The Little Blue Wrecking Crew is Back in The Smurfs 2
The other big production challenge was more creative - bringing two new characters, the Naughties, to life as well as pushing the animation department to create really emotional performances. Animating Vexy and Hackus presented a number of challenges. They were not Smurfs, not humans. They were something in-between. Hoover’s crew experimented quite a bit with their design, how to treat their skin to remain consistent with their story arc. They ended up resembling something warm-gray, walking a fine line between clay and zombie. They are often shown with that warm-gray shade beneath their skin to show they’re living, breathing creatures.
The production employed a number of tricks to help the actors onset know where to look, maintaining lines of sight to the characters’ eyes when they had no real idea where the Smurfs and other digital characters would actually be. Hoover handled this a number of ways. First, the crew made full scale puppets to use in rehearsals with the actors to show them how far the Smurfs would be moving around in the scene and where they’d be standing when they delivered their lines. In addition, they used a decidedly low-tech solution to help setup lines of sight. They used a super thin bailing wire rig with a red dot on it. They’d place it on the floor or table in a position representing where a Smurf’s eyes would be, giving the actors a much easier visual target within a scene. The rig was easy to paint out or cover with the animation.
Azrael the cat got a makeover of sorts for the new film. They used 6 real cats onset at various times, who went by the name of Mr. Krinkles. Though they all were orange and had similar markings, they weren’t absolutely identical. Some had bigger moustaches, whiter hair or longer chest hair. There were many subtle differences. According to Hoover, it was always a challenge to cut between the real cat and the CG cat. “Of course, we were using a CG cat to do a much grander performance than a real cat can do. “ Though they started from elements that made the cat’s moves realistic, they still needed to add a bit of performance. They did one pass with Azrael even more exaggerated than in the final movie, then another pass with everything toned down, trying to get it a little more realistic. Hoover continued, “It’s still a characterization of a cat. But, the hair, fur, the way he’s lit and rendered is as realistic as possible and as exact a copy of the real cat as we could make it.”
If you put the same character from both movies together side by side on the screen at the same time, you’ll see there are a lot of subtle differences. As Hoover described, “In the new film, there’s more detail and variation in the skin, which is attributed to the shader changes. The average viewer probably wouldn’t realize that. We also did more close-ups in this movie so you could see all the details in the characters. More like you’d shoot a real actor going into a close-up. We spent much more time on facial animation, facial detail, making the lighting on the faces and hair simulations be a notch above what we did before.”
Ultimately, bringing these animated characters to life employed a curious blend of the technical and the artistic. “The Smurfs have hearts and souls – they feel an emotion, just like we do,” continued Hoover. “Part of that comes through in the way the animators will portray the characters, of course, but it also comes through in the way we shoot things: how fast we move the camera that gives a realistic speed to the characters, how far they jump, or run. They still have to behave within the rules of our world.”
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.