The Smurfs 2 director Raja Gosnell and animation director spill the beans on the trials and tribulations of bringing the little blue creatures’ second big cinematic adventure to life.
Astute students of Smurfs lore know that the lovely Smurfette (a.k.a. la Schtroumpfette) first began her life as a one-off character in Spirou magazine back in 1966. As envisioned by Belgian creator Peyo, Smurfette was made by the evil Gargamel in order to cause unrest in the peaceful village. But then, Papa Smurf managed to turn her into a real blue Smurf. And the rest is history.
Sony’s midsummer sequel to the Smurfs movie, which made close to $563.8 billion in 2011, pays homage to Smurfette’s comic-book origins with a clever storyline: Gargamel (played by Hank Azaria) sets out to wreak havoc again by creating a couple of Naughties, in order to capture the powerful “Smurf-essence.” However, he finds out that only a secret spell known by Smurfette can turn the Naughties into real Smurfs, so he hatches a plan to kidnap our heroine (voiced by Katy Perry) and take her to Paris. It allowed the filmmakers to explore new locations as well as introduce two mischievous characters, bent on corrupting our sweet blue heroine.
“I thought the script really provided a good opportunity to go deeper on the emotional scale with these characters,” says the film’s director Raja Gosnell, who also directed the first outing. “We used Gargamel’s creation of Smurfette as a jumping off point to bring in new characters. It also gave us the chance to explore Smurfette’s emotional state. How does she feel about the fact that Gargamel is her creator? Does she consider herself an outsider, a step-Smurf?”
The in-demand director, whose many credits include Beverly Hills Chihuahua and the two Scooby-Doo live-action/animation hybrid theatricals from 2002 and 2004, said the secret to making the sequel work was zeroing in on Smurfette’s relationship with the Naughty Smurf, Vexy (voiced by Christina Ricci).
“They start out as adversaries, then they begin to have this adventure together. Then at some point, they forget that they aren’t supposed to like each other. And they have fun and realize that they’re sisters in a way. From a directorial standpoint, it was exciting to have these animated characters bond, and allow the audience to watch their relationship evolve as it happens. It leads to a terrific emotional moment at the end of the movie where Vexie and Hackus [JB Smoove] are weak and dying and need Smurfette to survive.”
The villainous Naughty characters provided the designers and CG animation team with their own set of challenges and creative opportunities. In the original Peyo comic book, Gargamel uses a type of grey clay to create Smurfette, so the same thing is implied in the movie.
“Vexy and Hackus are Smurfs in their DNA, so we were able to build on the designs from the first movie,” says Gosnell. “Our wonderful character designer Allen Battino, who also worked on the first movie, is able to draw these poses that capture the attitude of the characters perfectly. They have these colorful wardrobes and even have a blue streak in their hair and blue freckles as an ode to their Smurf within.”
Gosnell and his team were a bit concerned at first that the grey-skinned characters might look a bit drab on the screen, next to all the other blue creatures and the colorful surroundings.
“Luckily, our fears were unfounded,” says the helmer. “I think our lighting supervisor Sacha Kapijimpanga and his team have done an amazing job. You look at these characters and can believe that they have a beating heart and a soul, and you can watch how their minds work and feel the human emotion behind their actions. That is all a reflection of the skills of our animators.”
According to the film’s Oscar-nominated vfx supervisor Richard Hoover (Armageddon, Superman Returns), there was a team-wide effort to keep the look of the Smurfs consistent with the original pic from two years ago.
“It was important that the Smurfs you see in this film are the same ones that you came to love in the first,” he says. “What improved from the first film was that our pipeline was faster and more efficient. We also tried to get a more dramatic feel through the lighting. Since the movie is quite emotional, we are going to see sexier lighting.”
He likens the evolution of the Smurfs’ performances from the first movie to the sequel to the same path the characters in Shrek took throughout the sequels.
“We were able to improve the shaders, so that when you put the CG characters side by side from the two movies together, you can actually see subtle improvements. We are also able to get more contrast-y visuals. In the first movie, we had a lot of wide shots of little Smurfs running around, but you are going to see a lot more close-ups—you are really going to see them perform.”
Working with the two Naughties’ skin color was one of the key challenges for Hoover and his team.
“Any artists know that grey picks up color very quickly, and from a story standpoint, our audience needs to know that our characters’ skin is neutral,” he notes. “They are not blue, and are not flesh tone colored … They have to be neutral. So they presented new problems in different lighting changes.”
Even more than the first feature, the Smurfs and Gargamel’s two new creations have to interact with the sweeping cityscapes and the human characters played again by Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays and Brendan Gleeson. As Gosnell points out, the movie’s CG-animated characters have to exist in the human world, with our world’s laws of gravity.
“We really have to push harder to get that sense of humanity and authenticity,” says the director. “Hybrid movies don’t get a lot of credit in the animation world. They have to go up against challenges that Pixar and DreamWorks don’t have to deal with, because those animation studios create the entire world, and the characters within those worlds automatically fit in. For us, we have to push extra hard to make our characters look real walking on the sidewalks of Paris or standing next to a telephone pole in New York. For some reason, these hybrid movies don’t get the respect they deserve.”
The artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks were able to record and apply the actual lighting from the live-action cinematography to the CG animated characters as well as digitally reconstruct the physical world using Sphereon software.
“When we finish a set-up, they pull up this tripod, which looks like the Mars Rover head, and it does a complete 360 scan of the scene, building a computer map of the room and capturing the interior lighting information,” says Gosnell. “Then, once we know geographically where the Smurfs are going to be positioned, they apply it to the CG characters. The animators then will add the beauty shots and fine-tune the CG data.”
We’re Not in Smurf Village Anymore
Since the film’s storyline takes the main characters to Paris, and principal photography was based in Montreal, the vfx team was tasked with putting together many green-screen sets with location footage from Paris. In several instances, Montreal’s picturesque old town neighborhood near Rue St. Paul with its historic churches acted as the perfect stand-in for Paris.
Gosnell says his crew was also a bit smarter about planning out the stereoscopic 3-D aspects of the movie.
“We didn’t want to go too far in terms of 3-D gags,” he says. “Some of the early 3-D movies pushed too hard with the 3-D stuff. We wanted to give the audience their money’s worth. There’s a sequence, for example, in which we have the Smurfs riding on the back of the storks, flying between the two towers of Notre Dame in Paris that I think works well in terms of providing a nice 3-D experience for the filmgoers. I was thinking, ‘We’re in Paris now … What can we do with these characters that we haven’t seen before?’ Then, it came to me. Peyo had the Smurfs fly on these storks in the comic books, so we could go back to that idea. We have a beautiful flight around Paris and we allow the Smurfs to get airborne with the help of these storks. It worked out really well.”
The CG team built the church digitally, then intercut the CG sequences with actual steadicam shots created from footage produced by running on the roof of the actual church, through the buttresses.
“We got special permission to shoot on the side of the sanctuary of Notre Dame and we were lucky to have this amazing French steadicam operator,” recalls Hoover. “He was able to keep the camera pretty smooth as he ran along. There were little doorways in the buttresses that were barely wider than his shoulders and he went through. That’s how we got some incredible footage of the Paris landscape.”
Despite all the sequel’s meticulously planned visual magic, it’s the quieter, tender moments that the creative team seems to be proudest of.
“What I’m really pleased about is the way these little characters seem to project a real sense of humanity,” says Gosnell. “And we get to address a really important message that Papa Smurf points out: ‘It’s not where you come from, after all. It’s who you choose to be and whether you end up being naughty or nice.'”
Sony’s The Smurfs 2 opens in theaters nationwide on July 31.