The Smurfs Take Manhattan

Rich Hoover of Sony Pictures Imageworks tells how they translated the beloved blue characters into CG.

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Sony Pictures Imageworks was tasked with bringing these three-apple-tall characters to the Big Apple. All images © 2011 - Sony Pictures.

How to translate the Smurfs to CG? That was the challenge for Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks in bringing the original blue crew to the big screen under the direction of Raja Gosnell.

Clearly, it wasn't easy taking Peyo's beloved characters off the page and into the computer for The Smurfs. There were major design considerations, first of all, they involved capturing the silhouette, making the eyes believable and expressive and getting the skin texture right so that it was fleshy but not creepy. Plus they created a model (Troy Saliba was senior animation supervisor for Imageworks) with subtle variations, including pliable facial rig and proper bone structure. There were around 36 character models for film, with Gutsy (voiced by Alan Cumming), being totally new.

"There were physical limitations of anatomy that we had to deal with in creative ways," suggests Rich Hoover, the Imageworks visual effects supervisor. "We wanted humanistic profiles, joints, muscles, bones, human-like wrinkles in the skin. But we also had to maintain volume for these [7 1/2 inch-tall] characters. Raja wanted them to have a spring in their step, so we made them jump 10-feet-per-second to keep up with the human characters they interact with."

And when it came to hair for the ever popular Smurfette, they actually started from scratch after animating 20% because the old design just wasn't convincing in CG. So they tweaked the volume and gave her a prettier makeover with a more modern sheen. Now it hangs down straighter.

Lighting advances helped improve the integration of CG characters into a live-action setting.

And what about the blue? It turns out that Smurf blue is actually a registered shade, but you can't have just one color in a real world setting, so there were necessary adjustments made. And to get it to look right in CG meant playing with the color of the blood as well. So they tested every possible variation until setting on… red. "This was achieved with painted maps for translucency based on humanistic traits that made for greater familiarity," Hoover adds. And to keep up with the blue theme, the four lighting teams at Imageworks named themselves after the Blues Brothers: Monaco, Orangewhip, Team Fabulous and Elwood.

And speaking of lighting, this proved to be the greatest breakthrough on The Smurfs, given that it's a live-action/animation hybrid filmed on location in Manhattan and on various backlot stages. Therefore, Sony advanced its HDRI technique by shooting with the Spheron (attached to a laptop and which spins 360 degrees and shoots at 26 stops of exposure). This provided a lot more range with the spherical lens and double the resolution. "You do it twice at a fixed distance of about 30 inches, and this offset allowed us to accurately map physical space," Hoover continues. The new HDRI technique was also used on Green Lantern and is being applied to Men in Black III and The Amazing Spider-Man.

The Smurf village is all CG. Check out this vfx breakdown.

Indeed, this allowed them to calculate wattage, color and intensity of light. And Sony's fully ray-raced Arnold renderer was perfect for reproducing accurate images. They caught reflections and shadows as well, and added lights to the faces to enhance the comedy and used bounce cards for effects, capturing nearly every lighting set-up from the Smurfs' POV. Arnold captured bounce light, too.

The upshot is that they were able to get a clean initial pass in lighting in half a day with no artist time, meaning the bulk of the time was spent on crucial creative decisions rather than mechanical ones. They used the Trimble laser scanner (3mm at 10 meters) for accurate matchmoving.

The other major achievement was the all-CG Smurf Village, which had to fit with our world, because it's a tiny place hidden beneath us. In fact, the artistic time saved on lighting was applied to the intense 10-minutes of animating the village. Gentle Giant did the Smurf maquettes, and Sony created a multitude of clove, grass, moss and Oak trees all procedurally rendered in Arnold. It was particularly challenging to get the proper scale for the 7 1/2" POV of the characters.

"This was a joint collaboration where Culver did the design and building of assets, and the color and lighting, our new Vancouver office did the heavy lifting of animation and matchmoving and plate repair was done in the India office," Hoover confirms.

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.