Just in time for June 25’s Global Smurfs Day, Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation invited CBR News and members of the press to visit the set of “The Smurfs,” their latest animated family comedy set to release in theaters nationwide this July. Bringing CG Smurfs into the real world, the film is a hybrid of live action and computer animation, and as such this set visit was a little more unusual than most. Instead of watching takes of scenes or wandering around an actual studio, visiting the set of “The Smurfs” meant getting to see an entirely different side of the filmmaking world — the technology and process of computer animation.
As members of the press arrived at Sony’s building in Culver City, cut-outs of the film’s Smurf stars — Papa, Clumsy, Smurfette, Brainy and Grouchy — pointed the way to the Ray Harryhausen Theatre where the film’s Producer Jordan Kerner waited to kick off the visit. While turning “Smurfs” into a feature film was just a job for some, Kerner told the assembled audience that he had spent nearly two decades of his life trying to bring the “3 apple high” characters, originally created by Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford, to the big screen. His quest began in 1980 when NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff asked him to read Peyo’s “Smurfs” comics as he was considering developing them into a show (which became the 1981 animated “Smurfs” Saturday morning staple). According to Kerner, he was riveted by this Smurfy world and he began a letter-writing campaign to the Smurfs licensing agent. Fourteen years later, Kerner grinned and held up Smurf figurines used in the movie for the press to see.
“I think everyone sees themselves in the Smurfs,” said Kerner, explaining the appeal of the seven-and-a-half inch tall blue creatures. “I think that those characters are mostly a personality trait allows you to latch onto any given Smurf on any given day.”
He and director Raja Gosnell then treated their audience to a series of clips, in 3D and 2D, piecing together the narrative of “The Smurfs” movie: In the magical land of the Smurfs, Papa Smurf and the whole Smurf village are getting ready for their festive celebration of the Blue Moon. Unfortunately, everything falls apart when Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the evil Smurf-hunting sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) straight to the village. Through a series of blunders, Clumsy, Papa Smurf, Smurfette and a handful of fellow Smurfs are transported to our world where they run into Patrick and Grace Winslow (played by Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays, respectively), a young couple expecting their first baby. However, Gargamel is transported as well, and pretty soon the Smurfs and their new friends are on run from the evil sorcerer once again.
While the movie is a hybrid of computer animated Smurfs interacting with live actors, Gosnell told the viewers that Smurf Village, where the movie opens, is one hundred percent computer generated from the inhabitants down to the blades of grass. Featuring both comedy and action sequences, the clips are also surprisingly self-aware, with Gargamel sarcastically commenting on pieces of Smurfs mythology — such as Smurfette being the only female Smurf.
“There are a lot of elements in the movie that are playfully self-referential humor for all the Smurf fans,” said Gosnell, pointing to the irreverent tone. “Yes, first and foremost it’s a movie for the whole family, but believe me the adults are not going to get bored.”
Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Producer Lydia Bottegoni and Visual Effects Supervisor Rich Hoover then took the assembled press through a “technological tour” of the animation and filmmaking process, highlighting the challenges of not only placing CG Smurfs in a real world setting, but the difficulties of having those CG characters interact with real world objects, such as when Clumsy knocks over a bowl of fruit (an effect achieved by a combination of practical rigging knocking over the bowl and carefully layering the CG character over that). Bringing the camera and light-measuring equipment onstage, the two walked through a simplified process of creating the Smurfs, starting with initial character sketches and then moving on to building the CG skeleton and musculature that enables the Smurfs to move before finally transferring the trademarked Smurf shade of blue to the finished 3D models. The pair pointed to the completely digital world of the Smurfs as the most difficult aspect of the movie to film, more so than the live action/animation scenes as it took weeks for the digital frames to render. Indeed, the whole film required over 22,000,000 hours of rendering time.Both emphasized that believability and making the onscreen Smurfs feel as real as their human co-stars was their highest objective.
“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 their skin reflects light,” said Hoover.
Ushering the press from the 3D theatre to a sunlit room filled with pictures of the animated cast and Smurf Village, Kerner and Gosnell sat down to talk about the clips, touching on the decision to make “Smurfs” a half live-action feature rather than a fully animated film.
“We wanted to make them more real and put them in our world,” said Kerner. “It would be yet another animated film [if we didn;t place them in the real world], but to make it a combination of live action and animation it becomes a unique film on its own.”
One of the most interesting pieces of information Kerner and Gosnell revealed was how much the crew of James Cameron’s “Avatar” helped shape the Smurfs. “You would look at the Na’vi — which we spent time with all the folks over at ‘Avatar’ in September and they released in December — they helped us a lot with helping us understand the color blue. I don’t know if you know it, but on the ‘Avatar’ set, Cameron always referred to them [the Na’vi] as the big Smurfs,” said Kerner. As blue is a color that does not hold well onscreen, “The Smurfs” production team spent much time talking with the “Avatar” crew about the best way to use the color with CG animated characters. “There was a real affinity to bringing us over and treating us like a little brother or sister in that way, because there are challenges with blue,” added Kerner. And while he stated that he was initially adamant about maintaining the precise trademarked shade of Smurf blue from the comics and TV show, Gosnell and the ‘Avatar’ crew eventually convinced him to make the Smurfs more realistic and to allow the lighting to change the color slightly, as it would in real life. The DP for Avatar also spoke to the animation department on how to best light for blue CG characters.
