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CGIFeature Film

Going Into and Beyond Peyo’s World for ‘Smurfs: The Lost Village’

Kelly Asbury’s Smurfs: The Lost Village, opening today in the United States, is Sony Pictures Animation’s newest feature film, and one that had a raft of source material to draw from.

American audiences would perhaps be most familiar with the 1980s Hanna-Barbera animated television series, and the previous live action Sony feature films. But this new film aimed to follow the original Peyo comics and drawings much more closely. That meant Sony Pictures Imageworks, responsible for animating the film, would have to embark on a new design and visual effects effort as the Smurfs leave their village safe haven to explore the Forbidden Forest and meet some unexpected new characters.

Cartoon Brew speaks with production designer Noelle Triaureau, animation supervisor Alan Hawkins, and visual effects supervisor Mike Ford about the lengths required to match Peyo’s world — and also go beyond it.

Smurf by design

Although Sony had already done those two live action/cg hybrid Smurfs films featuring highly detailed and photorealistically lit and rendered characters, this new fully animated feature was intended to go back to a more stylized aesthetic. Character designer Patrick Mate came on board to adapt the ‘classic’ Smurf characters and design new ones, such as the dragonflies, all the while drawing on what Peyo had established.

“We don’t really have much anatomical detail,” said production designer Noelle Triaureau. “The hybrid films needed to be more realistic to be a counterpart to real humans on the screen, but with our film we went with something more simple and stylized and charming in some ways, because they were more true to the original drawings, the original design.”

Production art for Smurf Village, by production designer Noelle Triaureau.
Production art for Smurf Village, by production designer Noelle Triaureau.

Meanwhile, Triaureau and her team studied the imagery of the comics in order to fill out elements of the familiar-looking Smurf Village, finding that in Peyo’s drawings everything was drawn over-sized to emphasize the stature of the characters. They would be sitting at a big table, holding a large spoon or fork, for example. This playful approach to scale was something emulated in the production design of the new film.

“The other thing that was typical of Peyo especially in the village,” added Triaureau, “is that when we have wood elements they tend to be sanded wood. When we have objects, they don’t have sharp corners or pointy edges. Kind of like the houses, they have those mushroom shapes. They’re soft and rounded, bouncy and buoyant, a little bit like the Smurfs themselves. So the shape language was all about making you feel like they must live there because the objects are reminiscent of their own design.”

How to animate a Smurf

When it came to animating the Smurfs, animation supervisor Alan Hawkins also made a concerted effort to study the Peyo comics for inspiration and particular character details. Some of these were things that had to be part of the final look; others proved to be more challenging to deal with.

“There wasn’t any little piece of skin between the two eyes [in the comics] that had existed in the original films because they were slightly more realistic,” said Hawkins. “Peyo always drew them with an overlapping ‘smooshed’ together eye shape which is pretty common in cartoons. So the first thing we did is, we started looking at how we could change our system to accommodate that design. We hadn’t done a film where the character’s eyes had been like that before here at Sony, and all of our rigging standards are based off of two separate eyes.”

A storyboard for Smurfette and her friends' arrival into the Forbidden Forest. Storyboard by Sharon Bridgeman.
A storyboard for Smurfette and her friends’ arrival into the Forbidden Forest. Storyboard by Sharon Bridgeman.
Color key designed by production designer Noëlle Triaureau, art director Dean Gordon, and artist Yuchung Peter Chan.
Color key designed by production designer Noëlle Triaureau, art director Dean Gordon, and artist Yuchung Peter Chan.
A final frame from the film.
A final frame from the film.

“You could see where the two eyes met at the base of the nose,” continued Hawkins. “We started to just call it the ‘triangles’ in animation because if you presented the character without that little piece of information where the two eyes came together with that little blue triangle on top or bottom it kind of began to look like a goggle or a mono-eye type of thing. And so we realized that that little piece of information was crucial for maintaining their consistency and making sure that they look like Smurfs.”

Another eye-related consideration was the Smurfs’ eyebrows. In the comics and cartoons, observes Hawkins, the eyebrows are often drawn going up away from the eyes, and even over hats. Sony’s animation team devised a way to get the eyebrows to sit off of the head and in front of the Smurfs’ hat with some floating geometry.

Brainy (Dany Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Smurfette (Demi Lovato), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer).
Brainy (Dany Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Smurfette (Demi Lovato), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer).

For the mouths, Peyo’s drawings often presented the Smurfs with a slight tilt to the side – a challenge, says Hawkins, as the heads are essentially a squashed sphere. “We had to make mouth shapes that looked good to camera but in actuality they were kind of broken as far as like z-depth. So the top lip would be much closer to camera than the bottom lip because it was curling away from the perspective.”

