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Stephan Franck talks 'The Legend of Smurfy Hollow'

The director of Sony’s new mini-movie mixed CG and 2D for a Halloween-themed animated special.

All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.

Just in time for Halloween, Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, a 22 minute CG-2D mini-movie inspired by Washington Irving’s classic tale. Released last month on DVD and digital download, Smurfy Hollow premiers on ABC Family this Sunday at 8:30am ET / PT as part of the "13 Nights of Halloween” programming event. I recently sat down with the movie’s director, animation veteran Stephan Franck (The Iron Giant, How to Train Your Dragon) to talk about the challenges of working with the Smurfs creative universe and bringing this latest project to life.

Dan Sarto: Tell me about the genesis of this project.

Stephan Franck: I grew up reading the Smurfs books. I loved those books as a kid. Being French, I was exposed more to the books than the Hanna-Barbera TV show. While I was working on developing my project Futuropolis, Raja [Gosnell, the director] asked me to help storyboard some sequences on Smurfs 2. All that childhood exposure came back. All those memories came back. I really knew these characters. So when Sony asked me if I wanted to direct Smurfy Hollow, I said, “Yes, absolutely.” 

DS: The film mixes CG and 2D.  Was that always the plan?  And if so, why not do it all in CG, or all in 2D?

SF: Well, Sony wanted a special done in the same style as the previous Smurfs’ Christmas Carol Special.  Certainly budget is an issue as far as the original decision to go 2D over CG.  But for me, it was exciting that we got to put some CG into the film. You can do things with the camera that you just can’t do with 2D. That being said, I grew up with the Smurfs in 2D.  I would draw them like crazy trying to figure them out. I’ve always felt they were never animated on model, with the quality of performance that really did justice to the characters. This project gave us a really great opportunity to do that. We had some really great animators both here in LA [Darlie Brewster lead the crew at Duck Studios] and in Spain [Sergio Pablos Animation Studios]. Much of the character animation was done by Sergio and his crew of Spanish banditos. They were just killer. What they did for the 2D Smurfs, I’ve never seen done to Smurfs before. That was really exciting to see.

DS: I assume the CG was done at Imageworks?

SF: All the pre-production was done at Sony Pictures Animation. Script, story and visual development. The CG part was done at Imageworks within the same pipeline as Smurfs 2. Same animators, same models and sets. We benefitted from a bit of a lull within the feature production schedule.  We got to use their pipeline just long enough to work on our show.

On the 2D side, we used Duck Studios. Under the Duck umbrella, a lot of the character animation was sent to Sergio in Spain.  They did rough animation and cleanup. The files would come back to Duck for ink and paint and compositing.

DS: You’re dealing with a hugely popular property – books, TV series, feature films, all sorts of merchandise. What type of creative approval process was required on this film?  Where and how were the Smurfs rights holders involved?

SF: We always kept in contact with Thierry and Veronique (Culliford, creator Peyo’s son and daughter), who are still in Belgium, who run the Smurfs universe. Their mission is to make sure that everything Smurfs stays true to Peyo’s vision. We really tried to respect their father’s legacy. First we got their approval of the script. Little by little we’d send them designs, especially for new characters. For example, we had a Reporter Smurf, who comes in and reports the news. That was an original design.  Also, for the sake of consistency, we’d check to see if there was already a character like that [any new proposed character] within the Smurfs’ universe.  We tried as much as possible to use existing art, designs and ideas.  When we did something new, or updated something already done, we would of course get their approval.

DS: What were the biggest challenges on this project?

SF: Of all the projects I’ve been on, this one has been the smoothest. From a story and creative standpoint, definitely the smoothest. It did take some time to figure out the main sentiment of the story.  What this film was about. That was the main creative challenge. We needed to connect with the idea that the Smurfs are about sibling rivalries. They’re like little kids.  They can be petty.  They can get jealous. They want validation. They want recognition. It’s not sugar coated. They have real flaws. But at the end of the day, when they are in trouble, empathy kicks in and the sibling rivalries turns into brotherly love. They would go to any lengths to make another Smurf feel good, or recognize a dream, or help them out of a jam. As a parent, for me, when my kids were little, and they would bicker, I’d say, “Listen.  One day, your mom and I will be gone. You guys will be together for life. When there is no one else, your brother or sister will be there for you.” Once we got that figured out, everything was very smooth from that point forward.

DS: Describe the visual development.

SF: When I came onto the project we had a script. From a franchise level, it had certain ideas in there. From a studio level, it had certain other ideas in there. I worked on the script a little but went on pretty quickly to storyboarding sequences, working with the story artists and writers. That’s when the story really comes alive. That’s when you move away from intellectual preconceptions of what everyone wants the story to be.  The story starts to reveal itself.  The ideas turn into moments. As you see moments, you can see which ones work and which ones don’t really do anything for you. That’s when the floodgates open. That’s when it all comes together.

The sibling rivalry between Gutsy and Brainy, how they start out as flawed characters, but really redeem themselves in a big way, from that standpoint, we are right on hitting the Smurfs’ ethos and sense of emotion. I also think this is the closest we’ve ever come to the style of the original books. The story connects on every level with the original inspirations of the original Smurfs books.

I should also add that we got tremendous efforts from our voice cast.  Alan Cummings gave a performance as Gutsy that was really fantastic.  The opportunity to work with him and the other cast members was extremely gratifying. Fred Armisen did a funny Brainy, whose character can be a bit tricky. Hank Azaria did a fantastic Gargamel as he always does. To me, it’s really fun to see the original 2D Gargamel.  Powered by Hanks acting, it’s a winning combination.  The performances are broad and big and fun, but not cartoonish. There is a truth in the performances that makes the Smurfs so endearing.

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

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