“We learned a bit about 3D [from ‘Avatar’],” added Gosnell. “What we loved about their 3D technique was that is was mostly environmental, it took you into this world and it was subtle.”
Turning to the casting choices, both Gosnell and Kerner said that like many animated features, when it came to casting the actual Smurfs, the duo taped up pictures of the Smurfs and listened to audio clips from actors, twigging the ones they felt most closely fit the characters. While much of the cast, from Jonathan Winters (Papa Smurf) to Alan Cumming (Gutsy Smurf) and George Lopez (Grouchy Smurf), are comedians, one unusual casting choice stood out: Katy Perry as Smurfette.
“There’s something about Katy that is giggly and girlish but sophisticated at the same time that just appealed to us — we just knew she was Smurfette,” said Gosnell. The director also said that the casting sessions occurred two years ago, directly prior to Perry’s pop music debut.
“Katy has the wonderful combination of child and sex kitten,” added Kerner, comparing the subversive parts of Perry’s pop persona to the female Smurfs own subversive traits (AKA being the only female Smurf in a world of male Smurfs).
While having live actors interact with non-existent CG characters is a challenge for any partially animated movie, the process was old hat to Gosnell, a veteran at directing live-action/animation hybrids, most notably “Scooby Doo,” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Kerner told reporters that while on the live set, Gosnell had two actors actually acting out the Smurfs dialogue so Mays and Harris could respond and react more naturally, labeling it something he, “had never seen done before” said Kerner.
Gargamel actor Hank Azaria and Grace actor Jayma Mays popped in soon after to talk about their experiences acting with the Smurfs, and agreed with Kerner that bringing actors on set was a beneficial way of doing things.
“Its helpful when you are looking at a bunch of stickers and you don’t know which sticker belongs to whom, even if the lines are being read,” said Mays, saying that Gosnell would place Smurf stickers around the set to show the actors where the Smurfs were and where they should be looking. “It really helped, it put you in the right mindset for who you were talking with.” Mays then joked that every single person she interacted with in the movie was CG — including co-star Harris.
“I call Neil ‘the stickers,'” laughed Mays.
“He’s totally CGI. Didn’t you know that?” added Azaria.
While Jayma interacted with stickers, Azaria was able to interact with a real cat — Gargamel’s evil partner-in-crime Azrael — though he admitted that might have been to the detriment of his feline co-star.
“They are incredibly pliable animals. It was cut, but it was a running thing where I would throw him a lot,” Azaria said, before insisting, “But they enjoy it! They sort of go, “Woooo,” and they land!”
Azaria also elaborated on building a fictional relationship with his cat co-star. “[Gargamel and Azrael] are a married couple. I did at one point, and again it didn’t make it into the movie, I did say at one point to the cat, ‘Why did I ever marry you?'” laughed Azaria.
Despite the movie’s massive mount of CG work, traditional effects played a large part in the of the creation of the film. While Mays had to put on a fake belly to play the pregnant Grace, Azaria had to put on both a prosthetic nose and a new voice for playing the villainous Gargamel.
“A character like this, for me the voice is the first thing. I started a little higher — there was a stock villain voice in cartoons when I was growing up. They wanted it more Shakespearean — a failed Shakespearean actor was their idea for the character. But I found that to be too low energy. You can’t be Gargamel and not be very amped up and upset about Smurfs,” said Azaria, vocally demonstrating as he spoke. “So it got energized — and it ended up sounding a lot like the original cartoon voice, which I could have just started with!”
While Mays said that as a kid her mother “forced” her to watch the animated “Smurfs” show, she pointed to the story between pregnant Grace and high-strung Patrick, nervous at the prospect of becoming a Dad, as one of the big emotional draws for her in the movie.
“Neil’s character, Patrick, is a little more apprehensive about becoming a father…it’s kind of nice that these [Smurfs] come into this world, and even though they are little blue men it is almost a trial run at this thing of being parents. I think it’s a good thing for Grace because she’s testing out her mothering abilities and seeing how that works,” said Mays.
At this point, it was time for reporters to voice over a scene from “The Smurfs” and animate CG Smurf models with Maya, one of the chief animation programs used to bring “The Smurfs” to life. And of course a visit to the Smurfs set would not be complete without diving into details about Global Smurfs Day. As mentioned earlier, Global Smurfs Day takes place this year on June 25, a day when people around the world smear blue paint on themselves, buildings and anything else they can get their hands on in honor of the tiny blue men (and woman). This year, however, the pressure is on as participants are trying to set a new Guinness World Records title for Largest Gathering of People Dressed as Smurfs within a 24-hour period in Multiple Venues. A global event this year, our visit to “The Smurfs” ended with the production crew encouraging everyone on the set to get involved in this most “Smurfy” endeavor. Interested readers can find out more at www.GlobalSmurfsDay.com.
“Smurfs” opens in theaters nationwide July 29