The Smurfs’ bodies and limbs were kept relatively simple – a single rounded shape made up a fist, for example, rather than having knuckles and individual fingers. Again, this fit in with the translation from the comics. For movement, the animators drew upon some of the techniques they’d mastered on the Hotel Transylvania films that really push the squash and stretch factor. On those projects, the character rigs were pushed to the extreme and then required custom model blend shapes that the animators made themselves. Smurfs was not as intense, explained Hawkins, “but what that tool gave us was the ability to really clean up and simplify lines and make sure the design was maintained.”

A river of ideas

Since the Smurfs do leave their safe village and explore a wider, scarier world, there was ample opportunity for the filmmakers to also try new things and depart (a little) from the Peyo universe. That was something enabled by the inclusion of the Forbidden Forest. Here, the Smurfs discover exotic plant life, bioluminescent bunnies, and a magical levitating river.

The river, in particular, was something that would require close collaboration between animation and visual effects since the characters sail along via its gravity-defying current. To make the river – the streams of water were dubbed ‘ribbons’ – a tube-like animation rig was built after the scenes had been blocked out in boards. “We had this super-long rigged tube with clusters all along it,” said Hawkins. “We would animate the river going up and down, and it guided the performance of the characters. We would constrain the boat to the tube, and sometimes have multiple tubes intertwining and separating.”

This screengrab from the production b-roll showcases the animation rig for the magical river sequence.

The effects department then had to simulate the water surface using the animation as a guide. Earlier, some research had been carried out to determine how the water should behave in the ‘ribbons.’ “We actually referenced a lot of NASA footage where we have astronauts playing with water in space and wringing out a towel or floating a big ball of water across a room,” said visual effects supervisor Mike Ford. “You could see as things start to spin or you get a little bit of an acceleration you actually get droplets that come off.”

Using Houdini, effects artists simulated the water to both flow, have choppiness, and have drips down below. Since the surrounding Forbidden Forest had many bioluminescent qualities of its own, a creative addition made to the river was a ‘bioluminescent path’ running through it. “It would get churned up and activated almost like an algae bloom whenever the water would contact something,” said Ford.

Close-up of the animation rig for the river, from production b-roll.
Close-up of the animation rig for the river, from production b-roll.
  • cartoonguy

    Haven’t seen it yet but I think this one looks much better than the previous Smurf CGI movies. But I have to say, it’s kind of funny how many technical leaps they’re having to make to accomplish things on a computer that are just so easy to do with drawings.

    • I’m glad they took their time on this. Obviously it’s not going to bring back 2D any sooner but at least the facsimile is catching up.

  • mysterious_esteban

    When the first artwork appeared, I was thrilled about this project. Finally, the fully animated movie we deserved. The live-action versions were the wrong choice and had nothing that came close to what Peyo created. But now, they seemed to have it down. Just like the Peanuts movie, this is the best what could have happened to the Smurfs. But the clips and trailers took away my enthousiasm. The screamy tone, the awful music, the “lets be cool” attitude, … Ugh. I don’t get it. The original source material is great stuff. Not kidding. There’s something for every age, it’s funny, smart, sharp, great writing in all possible ways. In the right hands, this could be at the level of Pixar-movies. Instead, we get this ‘OK’ adaption that is kinda forgettable.

    • Dave 52

      First off, not everything needs to be on the level of a Pixar movie to be consider good. That is a fact.

      Secondly, as someone who who has read the comics and has some good memories watching the cartoon, I found the film to be decent and very enjoyable. Although it does have some flaws. It was a fun ride with some great animation, good voice acting, some genuine chuckles, a good message and an actual respect for the original source material while giving it a more modern take. I did get vibes from The Peanuts Movie in the film when it was more focused on being timeless and it was honestly quite refreshing to see animated movie that didn’t really need more “adult” and “risque” humor to be enjoyable. Is it a great movie? No. There are times when certain pop songs they have in the film took me out of the movie and them saying “selfie” made me roll my eyes but luckily those are few and far between so it isn’t that jarring. However, other than the fact they say “selfie” one the movie doesn’t try to be “cool” or “hip” If anything it aimed more towards “adventurous” and “fun”.Overall, I found the film to be very enjoyably decent and a massive improvement over the last two films despite some of it’s flaws. I wouldn’t mind if they made a sequel because after seeing the world building they did with the Forbidden Forest it does have me curious what else they can do within this universe and where they can go now that we are fully animated and staying in Smurf Village. There is so much they can pull from the comics in terms of places and characters that you could pretty much make Smurfs the animated equivalent of “The Hobbit” movies. If they decide to make another one the next film can improve on some of the flaws the last one had. Needless to say I am more optimistic for the Smurfs in terms of movies than I have ever been and I tip my hat to Kelly Asbury and his hard working team of animators and writers for delivering a true Smurfs movie and obviously pouring their hearts out into the project.

