Why Stephan Franck Was Drawn to Use Hand-drawn Animation on The Legend of Smurfy Hollow

Has computer animation's omnipresence in today's entertainment left you... well, feeling a little blue?

Well, don't fret. There are still folks in Hollywood who are huge fans of traditional animation. Witness Disney's announcement last week that its Touchstone Studios will be handling the North American distribution of Hayao Miyazaki's latest hand-drawn masterwork, The Wind Rises. Or -- better yet -- what Sony Pictures Animation decided to do with its latest home premiere, The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.

Now given that Sony Pictures Animation has already produced two highly successful Smurfs projects which skillfully mixed live-action & CG, it would have been relatively easy for this animation studio to go that exact same route with its newest home premiere. But Bob Osher & Michelle Raimo Kouyate wanted to do something different with this Halloween-themed production. Which is why they asked veteran animation director Stephan Franck to consider 2D as he began developing Smurfy Hollow.

"Which was fine by me," Stephan explained during a recent phone interview. "Don't get me wrong. The crew here in Culver City is great when it comes to creating CG Smurfs. But when I was growing up, the Smurfs that I watched on Saturday morning were hand-drawn. And I was thinking that -- after Sony's success with its two live-action / computer animated Smurf movies -- that it might be fun for us to try something a bit more old school. Return the Smurfs to their more traditional roots, if you will."

Mind you, Franck wasn't willing to settle for the sort of half-hearted hand-drawn animation that you used to see on Saturday morning television back in the late 1970s / early 1980s. He wanted to do something richer, far more highly detailed. In short, Stephan was hoping to create a Sony home premiere that would have the same sort of high quality hand-drawn animation that one used to see in Walt Disney Animation Studios productions of the 1990s.


"That's why I reached out to Sergio Pablos. He was a supervising animator on Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame & Hercules, not to mention being a character designer on A Goofy Movie and Tarzan. Since leaving Disney, Sergio has set up his own studio in Madrid with a team of animators that he likes to call his Spanish banditos," Stephan continued. "And these guys just did an amazing job with traditionally animating Smurfy Hollow. Honestly, the hand-drawn versions of the Smurfs that you'll see in this home premiere are the best-looking traditionally animated versions of these characters you've ever seen. The hand-drawn versions of the Smurfs have never looked this good before."

Of course, Franck is quick to point out that one of the main reasons that this Sony Pictures Animation home premiere looks so good is that the inspiration for this production's striking color palate came directly from Disney legend Mary Blair.

"Mary was the master when it came to mixing bold shapes & colors. And given that this story is set in the Fall -- a time of year that I absolutely love -- Well, the bold colors that you see in the leaves during this time of year just made taking a Mary Blair-inspired approach to the design of this entire production seem like a natural choice to me," Stephan stated. "Besides, given that Mary color-designed Disney's own take on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow back in the late 1940s, it only seemed right that Blair's work serve as an influence on Smurfy Hollow as well. So I asked my production designer Sean Eckols to explore this idea and he delivered in spades."

As a direct result of setting the bar so high for The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, of Stephan & his production team deliberately attempting to turn this home premiere into a celebration of hand-drawn animation, this 22-minute movie received rave reviews when it was screened in official competition last month at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival -- which pleased Franck to no end.

"You have to understand that I grew up reading the Smurfs. And that -- while I liked the Saturday morning cartoon show and all -- I felt that it never really did justice to the superior line work & design that I saw in the Smurfs comic books and comic strips. Which is why I really wanted to do this home premiere as a mostly hand-drawn production. So that I could finally see these characters the way that I always thought they could be done. As these fully-realized, traditionally animated characters," Stephan enthused. "Which is why it was great to get the reaction that we did at Annecy. With the audience there being so supportive of Smurfy Hollow because they had never seen these characters done with feature quality hand-drawn animation before."


It's worth noting here that this Sony Pictures Animation production does in fact include some CG. With this home premiere's opening & closing sequences being animated by the exact same folks who produced The Smurfs and The Smurfs 2.

"And those people did a brilliant job of creating the bookends for Smurfy Hollow. Effectively creating a transition from the live-action / CG Smurf movies that most people know nowadays to the traditionally animated home premiere that we were trying to make here," Franck said. "And given the extremely short production schedule on this project -- we did this whole thing in less than a year, with the CG elements being produced during whatever downtime we had on Smurfs 2 -- it's a real tribute to the artists and technicians who work at Sony Pictures Animation that this holiday special turned out as well at it did."

That's right. Stephan said "holiday special." Though this Sony Pictures Animation home premiere is currently available on DVD, much in the tradition of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown airing annually on ABC, The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow will make its television debut on ABC Family late next month. On Sunday, Oct. 27 to be specific, as part of that cable channel's "13 Nights of Halloween" programming event -- which is another thing that makes Franck proud.

"I just think that it's great that Smurfy Hollow is going to be shown on ABC Family next month. Because this show has such a great message for families. Especially families with small children like my own who are dealing with issues of sibling rivalry right now," Franck said. "I remember telling my now 25-year-old son while he was growing up that he needed to be nicer to his little sister. That once his mother and I were gone she'd be the only family that he had left. That's kind of the message that we tried to put across with Smurfy Hollow. That -- when times get tough -- families have to put aside all of their petty competitive stuff and really work together if they're looking to succeed."

That's something that Stephan now knows from experience, given the way he reaches out and motivates animators on two continents in order to make Smurfy Hollow a reality.

"When the team at Sony Pictures Animation initially started working on The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, we thankfully all shared a very strong vision of the sort of movie that that we wanted this home premiere to be. Which was this celebration of the original Smurfs comic books & comic strips that used traditional, hand-drawn animation as a way to harken back to all that strong line work and design," Franck concluded. "And as someone who started his career in 2D, I'm just glad that this holiday special turned out as well as it did."