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From Smurf Village To New York City
Until this theatrical motion picture, the Smurfs had only been represented in two dimensions. Taking them into a dimensional, CG-animated space, and in 3D stereo no less, was the major challenge for the filmmakers.

It began on set, where the director of photography, Phil Méheux, and the film's production designer, Bill Boes, coordinated efforts with visual effects supervisor Richard R. Hoover, SPI senior animation supervisor Troy Saliba, and SPI senior VFX producer Lydia Bottegoni of Sony Pictures Imageworks to build sets, light them, and shoot the film in such a way that the three-apple-high stars could be added later. 3D visual effects supervisor Rob Engle was also on hand to ensure that it would all come to life in 3D.

"There were an awful lot of moving parts on this movie,” says Gosnell. "Basic Directing 101 is about moving your characters around, how you stage a scene. On this movie, we had to stage scenes in which six characters weren't there. The actors would have to interact with nothing, and sometimes the camera would move, following nothing. My biggest job as a director was to keep the eye on the prize – how to keep everyone moving toward the same goal. Everyone embraced the fun and the challenge of the project, and by mid-movie, we were flying.”

Boes' team was responsible for the film's physical sets, including Grace and Patrick's New York apartment, a two-thirds replica of Belvedere Castle, and Gargamel's dungeon in the Castle. There isn't really a dungeon under the castle, so the filmmakers built their dream dungeon on a soundstage.

The centerpiece of Gargamel's dungeon is the Smurfalator – the machine that will extract the Smurfs' essence (if Gargamel ever actually succeeds in catching a Smurf). "He doesn't have anything, so he makes the Smurfalator out of found items,” explains Boes.

For the climactic battle sequence, Boes says, "The castle has a couple different levels. Raja and I wanted to have Gargamel land on one level and then come down and battle the Smurfs. It's like an assault on the castle, with Smurfs coming from every direction to battle Gargamel, who's in the middle. It had to feel like a medieval battle.”

Lighting and shooting Boes' sets was a huge challenge for Méheux, as six of the film's stars existed only in the mind (and, later, the computer). "Because, obviously, the Smurfs weren't actually there when we were shooting, it took an immense amount of concentration to imagine what they were doing and how they were doing it,” says Méheux. "We had to decide what sort of lights should be on them and how the camera should move.” And it wasn't just a matter of figuring it out once. "The Smurfs get into all sorts of fixes and all sorts of different situations: day and night, inside and outside.” All of that made for an interesting film photographically, but set a high bar.

To help him light the Smurfs' (and their animators') way, Méheux and his team used "life-size” (that is, 7½-inch tall) models to stand in for the Smurfs during set-up and rehearsal. "We can then position the light so that it falls right. The actors know where the Smurf will be when it is animated later, so their eyelines will match. Then we can take out the model and shoot the scene, and they look quite real, fitting the real backing that we're giving them. It looks like they're part of the surroundings.” During this process, the Imageworks visual effects team employed a new camera system to precisely record the on-set lighting, to be applied later in the computer.

One curious effect of putting 7½-inch tall characters in a real-life world is that shooting from those characters' perspective makes you see the world in an entirely different way. "In most films, the ceiling hardly ever appears. But if you lie on the floor and look up, you'll get a good idea of what it's like to be a Smurf: everyone is very tall and you always see the ceiling.” To help create Smurf-o-vision, the filmmakers built a periscopelike device that gives the eye a three-apple-high perspective.

With the film in the can, the baton was passed to Hoover, Saliba, and Bottegoni. During months of pre-production, Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks artists developed design considerations, explored concepts, and built 3D models necessary to shoot the live-action scenes and prepare Peyo's simply drawn characters to convincingly interact in and with a live-action world. The Sony in-house artists produced a test sequence combining the CG Smurf and live action. This test validated the concept and the transformation of the Smurfs to CG, its impressive visuals earning the project its greenlight. Whereupon visual development artist and character designer Allen Battino modified the initial work to reach the final re-design.

Most people know the Smurfs either from Peyo's drawings or from the 1980s television series, Battino says; these character designs are very different from each other, and neither would work for the feature film. "Peyo's designs are beautiful – there are straight lines and curves, and the composition of every panel in his books is gorgeous. But the forms and features are also exaggerated” – for example, if a Smurf needs to hold something over his head, Peyo could simply stretch his arms. By contrast, the Smurfs of the television series were designed to accommodate the fast production schedule of television animation. "We had to come up with a design that was toned down, but still Smurfy,” Battino continues.

Re-designing the Smurfs to work in a 3D world and coming up with all-new designs for the new characters took months, but the result pleased everyone, from the filmmakers to Peyo's family.

Perhaps the biggest change came in making it seem as if the characters had flesh and bone, a real anatomy. As Bottegoni, SPI's senior VFX producer, puts it, "The big challenge on this movie is translating historically 2D cartoon characters into a dimensionalized world.”

"When you watch this movie, you have different expectations for the characters,” Hoover adds. "In making something look real and believable, there are a lot of considerations to make. There is the personality of the character, how they walk and move. You have to think about their physics and their weight and how skin reflects light.”

Most important, perhaps, was acting performance of the characters. "There's a level of sincerity and naturalism that Raja really wanted to see,” says Saliba. "So that was the challenge: keep the characters cartoony - they are the characters everyone knows - but have them perform just as convincingly as the actors do.”

"The most important thing was that the characters had heart – that they were capable of giving as good a performance as any of the live-action actors,” says Battino, the character re-designer. "That was the only way for the audience to relate to them, to care about what happens to them.”

"I'm incredibly proud of the work the animators did - combined with the voice actors, they gave these little guys souls,” says Gosnell.

Hoover explains that art of helping to convince the viewer that the Smurfs really could become part of our world is in pushing the texture of their skin. Even if it's blue, he says, texture can tell you that Smurfs and humans aren't all that different after all. "Your eye perceives texture based on how the light plays on the surface. It tells you a lot about what things are made out of and what's inside them. Our Smurfs have pores, and freckles, and peach fuzz on their faces. Obviously, Papa Smurf

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