRICK 3D founder Chad Eikhoff, who is best known for writing, directing and producing the popular 2011 animated holiday special The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story for Big Canoe Entertainment.

To bring Eikhoff’s latest project to life, TRICK 3D secured a US$200,000 grant from Fortnite maker Epic Games in April. The funding sent The Jolliest Elf into production, following a development period that was self-funded by TRICK.

A partnership has also been secured with consulting agency Cookbook Media to expand the IP into a perennial holiday franchise through brand activation, content strategy, distribution, consumer products and live events. Cookbook founders Claudia Scott-Hansen and Rob Bencal will be promoting The Jolliest Elf at market events next year, with the goal of setting up production and marketing partnerships. The full series is expected to go into production in Q2 2021 for delivery in time for next year’s holiday season. TRICK is on the lookout for broadcast and streaming partners to help make this happen. 

According to TRICK’s studio head and executive producer, Stacy Shade, the support from Epic and Cookbook couldn’t have come at a better time, considering the studio recently lost its two largest enterprise clients—Intercontinental Hotel Group  (for which it created 360 virtual rooms) and Delta Airlines (realistic 3D airline cabin simulations)—both hit hard by the pandemic. The clients were TRICK’s main source of revenue when COVID hit, and losing them fueled the company’s original content projects.

“We spent many years building business with airlines and hotels, and we had just started working with KLM and Virgin,” says Shade. “They were driving our existence. That business fully evaporated over a four-day period in March, and we had to furlough half of our workforce.”

Fortunately for TRICK, the company was already experimenting with Unreal and had plans to shift to a real-time animation pipeline—joining a growing trend among studios using the technology to lower costs, shorten timelines and improve creativity. TRICK first experimented with Unreal in 2017, when it made a virtual reality experience called “Zayden’s Wish” for Make-A-Wish America.

Eikhoff says the technology has come a long way since then, especially in terms of how fast it can render animation. Because of this, Epic wasn’t concerned with TRICK’s quick-turnaround timeline for its pilot for The Jolliest Elf. “Part of the thing they were willing to take a leap on when most studios weren’t was the timeline,” he says. “Most people starting a project like this would probably shoot for Christmas 2021. But we needed to create something for Christmas 2020. Epic agreed, and they were not afraid of us trying to push the technical barriers to make it happen faster.”

The fact that so many animators have been forced to work from home because of pandemic lockdowns has also worked in TRICK’s favor. These include The Jolliest Elf‘s animation supervisor Tony Plett (Jurassic World, Lilo & Stitch) and creative producer Art David (The Matrix, Signs). Because of the pandemic, we’ve been able to get some veterans who would probably not normally be available, but are lending their time to the short,” says Shade.


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