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Director Stephan Franck Returns “The Smurfs” To Their Hand-Drawn Roots

In The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, the new 22-minute mini-movie by Sony Pictures Animation, competition gets the best of Brainy Smurf and Gutsy Smurf and lands them in trouble with not only Gargamel but also the mysterious Headless Horseman who roams the nearby Smurfy Hollow. Presented as a supplement to the recent CGI/live-action film series, Smurfy Hollow bookends its nineteen minutes of traditional animation with 3 minutes of the more familiar CG versions of the characters.

“The movies are hybrid films that focus on the human characters as much as the Smurfs,” Stephan Franck, director of Smurfy Hollow (pictured above), told Cartoon Brew. Smurfy Hollow, however, offers “a chance to refocus solely on the Smurf characters, more in the spirit of the books.”

While The Smurfs were popularized by their animated television series produced by Hanna Barbera from 1981 to 1989, the were originally created as the serialized comic strip Les Schtroumpfs in 1958 by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. Franck, who grew up in France reading the book collections in their original French language, says, “I have to admit The Smurfs had fallen off my radar,” but he warmed up quickly because of his childhood familiarity with the little blue creatures. “I knew these characters.”

Those expecting a stylistic retread of the original cartoon will be pleasantly surprised, as Smurfy Hollow’s animated performances and visual styling are significantly higher end than your usual Saturday Morning cartoon fare. “We really wanted to showcase the quality of the animation. We didn’t want the 2D to look like a poor man’s 3D.” While the Sony studio created the CG segments, the animation was produced by Sergio Pablos Animation in Madrid by way of Duck Studios in Los Angeles.

In the search for a production studio to handle the traditional work, there were “many contenders” and SPA was chosen for their “raw quality of work” and connection to the “European style” that was considered complementary to the subject matter.

“Shorts allow you to do something radical and 2D is radical now.” —Stephan Franck

Due to the expense of digital equipment like Cintiqs and the relative difficulty to do cleanup with a stylus, the animators at SPA employed original traditional animation production techniques, i.e. pencils and paper. For the few on the production who did animate using digital methods, Franck explains, their drawings would have to be printed out and re-pegged onto paper before being sent to cleanup. The result is consistently solid animation and subtle characterizations that generally come with well-produced short subjects.

Smurfy Hollow Pre-production gallery

Franck is an industry veteran whose credits include films like An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Balto, Space Jam and The Iron Giant. “I cried tears of blood to learn to draw well enough [to be an animator],” Franck says.

Like many animators whose professional experience traces back to the pre-digital world of the Eighties and early-Nineties, he has his own opinions regarding the animation industry’s fundamental abandonment of traditional techniques. Franck believes that animation is unlike live-action filmmaking, which has steadily evolved its look with each passing decade. Hand-drawn animation got to the 1990s and stayed there. “The visual paradigm of 2D in the 1990s had been ubiquitous with the films and DVD sequels—regardless of story quality and animation, we had already seen this before.”

As a first time director helming an installment of a fifty-year-old franchise, Franck’s approach, from the animation to the voice work was to remain “natural” and “honest”. He worked with production designer Sean Eckols to create a look that is graphically refreshing while remaining true to the source material. This approach extended to the storytelling as well: “The Smurfs stories are not sugarcoated,” Franck says. “They have individual struggles, they have flaws, petty jealousies, egos and they crave approval. [However], at the end of the day, they are a family. I wanted to reconnect to that.”

The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow is available on DVD for $4.99 at Amazon.

  • Ronnie

    It is TERRIBLE that this thing already has 3 1-star reviews on Amazon for ‘not featuring the CG Smurfs’. People are idiots.

    • Animator606432

      To be fair, that’s what is shown on the cover. Not the 2-d Smurfs.

    • Tim Elliot

      I blame it on misleading marketing.

      Sort of disheartening to see they didn’t think they could sell a 2d film it without leveraging a 3d image.

    • Mark

      This kind of sneaky misleading marketing isn’t unusual though it is annoying. Immediately Frozen comes to mind; I wonder if the general public will react similarly to this Smurfs short when they realize that the movie is not, in fact, about the creepy little snowman thing.

      • Ronnie

        Creepy? Were we watching the same trailer? Olaf was adorable!

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Those people can go home!

      • StephaneDumas

        I agree, what’s next? They will ask then the Smurfs should be filmed in puppet-animation like “Team America World Police” and Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series (Stingray, Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90)? ;-)

        It could be interesting to see the Smurfs interacting again with Johan and Peewee(Johan & Pirlouit) where the Smurfs beginned their adventures.

  • IK

    “…relative difficulty to do cleanup with a stylus.”

    I actually feel cleaning up is easier on the computer because it’s less forgiving. I know many people are sensitive to the differences between a stylus and pencil but I’ve never felt it.

    Odd that that’s problematic enough to make a studio consider going hand-drawn, I figured most people in the industry (or have been in it for awhile) would be very prolific in using both materials.

  • jhalpernkitcat

    Saw this in the dvd section at Target on Sunday while with my boyfriend. He immediately started groaning at it. (To be fair, it did have the 3-D versions of the characters on the front cover) I actually started defending this thing, and showing him the back of the DVD with the 2-d animation.

  • anakinbrego

    I watched the trailer of the 2D animation on Youtube and to be fair the 2D animation in this is pretty average! Sorry!

  • anakinbrego

    Here’s an official clip from Sony of the 2D animation!

    • Kyle_Maloney

      I’ve never liked any incarnation I’ve seen of the smurfs, but this looks great, looking forward to seeing the full thing.

  • kirby

    Finally, this is how I like to see the smurfs utilised.

  • Dave

    ” Franck, who grew up in France reading the book collections in their original Belgian” …

    The original language was French. There is no language called “Belgian” . Three languages predominate in Belgium : French, Dutch , and German.

  • Shazbot

    Terrific 2D animation! Expressive and graceful. What a feast for the eyes! I’ll buy this for the 2D alone. :)

  • Matt

    I worked with Stephan on Iron Giant, but got to know him a bit more on 8 Crazy Nights. The man is dedicated to his craft and can animate like no ones business. Glad to see he is still at it and that a studio is holding on to him and using his talents. Also he is an amazing guitar player, if you get a chance to hear him rip some chords out it is worth it.

  • Caitlin Cadieux

    I don’t have much personal interest in the Smurfs as a franchise but I love hearing about the 2D process in this article, and Franck’s thoughts on traditional animation (although I have mixed feelings on the evolution of 2D’s look). Interesting to hear why they did things traditionally rather than digitally. Also definitely nice to see this isn’t a floaty flash cartoon!

  • kadecando

    Hand drawn 2D animation is the best. I only wish they could have used cel animation as well. I grew up with the HB Smurfs series. That will always be the classic for me.

  • Roberto González

    This look great like the other tv special. My only complaint: they are using stories we’ve seen too many times before like Sleepy Hollow here or A Christmas Carol in the other special, and I don’t think the Smurfs twist would be enough to make them different. The original smurfs tv series had poor animation but the stories were somewhat original and based on the comic strips. The CGI movies doesn’t look so great and the modern day setting is kinda jarring. And these tv specials look fantastic and the stories are acceptable, but a little too tired and cliche. I wish they could do everything fine at the same time, like the belgian comic books do.