Head Start: Stephan Franck talks about The Legend of Smurfy Hollow

Trevor Hogg chats with Stephan Franck about a childhood obsession, The Iron Giant, and Smurfs…

“My dad was an amateur painter and photographer; I’m pretty sure he would have had an artistic career, had his life situation been different,” states Stephan Franck.  “On my mom’s side, we’re talking self-taught musicians, professional gamblers and dentists…all artists in their own way. My mom’s generation didn’t pursue the arts as careers because they survived the Holocaust as children, and wanted ‘normal’ lives after that, but almost everyone in my generation is doing something artistic. I have to add that in retirement, my mom wrote an amazing book about her life as a child during WW2. It’s published in France and I really wish it was translated in English; it’s absolutely gripping.”  The obsession of pursing a career in animation started in childhood.   “The first animated film I saw was Disney’s Robin Hood [1973], which I got to see in a theatre, and I was blown away by the pageantry of that classic Disney animation.  But I have to say, that robbery scene at the beginning, while Robin distracts Prince John as a gypsy fortune-teller is one of the best movie moments ever made. I remember being five and jumping up and down on my seat!” A classic science fiction tale directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator) also left a lasting impression.   “On the other end of the spectrum, that last scene between Harrison Ford [Ender’s Game] and Rutger Hauer [Ladyhawke] at the end of Blade Runner [1982] is one that stuck with me forever. I have a whole theory about that scene. I’ll have to blog about it somewhere.”

“Back when I was a student, there was barely an industry to speak of—on either side of the pond, to be honest,” notes Stephan Franck.  “But Roger Rabbit [1988] came out the year I got into Gobelins [a French school of applied arts, print and digital media], and the family let out a collective sigh of relief as it was clear that animation was going to be big. Today, France has a great animation industry. My brother Emmanuel produced an amazing animated movie called Lascars [2009], which is an urban hip-hop animated comedy that is fresh and hysterical, and extremely well animated. Lascars is considered a big mainstream movie there, but you could never make it in the States.”  The young animator established his own production company with his sibling known as Franck & Franck.  “Right after Gobelins, I started at Amblimation in London, which was Amblin’s animation studio for Universal pictures. After a while, the excitement wore off, and I started to feel like a cog in the wheel.  I went back to France, and at the ripe age of 24, I started F&F with my brother, who was 22. It was a wonderful learning experience. We did a lot of commercials, developed projects, subcontracted for Amblimation and others studios.  The studio grew pretty quickly to be about 15 people, most of whom, we trained.  Ultimately, I had left a big studio to be more creative, and found myself less so.  I was too busy running a business, and was taking on projects that weren’t artistically interesting to me. I felt I had a lot more to learn, especially in terms of story.  I left the studio and came to L.A.. After my departure, F&FS had some great successes, especially with a run of corporate films that won all of the top awards in that world. Eventually, Emmanuel closed the studio to go run the Millimages studio in Paris, and went off to do many other great things.”

“Technology changed everything on every level,” notes Stephan Franck.  “For instance you can get editing software on your computer for $150 that does more than a $100,000 editing suite could do back when we started Franck & Franck (1992).  The main wall that kept people from being able to do things which was cost has collapsed. When people tell me they want to be directors, but don’t have a short film, I ask, ‘What’s your excuse?’  More specifically to animation, the biggest change has been that drawing is no longer a pre-requisite. In my case, I spent the early years of my career crying tears of blood on my drawing table everyday, because I was always a pretty good visual storyteller, but not exactly a great draftsman. Today you can be an amazing CG animator and not know how to draw at all.”  When asked about what makes for great animation, Franck replies, “Talking about the Character Animation itself, I would compare it to acting. Great acting doesn’t attract attention to itself. It is not overly stylized, and should feel natural. That’s when as an audience, you’re able to suspend your disbelief, and lose yourself in the story. Character animation is the same to me. While the artistry is enchanting, it needs to be a conduit to the truth of the performance, not overshadow or upstage it. Animation has an added layer of difficulty, because a live actor knows how to speak and walk in a way that’s believable. With animation, the best acting choice can be undone, if the motion or the drawing looks unnatural.”

