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How "Smurfs" director Kelly Asbury & his team at Sony Pictures Animation finally found their way to "The Lost Village"

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How "Smurfs" director Kelly Asbury & his team at Sony Pictures Animation finally found their way to "The Lost Village"

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Trust the process.

Kelly Asbury doesn't remember who exactly it was that first shared this mantra of feature animation production with him ("It might have been my dear departed friend, the great Joe Ranft," Asbury stated during a recent phone interview). But given all of the Academy Award-winning films that he's had a hand in developing over the past 30+ years (i.e., "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty & the Beast," "Toy Story," "Shrek" & "Frozen"), Kelly's all too aware of how painful & problem-plagued the process of making a feature-length animated cartoon can often be.

"Every animated film that I've worked on - whether it was as a story artist or as Head of Story or even as director - where we originally started out with our story and where we eventually ended up were often very different places," Asbury explained. "I'm not exactly sure why that is. Maybe it's because - as you're storyboarding an animated feature - you typically go through multiple iterations of the same scene as you search for the very best way to stage something, make that moment in your motion picture as dramatic or as entertaining as possible."

Kelly Asbury, director of "Smurfs: The Lost Village." Copyright Sony Pictures Animation

"But when you do that, closely examine every single scene in your movie, you're also sure to spot some story problems. And as you're addressing those issues in your animated feature, it's also quite likely that you'll then discover other bigger underlying story problems,"  Kelly continued. "Which is why it's pretty common that -- at this point in the feature animation production process - for someone to say 'Hey, wait a minute, guys. We're telling the wrong story here. We need to make Movie B, not Movie A.' "

This is what actually happened with "Smurfs: The Lost Village." Which was initially based on a script that Karey Kirkpatrick & Chris Poche had written for "The Smurfs 3" that was then supposed to have explored the origins of these little blue characters.

By early 2014, Sony had decided that it wanted to reboot this family-friendly franchise. Step away from the live-action / computer animation mix that had been used on 2011's "The Smurfs" & 2013's "The Smurfs 2" and go the full-length animated feature route instead.

Copyright Sony Pictures Animation. All rights reserved

"That's when I was originally brought on board to develop & direct this project. The only problem was that we were still wrestling with this very detailed and rather complicated origin story which involved time travel & flashbacks. Which was frustrating because - if you look at the original 'Smurf' comics that Peyo did back in the 1950s and 1960s - none of the stories that he told were deeply complicated. They were all these fun, light-hearted adventures," Asbury said. "And to my way of thinking, if this full length animated Smurf feature was actually going to work, we had to get as close to our source material as we possibly could. Which meant telling a simple Peyo-like story, an adventure that was entertaining & emotional & engaging rather than some overly complicated origin story."

Lucky for Kelly, just as he found himself stuck in the mud when it came to developing a workable story for "Smurfs: The Lost Village," Sony underwent a management change in early 2015. With Tom Rothman being named as the new Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment's Motion Picture Group and Kristine Belson becoming the President of Sony Pictures Animation.

Kristine Belson, President of Sony Pictures Animation
and Tom Rothman, Chairman of Sony Pictures
Entertainment's Motion Picture Group 

And given that Belson had been Head of Development at DreamWorks Animation and had rode herd of two of that studio's more problem-plagued but ultimately successful projects, 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon" and 2013's "The Croods" ... Well, this Oscar nominee was already well aware of how - when it came to the production of full-length animated features - one really does have to "Trust the Process."

"Kristine quickly saw the problems that we were facing with 'Lost Village' and immediately gave us permission to revise this movie's plotline so that we could then tell more of a Peyo-like story. And that really made all the difference in the world," Kelly enthused. "This production underwent a complete metamorphosis. We went from being this film that was sort of headed in the wrong direction to becoming one that we're all now very proud of. And that's largely because of Kristine Belson. Who actually understands how the feature animation production process works. Which is why she then allowed me to allow that process to work as it should. And that was incredibly helpful."

What also helped "The Lost Village" eventually find its way was the work of production designer Noelle Triaureau & character designer Patrick Mate. Who --- according to Asbury -- both grew up in France loving the Smurfs.

Noelle Triaurea, production designer for "Smurfs: The Lost Village." Copyright
Sony PIctures Animation. All rights reserved

"Noelle & Patrick were the perfect people to put on this picture. They were the ones who really had this material in their hearts. These two worked with our art directors, Marcelo Vignali and Dean Gordon, and closely studied the shape language & visual rules that Peyo followed when he was back in Belgium putting together the original 'Smurfs' comic books," Kelly explained. "Noelle & Patrick then created sort of a visual bible for our movie. So that everything that was designed for 'The Lost Village' would then have an authentic 'What-would-Peyo-Do?' look & feel to it."

"And if you look closely at this movie, you'll see that Noelle, Patrick, Marcelo & Dean kind of did the impossible. They took Peyo's line work and then found a way - using CG tools - to dimensionalize it. Which is why every blade of grass, every leaf in the Forbidden Forest looks like Peyo himself drew it. Every whisker of Azrael the Cat's face looks like a Peyo ink line," Asbury enthused. "These four did such a great job with this film. Which beautifully captures that sense of scale, that unique quaintness that Peyo brought to the Smurfs world."

Kelly was also quick to praise "Lost Village" animation supervisor Alan Hawkins for coming up with just the right take when it came to bring these characters to life via CG.

Copyright Sony Pictures Animation. All rights reserved

"The Smurfs - and they're this way in Peyo's comics as well - do have a rubbery, indestructibility about them. They can get bruised & battered. But they then just sort of bounce back very quickly like those classic cartoon characters Wiley Coyote and Tom & Jerry," Asbury stated. "Alan found a way to incorporate this sort of cartoon language into our movie. But at the same time, he made it possible for the Smurfs to be able to handle the more emotional elements of our story. And striking that sort of balance, making it possible for the audience to laugh at your characters during the lighter moments but still invest emotionally in your movie, that's incredibly hard to do. But Alan and his team really pulled it off with 'Lost Village.' "

This would explain some of the reviews that "Smurfs: The Lost Village" has received to date. With Alex Welch of IGN movies saying that the character performances in this Sony Pictures Animation production were " ... touching and funny," while Andrew Parker of the Globe and Mail said that this Kelly Asbury film featured " ... plenty of ambitious set pieces boasting visual ingenuity."

Which - given that this animation industry vet spent the past three years trusting "The Process," hoping that the motion picture which could be assembled out of all this terrific Peyo-drawn source material would eventually reveal itself - has to be music to Kelly's ears.

Kelly Asbury with Demi Lovato (voice of Smurfette) & Joe Manganiello (voice of Hefty Smurf). 

"I'm just glad that - after all this time - a movie with some genuine emotion & substance came out of all that struggle. Though I have to admit that I love the lesson of 'The Lost Village,' " Asbury concluded. "Speaking of which: I've never made a film where I started out knowing what the lesson was going to be. That lesson always found me."

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Saturday, April 8, 2017

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