In June 2010, when we arrived at the famed Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, it became quickly apparent that we were venturing into a big, BIG movie set based around some very, VERY small characters: The Smurfs
Created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in 1958, "Les Schtroumpfs" (as they were called) are shrimpy little blue creatures (mostly men) that live in a magical realm and are frequently hunted by evil sorcerer Gargamel. Now, more than 50 years later, it's business as usual in Smurf Village as the lovable characters are getting their own big summer movie despite only being three apples tall.
While most people in their 20s and 30s know "The Smurfs" from the Americanized Saturday morning cartoon series and merchandizing bonanza that spread across the nation in the early 1980s, the plan to bring these cute creatures to 21st century children (of all ages) started with producer Jordan Kerner. Despite being responsible for bringing other cartoon properties such as "Inspector Gadget" and "George of the Jungle" successfully to the screen, it's been a rough trip through the forest for him to bring this property to life.
"It's been 12 years since I pursued the rights to 'The Smurfs,'" said Kerner. "Starting in 1997 I would write them a letter every year, then every six months I would write them a letter. Finally in 2001 we were writing 'Charlotte's Web' and in 2002 we had our first strong draft. We sent them the script and said, 'If you see how faithful we are to E.B. White, that's how faithful we will be to this.' The rights holders agreed and we went forward with it. Then it sat for a few years, until Christmas of 2007 when 'The Chipmunks' happened."
In order to anchor the story to the modern world, the characters are magically transported from their quant little village of magic and toadstools into the bright, noisy, chaotic modern miasma of New York City, where they are befriended by a young married man named Patrick played by "How I Met Your Mother" star Neil Patrick Harris.
"I'm a big fan of these types of movies," said Harris, who also made his name in the '80s as TV's Doogie Howser. "Not to sound like it's the company schpiel, but I think it is great when you can go to a movie with a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old and there's also a secondary level of humor that's for adults only that everyone can enjoy. When I heard it was even happening I was surprised they would choose me, (laughs) I thought they'd go much bigger, but I'm thrilled. Happy to be here!"
In order to interact with the non-existent Smurfs on set, Harris had to adjust to a different school of FX-centered acting in order to create a convincing interaction with characters added in later through computer graphics.
"I thought there would be more greenscreen," he said. "I was really looking forward to that. I always wanted to do one of those big 'stare-at-the-tennis-balls on sticks while they chase you around' kinda movies, but this was not that. The technology now is that they're in actual sets. You rehearse it with these gelatinous jelly-mould Smurfs that are on stands. They set them up in various positions and the exact height they'll be, you rehearse it that way with voiceover people, then they just move them away before you shoot. If their eyes are here, I have to put a dot on a wall there so I have somewhere to focus. Only Hank did the greenscreen in Smurf Village.
"This is a family movie but skewed an awful lot towards the core audience of people who watched 'The Smurfs' growing up. From what I hear, the 20-40 year-old set is supposed to get a lot out of it as well as opposed to just their kids. They go from happy happy Smurf Village to Central Park, New York City, so there's a lot of juxtapostion between angry New Yorkers and happy Smurfs.
"It was fun," continued Harris, "and a weird acting style because it's super-storyboarded, you have to match everything and deal with these points of focus all over the place. When it was just a scene with Papa Smurf on the roof that was a little bit easier, I felt more like an actor because I had an earwig and was listening to a guy and was having a scene with no one, but ONE no one. On the scenes in the living room where the Smurfs are revealed and they're all over the place it was tricky. You had to know that dot's Clumsy there, then he moves across so that dot becomes Clumsy on that line. That dot's no longer in existence but that dot is now Smurfette when I'm standing, but when I'm sitting it's THAT dot. That was really tricky, and highly technical, and I enjoyed it."
Kerner took us into the art department at Kaufman Studios where we saw many of the lush, beautiful production illustrations depicting the various worlds of the Smurfs. Fans can rest easy knowing that the filmmakers have put a great deal of care into adapting Peyo's characters and environments faithfully and without anything remotely modern or updated. These are the original creations in all their unspoiled, natural glory.
There are multicolored mushrooms with windows and doors. You could say it's literally like J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbiton on mushrooms! Gargamel's castle is dark and atmospheric, as are artist's renderings for a scene labeled "The Gully Chase" in which Clumsy Smurf (voiced by Anton Yelchin) runs through a crooked, jagged mountain path leading to the castle.