Storyboarding is essential when developing an animated film.  “It’s a little bit different in live action, where, traditionally, the board artist only focuses on setting up the camera angles,” observes Stephan Franck.  “The acting choices really are between the actors and the director. In animation, it’s different. The story process is where we really workshop the movie, since we usually have much less time with the actual actors, and you can’t ask the animators to animate the stuff three different ways for time and cost reasons. There’s no coverage either and barely any handles on any scene. Therefore, the story process [drawing the boards and editing the story reel] ends up being where you try everything out. The feature animation story artists are a combination of staff writer, of what I would call a pre-animator, AND traditional storyboarder. In terms of specific skills required, you need to have a drawing that’s appealing enough to get across emotion and comedy, and a perfect command of film language. The sad thing is that, while a sequence might be completely yours, the audience will never see your drawings. Story artists are the Industry’s best kept secret.” Franck was responsible for producing storyboards for 9 (2009) and Despicable Me (2010).  “On 9, I was asked to board a lot of action sequences. The challenge was the complexity and scale of some of the scenes; that was a lot of fun. On Despicable, I boarded almost the entire third act, and I did at least three or four completely different versions. One of the challenges was figuring out how to play the abstractness of him stealing the moon. I had one version where steeling the moon upset the tides, and a huge tsunami comes and gets Vector [Jason Segel]. The producers thought that the movie’s whimsical tone didn’t require the planetary physics to make sense; it was about comedy and emotion. So that’s how we did it, and they were absolutely right.”

“I had the good fortune to work on the Iron Giant [1999], and that movie is a great example of very honest and specific acting choices in animation,” recalls Stephan Franck when discussing the critically acclaimed project which saw him work with Oscar-winner Brad Bird (The Incredibles].  “Brad was like a general you’d follow into any battle; he was shameless about his passion for the project and movies in general, and that was incredibly inspiring. We all felt we were doing important work. On the creative leadership aspect, Brad taught me that talent [whether its actors, animators, or story artists] only have one fear; it’s too be led into a bad performance. And that’s where resistance usually comes from. Brad would work hard at winning the artists’ trust by being always honest.  For instance, if Brad asked you to do the scene a certain way, and you did it, and that ended up being the wrong choice, he would take full responsibility, and never hang you out to dry. Brad would say something like “I know I asked you to do it this way, and you did it great, but now that I see it, I can see that was the wrong choice. My bad. Would you mind trying it this other way?’ That may sound extremely basic, but you have no idea how many times I’ve executed some director’s questionable choice, only to get that look, ‘What did you do?!’ Needless to say, I’m trying to do it the Brad way.”

“I directed a lot of commercials, back at Franck & Franck, and in the last 5 years, I also did a lot of directing,” explains Stephan Franck.  “First on a George Lucas [Star Wars] feature that he personally hired me to direct; that was one of the great experiences of my life, even though the movie was ultimately abandoned, and I developed an original movie called Futuropolis at Digital Domain, and then at Sony. It’s now in turnaround, but I’ve directed the hell out of it full time for three years.  Between those things all of the years as a supervising animator or head of animation were also creative leadership positions, where I really learned how to direct animators and people in general.  The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow [2013] just happens to be the visible part of the directing iceberg but there’s a lot of ice underneath.”  Franck believes, “I think having had just about every job you can have in animation allows me to engage with everyone on a technical level.  Of course, as a director, you want to be about the big picture, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to sketch over something and say, ‘Just tilt the head like this, and you’re done’, rather than, ‘Oh, I wish the character felt a little less self-aware.’”

The miniature blue characters which first appeared in Les Schtroumpfs comic strip by Belgian cartoonist Peyo have become part of popular culture.  “The people in charge of those franchises, or brands if you’re doing a commercial, usually have a few specific things that they feel are crucial to the franchise,” remarks Stephan Franck.  “If you pay attention to those needs and deliver on them, they will let you have almost infinite creative freedom with everything else. But if you don’t deliver on those few things they really care about, nothing else will stick either.  One key thing was making sure that our film existed within the universe and continuity of the current movies; for instance, from the design/layout of the village to some of the character relationships.” 

“We didn’t start with the Irving story and Smurfed it down,” states Stephan Franck.   “We went the other way around. We started with a fun character story about Smurfs that felt sincere and fun, and injected the spooky elements into it.”  A pivotal character is a decapitated horseman.  “We didn’t want to do something super dark and twisted, like the Tim Burton one, and we didn’t want to redo the Disney one either. Meanwhile we wanted something that would definitely feel ghostly without being too dark, so we went with the glow-in-the-dark approach. If you’ll look closely, you’ll see that his centre mass is solid, since he had to have an actual physical presence, but the extremities have transparency which suggests that he’s a spirit. I kept thinking ‘ghost riders in the sky’ as a reference.  I also wanted an extra fun element which would separate him from the other horsemen and be visually exciting; that’s why I gave him a crazy Batman/Spawn cape. I feel it really spices up the character graphically, while still making it acceptable for our audience. I think the end result is pretty cool.”