      • mysterious_esteban

        Sure, it doesn’t “need” to be at the level of Pixar, right? But it’s right there, in the source material. It IS at that level. All it needs, is a good adaptation. Since you have been reading them and agree on that, your view on the Pixar-argument sounds a bit weird to me. That’s like saying : We can do ‘great’, but ‘OK’ is also good.

        Also, I did not say it’s a bad movie. ;) And I agree. It’s a huge improvement coming from those live-action things. And I am hoping for more movies to come. I just whish they would drop the selfie-stuff and ‘modern take’ completely. The whole point is that ‘Smurfs’ is timeless. They can pull it off, no doubt. As for the risque humor, that’s not Smurfesque at all. No need for that, indeed. But adult themes is another story. The comics are full of them, satire too. It would make it even greater, no doubt.

        Just like you, I am hoping for more. And for them to do better. This was good, for sure. Not great. They can do great. I’m even crossing my fingers the foreign box office will do good to this one, so a new -and even better- adventure can be made. :)

        • Dave 52

          Well, for me, I’ve seen the “Pixar Arguement” put towards so many other animated features. Mostly as an insult to other animated films that aren’t necessarily on that level of quality but are good on their own terms. It’s like most of the people who use that argument as a way of saying “If you aren’t like Pixar, then you are not worth watching”. I have seen so many people use that argument towards other animated film to the point where it kind of gets on my nerves. You don’t NEED to be on the level of Pixar to be considered a good movie. You NEED to be a good on your own terms to be considered a good movie. I apply that to all movies, this one included. I don’t think kindly of the “Pixar Argument”.

          And don’t get me wrong, I know that the source material is wonderful, very clever, and has enough potential to be made into a great movie that could be on the level of something from Pixar or even DreamWorks. I just wanted to see if they can make a movie about Smurfs that is that is at least respectful and decent before we can hope for something great. And they did. However, I doubt we will get something truly great from the property as long as Sony is involved. I know that they are ones who probably forced pop songs and the word “selfie” into the movie. They are the ones keeping it from being truly timeless and there is no doubt about that. I mean these are the guys who favored an Emoji movie over a Popeye Movie and gave you the last two monstrosities before giving you one with actual EFFORT.

          Oh, and about the “risque” humor. You see, some people had a problem that the movie didn’t have more “adult” jokes for older viewers to get. That dumbfounded me honestly. That’s like complaining about The Peanuts Movie not having any innuendos or jokes for adults to grab on to in the film. It doesn’t need it and it wouldn’t make it better.

          But, with that all said, we should still remain hopeful for the franchise now that we have this film. Who knows? Maybe this will be successful enough so that one day Sony will make a Smurfs movie that is on the quality of Pixar or The Peanuts Movie. A movie that is modernized but feels timeless, improves on the flaws of the last film, and can be something that we can all truly call ” A phenomenal adaption of the comics” . We can only hope, but for now, I think it’s perfectly fine to be satisfied with the movie we have gotten. It may not be a great adaption, but it is good one. : )

          • Barrett

            I get what you’re saying – some people get snobby and put Pixar on a pedestal, same way some others (and some of the same people) do with Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki. I have seen what I consider “Pixar-level” filmmaking from the likes of Dreamworks and even Blue Sky & Sony on occasion. Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon easily match or surpass Brave or The Good Dinosaur.

            However I do get the larger point of “why bring your B or B+ game to a property like Smurfs?” I haven’t seen the film yet (but intend to) but I have gotten the impression from most of the buzz that it’s Good not Great. Something at the level of Storks or Trolls or Rio. I am not sure if it comes down to story or what, since the visuals looked pretty spot-on to me, but if people are saying Good not Great, it means they could have done better. If this film had a really top-notch story, we’d see the box office numbers rise next weekend based on word of mouth, like how the first Lego Movie took off as people said “this movie goes so far beyond what you might expect it to be!” It would be nice if that were the case, but it sounds like a solid middle-of-the-road Smurf tale with great visuals. I’m still looking forward to seeing it for myself, though!

        • I’d just like to say that I’m tired of people using pixar as a measure of good.

          Pixar is TECHNICALLY impressive, but I for one find its writing pretty bland, its directing unambitious, and many of its character designs unpleasant.

  • BlueBoomPony

    This surprised me. I saw the billboard and just assumed it was another Smurfs Take $trendycity where they join a rock band and learn all that slang the kids are into these days,.

    • Barrett

      I feel like marketing kind of dropped the ball on this. They should have emphasized how much this wasn’t “the same old Smurfs” so to speak, and made it clear they were hearkening back to the cartoony roots of the originals. The character designs are significantly different, but for a lot of the general viewing public, probably not enough to think “oh wow, this looks different!”