Animator Stephan Franck has a career that most only dream about. After studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, he put in time at Amblimation before bouncing around to a number of fascinating projects, including Brad Bird’s beloved Iron Giant, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, and early versions of what would later become Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph for Walt Disney Feature Animation. After Disney, George Lucas hired Franck at Lucasfilm to work on a top secret project which he still can’t talk about! From there he went to Digital Domain where he began work on his own feature, Futuropolis, which was later acquired by Sony Pictures Animation. When SPA, home of the Smurfs franchise, offered Franck the chance to direct a half-hour Halloween special, he jumped, and the result is the gorgeously animated, surprisingly affecting Legend of Smurfy Hollow. For his efforts, Franck recently earned an Annie Award nomination for Outstanding Directing in an Animated TV Broadcast.
When he’s not developing and making animated movies, Franck is working on his other passion, creating comic book series. There are nine days left on his Kickstarter campaign to get older issues of his awesome-sounding vampires-and-gangsters comic book series Silver printed (with new issues on the way), so please click over and show your support if you’re a fan of old school film noir, scary monster movies, or brilliant independent comic books and talented artists.
SSN: The Smurfs is an incredibly European property. Being French, did you have a relationship with the characters growing up?
Franck: Oh, absolutely. My parents had a store when I was a kid that did everything—a bookstore, comic book store, everything. So my first love was The Smurfs. It was one of three or four of the most famous general audience comics in France. So if you had told me that one day I’d be able to do The Smurfs and do your take on it, I would have freaked out.
SSN: One of the most amazing things about the film is how expressive the character animation is. How did you pull that off?
Franck: It all starts with the story. If you don’t have solid characters engaging with a story that feels true, then it just becomes movement. This project really focused on the key themes of what I thought the Smurfs was all about—sibling rivalry versus brotherly love. It’s like what I used to tell my kids when they were little, like, “Okay your sister may get on your nerves right now, but one day Mom and I will be dead, and she’ll be your person for life.” It’s that thing with the Smurfs—those petty rivalries feel very true to life, but when something goes wrong, it’s like the Marines, like leave no Smurf behind. That’s family to me, and that’s what the Smurfs is about.
We produced the computer-animated bookends during a lull in production on The Smurfs 2, so it’s that same animation quality; and most of the animation was handled by Duck Studios with help from Sergio Pablos’ studio in Spain. He has a studio of Spanish banditos that are just incredible. I wanted animators who have that tradition because there’s something to these designs that are deceptively Mickey Mouse-type designs, but its different.
SSN: The humor is also really sharp in this special, too.
Franck: We wanted the humor to appeal to everybody, and I think humor is what makes it feel, to use horrible studio language, four-quadrant. We wanted to push the comedy, but only things that felt organic, so I would look at everything that happened with the filter of what do we have in there that’s pedestrian? Then you think for two second and find ten places like that, and you revamp those moments with a little bit of comedy.
SSN: You also got to work with a lot of the actors from the movie. What was it like working with Hank Azaria and Alan Cumming and Fred Armisen?
Franck: It was amazing, all those guys are incredible. On a set there’s a context—you stay within that mental space—but animation is more difficult. Actors are in a booth and your sessions are spread apart. So for me, somebody like Alan Cumming doesn’t need to be directed; what he needs is context, context, context. So I constantly create a cocoon of context. For the three hours he’s with me I’m trying to create continuity and putting him into the scene. I never give them line readings but I always spell out the subtext. Then they can just work their magic and it’s amazing.
SSN: What did the Annie nomination mean to you?
Franck: It’s great because I’ve never been nominated for anything. To me, if you work long enough, you find yourself in situations where you build it and they will come, and sometimes you build it and no one comes. But when it’s one of those things where you build it and people really like it and connect with it, which has been the case with this project, it feels like one of those magical things. It’s just great.
SSN: What’s next for you?
Franck: I’m still at Sony and there are several development projects that I’m working on and it’s that game where we massage different things forward and we’ll have to see what shakes loose and becomes real. It’s that stage.