The Little Blue Wrecking Crew is Back in 'The Smurfs 2'

VFX Supervisor Richard R. Hoover discusses our favorite little blue friends, plus a CG cat, warm-gray Naughties and a tight Paris location shoot.

The Smurfs 2. Click any image to see a high res version. All images © 2013 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.

One thing director Raja Gosnell and his production team were counting on when developing the sequel to Sony’s 2011 hit The Smurfs was that they’d already cleared many of the major hurdles of live-action/CG hybrid filmmaking.  For example, how to size up a location, determining how the Smurfs would move through a scene and how they would line up at eye level so the actors could talk to them.  Even so, setting up a Paris shoot for the new film presented unique challenges. With new characters and several big action sequences, The Smurfs 2 proved much more complicated than its predecessor. It was up to VFX Supervisor Richard R. Hoover to tackle roughly 1200 shots, including expanded sequences in the completely animated Smurf Village as well as two new Naughties characters, storks, a duck, and a runaway Ferris wheel. 

One of Hoover’s main goals was to make the Smurfs look like living breathing beings, with feelings and emotions.  According to him, “The principle of the Smurfs, as a rule, is that we’re trying to ground them in reality, trying to make the audience believe that they exist in our world and that the physics in our world works on them as well.”  To that end, his team was determined to make sure the new film remained consistent with the first while benefitting from new shading and rendering advances  within the studio’s production pipeline.

He started on the project in October of 2011, finishing the Brittney Spears music video just last month.  The live action shoot ran from March to mid-July of 2012. Because the first Smurfs movie came out only two years ago, the filmmakers were counting on reusing a large number of assets from the first production.

The vfx work began almost immediately with a number of months spent restoring the first film, updating the CG assets needed to make the new film. Not only the Village but all the characters as well had to be updated, taking into account new pipeline changes, shader changes and increased renderfarm efficiencies. 

As Hoover described, “We used everything. We used all the characters, the Village, a lot of the assets, though they had to be re-imported to be compatible with the current pipeline.” While the shader changes presented some difficulty, most everything else imported relatively easily. He continued, “The biggest change was how the shaders rendered skin. That was different in The Smurfs 2. In order to make the look consistent between the films we had to tweak the way we did things, based on that shader change. Other than that, everything was reused. The filmmakers counted on the reuse from an economic standpoint. It was a reason for writing the script the way they did, to use those characters and those assets in that way.”

Shots started coming in at the end of May 2012.  Hoover started with a small crew of 7 or 8 animators and 2 or 3 lighters / compositors. That grew to over 100 by March of 2013, which is the largest animation crew ever used on a film at Imageworks. At the height of the production, there were close to 200 artists working on the film.  As is always the case these days, schedules were tight. The post-production schedule was 4 weeks shorter on The Smurfs 2 than on The Smurfs.  More than 1200 shots were spread between Imageworks, Hybride and PLUG.  Imageworks handled around 850 shots, primarily focusing on the character work – The Smurfs, Azrael, the duck and stork sequences.  They did quite a bit of shared work with Hybride, who did the Ferris wheel and some of the Opera House composites and crowd duplication.

Montreal’s NeoReel was brought in to handle the previs.  Hoover noted, “Marc-André Guindon did an awesome job. Marc is a real whiz at Maya, in and out, as well as MotionBuilder and mo-cap. He did all of our previs.  He’s incredibly fast and has a good director’s eye for how to shoot sequences.  He was extremely helpful in working things out. “

The previs was focused in two areas. “First,” Hoover explained, “was to flush out what was in the script, especially in the Smurf Village, which is completely 100 percent animated, to see if the scenes worked.  In some cases, the scene was changed or re-written to make it better based on what Raja learned in the previs. Second, ultimately, we also got a blocking pass out of previs.”  

The collaboration between the vfx and previs teams was extensive, going as far as the use of production asset in the previs work. According to Hoover, “We gave Marc the assets from Imageworks.  His Village was accurate, so the cameras were accurate, so when my team imported his previs, they were able to start working on shots pretty closely. He built his previs on the production assets we gave him. That ended up being really great. It was really helpful in working out scenes.”

One big production challenge was in the administration and tracking of all the plates, camera data and Spheron data so that when they got to Paris, they could keep to an extremely tight schedule.  In Montreal, they shot a number of interior sequences set in Paris.  These were all going to have to fit into plates shot in Paris.  After they shot in Paris.  As Hoover described, “Honestly, I was nervous about some things but we meticulously documented everything and tried to plan everything as well as we could. When we got to Paris, we knew we were going to able to shoot the plate. I didn’t want to be in a situation where we got there and found out we couldn’t actually achieve it. Every day was a huge day.  We didn’t have days to figure things out or reshoot plates.”

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.

A Hackus Still Progression: STEP 1 – The crew uses a stand-in model to place where Hackus should be in the shot.

STEP 2 – Artists then draw a board to show Hackus’ expression as a reference for the animation team.

STEP 3 – Sony Pictures Imageworks artists then take an animation pass for Hackus on each frame, with his final performance.

STEP 3 – Sony Pictures Imageworks artists then take an animation pass for Hackus on each frame, with his final performance.

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.”

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

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