Smurfs: Making 3D Picture

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 periscope-like 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 has facial hair, Smurfette’s got a big head of hair.  We use all those things to describe the character and make you believe that they’re real.”


Still, the Smurfs stand on their own as a species.  “Humans are, proportionally, seven-to-nine heads high.  The Smurfs are about two-and-a-half heads tall.  They have incredibly big feet – as long as, or longer, than their legs.  If you were a Smurf, your head would be three feet wide and your hands would be the size of baseball mitts.  What that meant was that we had to come up with their own Smurfy way of moving – since they don’t have the proportions of a human being, they couldn’t move like a human being, either.”


As an example, Saliba, the animation supervisor, cites a scene in which the Smurfs outrun Gargamel.  “These characters are only 7½ inches tall.  How can they outrun a six-foot man?” Saliba asks.  “What we worked out was that with their big feet, they are able to springboard themselves and move faster.  Raja found some internet reference of somebody that had strapped on a pair of giant spring shoes, and that worked for us.  We could get our Smurfs moving just over ten feet a second.  In a full-out run, Gargamel would catch them, but in short little sprints, it’s believable that a Smurf could make an escape.  Not to mention that they could use their size to dodge and weave between smaller obstacles that a person couldn’t.”


Hoover and Saliba were also on set, helping Méheux and the actors perceive where the Smurfs would be and what they would be doing once the animation was completed.  “You try to give the actors as much information as possible about the story, about how they behave, where they are, their eye lines. We use all kinds of little tricks for that, whether it’s little dots on the table or wire outlines of their face,” says Hoover.  “Then the actors have a better idea, in three-dimensional space, exactly where they are and when they’re looking in the right spot. It’s really important to the audience that the actors and animated characters are looking each other in the eye like they’re actually talking to them. We had little models of all the Smurf characters that we use to act out scenes and we had voice actors on the set that read the lines of the characters so the actors and director can hear them, because all that leads up to the pacing of the scene.”


“We had little silicone versions of our characters, with wire frames that we could pose,” says Saliba.  “We’d block out the scene so Phil could light it at Smurf level, then we would bring in the actor and rehearse it three or four times, literally acting it out with me puppeteering the Smurfs, so they would get used to where the Smurfs were going to be.  And then once everyone was comfortable, we shot it without the Smurf in there.”


Saliba notes that the animation process is incredibly technical – involving digital maps of the set, including set dressing, and even digital models of the live-action actors, all of which gets mapped frame-by-frame to the scene that was actually shot, all before the Smurf can be put into the scene and animated.  That said, even as all of those technical details are sorted through, the animators also have to keep a close eye on the creative aspects.  “We’re asking ourselves, How is the sequence meant to flow?  Where are the gags supposed to come?  When to the emotional beats happen?  The animation process needs the sort of person who can handle the technical aspect but also has a good creative sensibility.”


The animators’ creativity as they performed the Smurfs also helped solve a tricky technical problem: when watching a wide shot, audiences would have to immediately identify each of the six Smurfs.  Some of these, like Papa (white beard, red clothes) or Smurfette (blonde mane) would be striking, but, as Gosnell notes, “Grouchy and Clumsy have no identifying prop or feature.”  Clumsy does look a little different from Grouchy – his ears and feet are a little bigger, his hat his a little droopier – “but it’s also a performance thing,” says the director.  “How does the character stand?  What is his body attitude?”  In that way, the animators not only had to be talented artists, but talented actors, bringing out these subtle differences.


The visual effects team also had the honor of translating production designer Bill Boes’ elaborate designs for the magical Smurf Village into a CG-animated space.  “We tried a lot of different design concepts to come up with the Smurf village,” Boes says. But we ended up with basically what everybody knows, yet in a realistic way. It took a lot of trial and error to get it right.”


It turns out that it takes a village to make a village. “I had a whole army of artists,” he adds, “and we just tried different things. For instance, with the mushroom shaped houses, we tried thick ones and squat ones, long ones and ones with chimneys. We started to come up with a visual language of what the mushroom houses should look like. Originally we designed them to be real mushrooms that they lived in. But when we got a little further in the research we realized that in Peyo’s stories, the Smurfs actually built their houses to look like mushrooms.”


To complete the transformation of the Smurfs from the 2D page to a fully realized, 3D world, Rob Engle, the film’s 3D visual effects supervisor, describes his role this way: “My job is to make sure that when people put on their 3D glasses in the theater and experience the world of the movie, it’s a consistent, immersive, and fun experience.”


Because the Smurf village and the Smurfs exist entirely within the computer, these elements are fully realized in 3D.  “The way Raja shot the movie, we had great flexibility in how we used the 3D,” says Engle.  “We could render the CG worlds, and then, for the scenes in which we’re integrating the Smurfs into our live-action world, we could use a hybrid technique where we add dimension to the plate.  For example, you could see Neil Patrick Harris in the plate with some background, and we would add dimension to that world and put the Smurf into that, in 3D. 


“That hybrid technique gives us great flexibility in terms of the ultimate 3D experience,” Engle continues.  “We treat 3D as you’d treat sound.  You’d never have the sound at ten all the way through; you would play the dynamic range of the sound through the film.  And we like to play with the 3D the same way, finding the quiet moments and the loud moments, if you will.”


“The most important thing to Raja and Jordan was that we connect with the Smurfs – that we feel like we are with them and they are in our world,” Engle concludes. “That’s the great thing about a stereoscopic 3D film – you automatically feel more connected to the characters.  Ultimately, what we’re doing is taking the DP’s camera angles and the director’s performance choices and we add that extra level of connection for the audience.”