THE SMURFS 2
About the Character Animation & Visual Effects
For the film's visual effects supervisor, Richard R. Hoover, the production was like a game with numerous moving parts. "There are a lot of pieces, it's like a jigsaw puzzle," he says. "For example, we shot plates and green screen in Montreal, and later, we shot live-action for the same shot in Paris. And, of course, it all has to fit together. This movie is much more complicated than the first one, both in shooting and in how many places we need to go in order to make the whole movie come together. Last time, we were getting to know the characters, and this time they're involved in their environment and things they need to do. There's a lot more action."
Even with the additional location hurdles, the goal of the visual effects team is to make the Smurfs realistic: living and breathing entities with emotions. "My hope always is that the visual effects are seamless, that they look just like the live-action shots," says Hoover. "The principle of the Smurfs, as a rule, is that we're trying to ground them in reality, trying to make the audience believe that they exist in our world that the physics in our world work on them as well."
Achieving that is a curious blend of the technical and the artistic. "The Smurfs have hearts and souls -- they feel an emotion, just like we do," continues Hoover. "Part of that comes through in the way the animators will portray the characters, of course, but it also comes through in the way we shoot things: how fast we move the camera that gives a realistic speed to the characters, how far they jump, or run. They still have to behave within the rules of our world."
Of course, the other part of the equation is performance, as Sony Pictures Imageworks animation supervisor Sebastian Kapijimpanga explains. "We add a lot of detail and nuance to the facial performances," he says. "That way, we can make a performance very layered and realistic. That's especially true with Smurfette, since this story is really about her -- there's a lot of subtlety to the performance, and the character has a bigger range than she did in the first film. She has some extremely subtle moments, all the way up to the joyful expressions as we're used to seeing them."
Similarly to Boes and Meheux, Hoover's experience on the first film provided valuable insight in ways to improve visual effects techniques and methodology. "We worked out a lot of methods in how to shoot the Smurfs, and make them be in our world, interacting with real objects, parts and landscape," states Hoover. "Last time around, I think it was something of a surprise to everyone how well close-ups worked -- close-ups are great, because you get to see all the detail in the Smurf's face and the character really comes through. So, this time, Raja was excited that he could do more of that."
Another visual effects improvement from the first film pertained to the development of tools to perfect the actor's eye line. "What we found last time is it's very difficult for the actors to look at the right place and follow the Smurf action," explains Hoover. "We can put eye markers on the walls, but their eyes actually converge on the spot differently."
To truly make the eyelines match, the high-tech VFX expert says, he found a decidedly low-tech solution. "I used some bailing wire on a little stand with a little red dot on it that we could place it in the scene," he says. "It was fairly easy to remove later and the actors got a very accurate mark as to where their eyes are."
In order to maintain the authenticity of Paris and the Smurfs, many of the big action sequences required pre-vis effects, particularly the climatic run-away Ferris wheel scene. "It's quite difficult to shoot, because how do you get a 150-200 foot Ferris wheel to roll down the street?" says Hoover. "We could build in all the effects, but we didn't want to do that -- we wanted to shoot Paris for Paris and shoot a real Ferris wheel as much as we could, and that presented quite a few challenges, both in tools and methodology and how to do it."
The sequence involved a number of different techniques to pull off. "We're using the real wheel until it breaks loose from the surrounding structure," says Hoover. Then the sequence moves into visual effects: "We built a matching CG version of the wheel. We shot plates in the Tuileries Garden and other Paris locations, and did compositions of the wheel rolling through."
For one shot -- with the camera looking at Gargamel, Hackus, Vexy, and Smurfette in the car and the audience riding along with the car -- the filmmakers put a 50-foot camera crane onto a car hauler, then swung the crane's arm up and down to give the impression that the wheel was rolling. Most shots, though, were accomplished with green screen -- the filmmakers used an array of cameras to create a 360-degree environment inside the car as well as a 180-degree environment of the world of Paris outside the car window, then matched that footage with green screen images of Azaria as Gargamel, which they captured in Montreal.
Also returning to The Smurfs 2 were an army of artists from Sony Pictures Imageworks to create the CG character animation. They were responsible for all of the character work -- the Smurfs, the Naughties, Azrael the cat, and the duck.
"All of the characters that we worked with on the first film had been established," notes the animation supervisor on The Smurfs 2, Sebastian Kapijimpanga. "Developing the new characters -- the Naughties, Vexy and Hackus -- was a process of discovery."
"I think we all had different pictures in our heads of what the Naughties would look like," says Gosnell. "They're not Smurfs, but they would have to be Smurfy -- some version of the Smurf hat, some version of the Smurf pants. Our basic starting point was the idea that these are children of a neglectful father, Gargamel, so we liked the idea that they had found their own clothes. The most important thing, of course, was that they couldn't be blue, because that's Gargamel's whole quest -- to turn them into True Blue Smurfs. So they're grey, since they were created from a lump of clay, though we did give them blue freckles, just to give you a sense that yes, there's a Smurf inside there."
"For Vexy, we wanted to make her look a little like a Smurf in certain ways, but quite distinctive in terms of color choices and her style -- she has a 'found wardrobe' of clothes she found all over the city," Gosnell continues. "Hackus is just an enthusiastic ball of energy. He loves his sister, loves to be loved, but he's got a bit of the devil in him -- he likes to get himself into trouble."
"Hackus's proportions are a little bit different than the other Smurfs'," says Kapijimpanga. "That required us to do a lot of experimentation with different animation approaches to discover how he moves. Vexy looks more like the other Smurfs in terms of her proportions, but the differences come through in character performance. She's mischievous and certainly up to no good. It's a lot of fun to animate a character coming from that place."
The Smurfs 2 also called for Kapijimpanga's team to animate a photo-real cat (Azrael) and duck (Victor, once Gargamel's had his way). "In the last few years, it's gotten harder to tell CG from real," says Kapijimpanga. "We're at the point that I think the average person -- my mom, say -- wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a real duck and our duck." Kapijimpanga's team was responsible for a wide range of animation, from facial replacement to expressive gestures to building an entirely CG duck.
For the cat, he says, "It starts with looking at reference of real animals, of course. We have to start with the elements that make a cat's movements realistic. But we do have to add a bit of performance on top of that -- some expressiveness in the faces and a broad range of movement. We push it to the point that it's comedic, but not so much that it takes you out of the film and you stop believing that it's a real cat. It's tricky."
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