EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: SMURFS 2 Director Raja Gosnell
Tomorrow things get very blue in movie theatres across the country as the Smurfs return to the big screen in the all-new Smurfs 2. CBM caught up with director Raja Gosnell (who also helmed the original), who details the challenges of bringing the Smurfs to life.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: Didn’t the Smurfs start back in the ‘80s?
RAJA GOSNELL: Actually, they started in France in the 50s, which is when Paolo first created the characters and the books, so a whole generation of Europeans grew up reading the Smurfs. It was originally in the French language, but then it sort of moved all through Europe – it came to the US in a form of a Hanna Barbera cartoon in the early 80s.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: When the show started, I was already in my ‘20s, so they really didn’t do it for me…
RAJA GOSNELL: You know I was sort of past the generation to appreciate it as well, back in the 80s, but for the films we sort of went to the books for inspiration, probably a little more so than the Hanna Barbera cartoon. And, you know, there’s actually a lot of backstory, mythology, and ultimately it’s about humanity. I mean, every Smurf has a name sort of based on their trait, which are traits that sort of exist in all of us. Basically every Smurf put together makes up a human being.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: That’s interesting, because I think when most people think of the Smurfs they’re going to think of the 80s cartoon.
RAJA GOSNELL: Of course.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: I don’t mean to insult the cartoon, but it sounds like there could be some depth to this based on the original works.
RAJA GOSNELL: Based on the original works, and of course us making the movie we endeavor to make it an entertaining experience, but also an emotionally satisfying ride. We worked really hard on sort of giving a dramatic arc to it. Smurfette, she was in Paolo’s original work, was created by Gargamel out of gray clay. She came to Smurf Village to sort of create havoc, but then Poppa saw the good in her, and through the Smurfs loving her, she sort of became a Smurf and Poppa turned her blue. But using her as jumping off point, she’s really, even though she is sort of the quintessential Smurf, of Gargamel, so the movie starts with her having a bit of an identity crises. She wonders if she’s a real Smurf, if she’s really accepted. Meanwhile, Gargamel, in his quest for Smurf essence back in present day Paris, has created two new Smurfs just the way he created Smurfette. But since he doesn’t have Poppa’s magic formula, he’s sort of out of essence. That’s sort of the set up for the whole story, but it’s really Smurfette’s journey.
It’s an emotional journey for her, and she sort of bonds with the “Naughties” as we call them, and starts questioning where she really belongs. Of course the Smurfs put a Smurf rescue team together and find a way back into our world and have to sort of save her, and the first time they actually see each other, Smurfette is hugging Sexy and her captors, and seeing from afar it looks like she’s accepting Gargamel. For Poppa Smurf, who is her stepfather essentially and raised her, it’s a tremendously emotional moment. And so there’s a lot of those in the movie – I think it’s going to surprise people and I think the trailer doesn’t necessarily represent that. But that’s not the trailer’s job – the trailer’s job is to get people into the theaters, so I think if people actually watch the movie for what it is, they will be pleasantly surprised.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: I know CG has gotten easier now than it used to be, but to me it looks to me like, technically, it would be a nightmare with all these Smurfs running all over the place. How hard are these movies that way?
RAJA GOSNELL: At the end of the day they’re actually fun to make and I endeavor to make the set fun. I actually have fun every day making these movies, although like every director I have my moments of deep despair, but I mean technically they are extremely complex. With the Smurfs, we’re putting these guys on the streets of the real world, so we have cameras on the streets of Paris, we’ve got cameras at the Trocodaro fountain, we’re flying through Notre Dame, so any given shot could have an entirely different approach in terms of how did you pull that off? But usually there are three to four levels of visual effects going. In terms of straight up animation, we photograph the world as if the Smurf is there, so if a Smurf is walking we move the camera at what the walking speed would be; if we’re shooting a dramatic push-in on Smurfette, then we’re basically on set just pushing in on air. We record the voices and then I direct the actors in the voice sections, and that sort of sets up the next bit of the starting of the animation.
So we start up the little storyboards that are sort of relaying for the viewers of the film what’s going on at least, because if you could check out all the story boards, it would be like empty frame, voice, empty frame, voice. The animators use that as a jumping off place, and they try to get the emotion of the scene, are we going for a joke are we going for what? And then they start animating, and at the end of the day it’s really down to the soul of the person at that machine and working those tools and the vocal performances – THAT is a Smurf performance. Technically, a real challenge on these films is the lighting tools. There are many shots in the movie where you’re looking at a Smurf in Paris, you know, and he’s just absolutely there, just seamlessly there. All of these are artistic things, they just take an eye and someone with the skill to use the tools that they have. It has gotten easier, but at the end of the day it’s the creativity of the person working the machines, not the machine.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: What did you learn from the first movie that you were able to apply to this one?
RAJA GOSNELL: I had a better language, a better descriptive language with the crew – so much of this movie is in my head, and it’s easy to assume that since I get it, everyone around me is going to get it. But if you take a 30,00 feet step back and look at it, it’s a guy telling you to point a camera at nothing, and so we brought back basically all of our creative department heads, which gave us a shorthand. We’d all made a Smurf movie, so we all knew what the drill was, but I guess for me, just the communication, understanding that this is really hard to get, and so the day would start with me on the floor, with 6 Smurf “Maquettes” — what we call the Gumbies — but I would basically block and stage the scene with the entire crew. You know, “The Smurfette is going to walk over here, and then someone will do the Smurfette voice, and something is going to happen,” so instead of watching the actors do it, they’re actually watching me dancing these puppets around, so they sort of get a sense of how it’s going to work.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: Given that the general public doesn’t even know the background of the Smurfs in terms of their history in the 50s, what is it about them that continues to appeal to people?
RAJA GOSNELL: In my opinion, they’re super-cute, they’re super-wholesome, they come from a much simpler time, and they’re sort of a salt of the earth approach that Poppa has to life and to dealing with the various personalities of his other Smurfs. They’re from a simpler time, and I think that appeals. I think seeing them in our world, I mean seeing a living and breathing Smurf on the kitchen counter, is appealing, because it’s not that hard to imagine that happening for a kid. As opposed to going into Pixar’s Up, which is an entirely created world and an amazing and beautiful movie, but it’s not happening in our world so it’s a little bit different there. But honestly, I think many of the parents of today’s kids grew up on the Smurfs, or people have heard of the Smurfs at least, and they want to check it out and hand it down to their kids.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: One of the biggest clichés in Hollywood now is where the writers say, “Oh, this was always intended to be a trilogy,” but in reality they have to reverse engineer a trilogy. Was Smurfs always intended to be a trilogy?
RAJA GOSNELL: Well, let’s put it this way — Smurfs 3 is in development, so should Smurfs 2 deliver for the audience and the audience rewards it with their viewing dollars, then there will be a Smurf s3. Was it always planned as a trilogy? I would say probably no. I mean, in our midnight dreams of sugarplums and lollipops, maybe it was a trilogy, but I think we just made the first movie to be the best first movie we could, and nobody knew if anyone was going to go see this thing. We knew we had a good movie, but we had no idea if there was any interest in a Smurf movie or if there was any Smurf love in the world. Thankfully, there was.
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