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Monday, August 1, 2011

How To Build A Smurf

By: Michelle Kung

Sony Pictures Imageworks
A scene from ‘The Smurfs’

With their tiny bodies and solid blue coloring, the Smurfs would appear to be easy to animate. In reality, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Sony Corp.’s visual effects and character animation company, has been experimenting and working for nearly three years to bring the Belgian cartoonist Peyo’s creations to the big screen as realistic-looking 3-D computer-generated creatures.

After a standard Smurf was created, it was adapted into roughly 36 different models for the film — approximately a third of the 99 Smurfs originally identified by Peyo. Of the 36, only one was created specifically for the film and had no basis in either the original comic strip or cartoon: Gutsy Smurf, who is voiced by Alan Cumming in the film. The animators also give some of the older characters virtual facelifts. In the case of Smurfette, they toned down her stiff, poufy hair into a flatter, more contemporary ‘do.
Smurf designs in place, the team then used a 3-D copier to produce two kinds of Smurf maquettes, or figurines, to be used for rehearsal and framing purposes during the physical shooting of the film. To make the digitally-created Smurfs look more lifelike in the film, Imageworks used a newer technology known as HDRI — or High Dynamic Range Imagery — to accurately capture both the spatial dimensions and a 360 degree view of whatever set the lighters were working on. Specifically, they did so at 26 different exposure levels (f stops) of lighting. (The technique was also used on the film “The Green Lantern.”) To achieve this, the company used the SpheroCam HDR to automatically capture 360 degree spherical images and spatial data with a single scan.

Consequently, by applying that spatial data and lighting to the digital elements — namely the animated Smurf characters — the computer-generated figures are more smoothly integrated into the live-action film. The technology also helped speed up the workflow: instead of the usual three or four days usually needed for the process, it only took Imageworks about a day or two.

Check out a slideshow of the process in the above tab.