“The fact that this is mostly hand-drawn animation would be considered adventurous these days, and would not have happened on a feature,” states Stephan Franck who used CG animation for the opening and closing segments which are situated around a campfire.  “That was a format we inherited from a Smurfs’ Christmas Carol [2011] special that was previously produced as a companion to the first Smurfmovie. So it was always going to be 2D and 3D. What we tried to do is to really focus on what each medium does well, and make strong artistic statements, each in their own way.”  Key contributors were Sergio Pablos (Tarzan) and Sean Eckols (Treasure Planet). “Sergio’s studio did about 2/3 of the hand-drawn character animation and clean up; they were contracted through Duck Studios in Santa Monica which did the other 1/3 of the animation, and 100% of the colour and compositing. The CG section was produced at Sony Imageworks. Sean was the Production Designer; he’s responsible for putting together the visual style of the movie, and painted a big part of the production backgrounds himself, as well as supervised colour all the way through post.”  The works of Disney legend Mary Blair [Peter Pan] influenced visual design of the project.   “It was more about how the colour shapes support each other in a stark and bold fashion. Look at a movie like Alice in Wonderland [1951], for instance. There is no ground shadows, or soft tones on the characters. Yet it is lush and vibrant, and feels dimensional.”

“We used the same [voice] cast as in the current movie, except for Smurfette, because Katie Perry was on tour,” states Stephan Franck.  “Melissa Sturm, who also voiced her in the Christmas Carol, did a wonderful job. As far as the performances, the trick is for them to be bold, but not cartoonish. We had a cast of great natural actors, so that never was a problem. It was actually a great honour to work with them.”  Franck believes, “Music and sound are such powerful elements; they can do a lot to support the tone of a movie, or just push it in a completely different direction. Here, we wanted to have fun with the spookiness, while keeping it Smurfy, so I had a key word for the composers [Chris Lennertz and Phil White], or the sound designer/mixer  [Jussi Tegelman]: ‘Mysterious’. I’d say make it as ‘mysterious’ as you can, but not ‘scary’. My favourite example is when Brainy looks over his shoulder and ventures into the old covered bridge. It’s a committed shot, and the music both strengthens the idea, while keeping it fun and playful.”

An overriding theme is the importance of family members working together.  “I think it’s a fine line, and no audience wants to be preached to,” notes Stephan Franck.  “It’s about connecting with a universal sentiment or emotion that is true to life, and to hopefully say something meaningful about it. Here, it’s about the need for validation, which we’re all afflicted with, and how, when push comes to shove, sibling rivalry is trumped by brotherly love.”  Humour was major part of the storytelling.  “Technically, I think we had a pretty good handle on this process. The challenge is always comedy. The studio always asks for more comedy. They want to make sure you’re not leaving anything on the table. There are moments where you need to take a step back and fine comb through everything to find if there’s any bit that can be plussed. It’s gruelling, but you inevitably find that there’s a joke somewhere in there that you missed. And then, some jokes that you know should be funny aren’t just yet; you will try to make it work department after department. Sometimes, the phrasing of the music makes a joke work in the end.”  Franck remarks, “I find the image of the old covered bridge in the fall, combined with our little blue smurfs, visually appealing.  I’ll say the horseman, when he does show up, is pretty cool. I also love the combination of the original hand-drawn Gargamel with Hank Azaria’s [The Birdcage] vocal performance.”

“Everything I wanted got in there,” reveals Stephan Franck.  “I’m really not missing anything. As you go through production, various artists add their own contributions in ways you didn’t expect, and the project only gets richer. It’s OK to tell an animator or an actor, or any artist “surprise me”, as long as you’ve given them enough context to frame their creative process so it fits within your vision of the movie. In fact you want to get to that zone.”  Franck adds,   “With the Smurfs, it was about combining fun, broad, cartoony, animation, with inspired acting choices.”  Old methods of animation are still valid.  “It is a fact that there is no hand-drawn feature being developed in Hollywood right now. However, there are a lot of very interesting 2D movies in Europe and there’s of course Japan. But I think, 2D, to be relevant, needs to combine the traditional craft of animation with new visual paradigms; that’s what we tried to do. To give people something that felt both classic, but also fresh to a contemporary eye.”  The obsession of his childhood has led the French animator to have an active career.  “On the movie side, I have new projects with Sony that I started work on, but can’t yet talk about. On the comic book side, Silver #2 premièred at APE [Alternative Press Expo], and I’m excited about that! I went to Turin for the View Conference, which was very cool.”

The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow production stills and concept art courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.

Many thanks to Stephan Franck for taking the time for this interview and make sure to read Franckly Speaking.
The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow is currently available on DVD and will be airing on October 27, 2013 as part of ABC’s 13 Nights of Halloween programming event.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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