Once the Smurfs enter Patrick's apartment, they begin growing trees and really making their mark. A proof-of-concept filmed test featuring a generic CG Smurf rendering trying to evade a dog to get some cupcakes was created to show a Smurf in the real world, interacting with a dog, so the studio would see that it could be done. Everything will be photoreal, with an estimated 825,458 individual fine hairs on every Smurf. However, there was some rather frightening trial and error in order to get a realistic Smurf who wouldn't scare the beejezus out of people.
Said Kerner, "Sony Imageworks, who's creating the effects for us, went to work on 20 images that went from cartoony, with no muscle or anything that would move, all the way to where it felt grotesque to see the full range and choose what felt real in the middle of that. Grotesque was real muscles, real clavicle, warts, veins, fingernails, belly buttons. They really felt like trolls. It is creepy. We settled on a tiny bit of muscle definition and bone structure, see-through skin, eyes more three-dimensional, etc."
When it came to creating the main antagonist of the movie, no computer graphics were required as they got one of the best character actors in the biz, Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons," "The Birdcage"), to portray the villainous Gargamel in makeup that made him look like he literally stepped out of the cartoon.
Said Azaria in full costume, "I see him as trying to be one of those wonderful wizards you see in 'Harry Potter.' In the cartoon he wanted the Smurfs for three reasons: to eat them, to kill them, and to extract their magical essence. We have chosen the latter. It's kinda like he broke off from the academy, like they laughed at him, 'Smurfs are not the way to be a great sorcerer.' 'NO, THEY ARE! They're magical if you capture their essence!' He spent YEARS literally chasing the dream down and couldn't find them, that's why he's so crazy. It does work, once he gets a drop of essence in his ring his magic is very powerful."
Unfortunately for all his dark magic, Azaria's Gargamel can't escape the daily grind of applying the prosthetics it takes to transform him.
"The makeup takes about an hour and a half," said Azaria trying his best not to gripe. "We've been shooting for three months and the last two days I hit the wall, can't take it anymore. It's literally torture now. I was fine two days ago. The people who do it are so sweet and great, make me laugh, but it is hard. It's like Chinese water torture. I'm not gonna miss it."
While Azaria is a perfect match both physically and vocally (his Gargamel voice he admits is not too far removed from "Simpsons" bartender Moe), it was actually his relationship to pet cat Azrael that drew him to the project.
"The script was really trying to find a lot of humor," he said, "especially the relationship with the cat. It occurred to me that they're married. If we can play it that way, that they're this bickering married couple, I think that would be funny. That takes care of a lot because instead of making these evil pronouncements to no one that villains do all the time, he's always saying them to Azrael the cat."
Azaria is joined by other famous celebrity voices including Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf, Katy Perry as Smurfette, and Pee Wee Herman himself Paul Reubens as Jokey. As in the cartoon, they tend to inject "Smurfy" words as replacements for normal ones.
"There's no real logic to when a Smurf word is filled in for another," added Harris, "but I suspect it will make a fine drinking game."
As we enter the massive soundstage we see Azaria (who sang previously for Broadway's "Spamalot") shooting a big song and dance number along with fashionista Tim Gunn, who plays a cosmetic company executive, and insisted to us that "Smurf Blue is going to be a phenomenon," and that "Tailor Smurf will have to diversify."
During the musical number, Hank sings, "Don't you love to hate me, don't you love to hate me, everybody needs a heavy that they love to HATE. I really really really love to hate the Smuuuuuuuuuurfs!"
Commented Azaria, "This is this crazy thing they added for the end of the movie where Gargamel sings about people loving to hate him. Poor Gargamel, he has big dreams but he's never gonna make it. This is a musical expression of that."
The producer insists that Hank could be a possible Supporting Actor nominee "'Cause he's so into his character." Even with all the pop culture jokes that will be embedded into the movie to make it palatable for kids and grown-ups alike, Kerner insists this is a labor of love and will retain the essence of Peyo's Smurfs, despite Gargamel's repeated attempts to steal it!
"We don't want them speaking in modern ways," assures Kerner. "They're very innocent, they see the world very much the way they did in the books. Everything they see is new to them. Every single thing they see. It is a Smurf out of water story."
opens in 3D and 2D theaters on July 29.