When Brandon Jeffords saw the animated film The Fox and the Hound as an elementary school student, he was transfixed. It didn’t seem possible that his artwork may one day dance across the big screen.
“I couldn’t believe that people drew pictures like I did and they were bringing them to life,” says Jeffords, a 1990 Dobson High School graduate.
“Because I loved the whole acting and singing parts just as much in these animated movies, I could put everything I loved into one place.”
On April 7, the Sony Pictures animator will celebrate the release of the movie Smurfs: The Lost Village, for which he served as head of story. His credits also include Hotel Transylvania 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and The Looney Tunes Show.
In this fully animated film, a mysterious map sets Smurfette and her best friends, Brainy, Clumsy and Hefty, on a race through the Forbidden Forest to find a lost village before the evil wizard Gargamel. Embarking on a rollercoaster journey full of action and danger, the Smurfs are on a course that leads to the discovery of a big secret. The feature stars Ariel Winter, Michelle Rodriguez, Julia Roberts, Joe Manganiello, Mandy Patinkin, Rainn Wilson, Demi Lovato and Meghan Trainor.
“What really turned me on to the project was that they decided to do something different with it,” says Jeffords, who spent three and a half years on the film.
“The other two movies were live-action hybrids. The Smurfs didn’t look like the original comics that I loved growing up as a kid. The director, Kelly Asbury, said let’s go back to their roots and design things the way they were meant to. They have a cartoony feel to them. There’s a brand-new cast. Gargamel is animated. It’s definitely like the cartoons I grew up with.”
In the production notes, Asbury explains further.
“We went through the early comic books and studied the work of (Smurfs creator) Peyo to try to find a visual look for the movie that honored the origins of the Smurfs and how they really look,” says Asbury, who previously directed Shrek 2 and Gnomeo and Juliet.
“That was important to how we conceived each location, the look, the design of the Smurfs, themselves, their mushroom houses and the colors.”
Artist in the making
Jeffords spent his elementary school years in Warren, Michigan, and moved with his family to Mesa in junior high. It was at Rhodes Junior High that he acquired a love for performance.
“I was put in choir because I came late to the school year,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in a singing group. My choir teacher saw I was shy and introverted and they turned it upside down and made me love music.
“I started getting into musicals and things like that.”
After graduating from Dobson, he attended the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in illustration.
For the last decade, he has been working in the film and TV industries for clients like Disney, Warner Bros., Hasbro, Nickelodeon and Sony Pictures. He does art on the side as well, as seen on his website, brandonjeffords.com.
He admits he’s been lucky to make it as far as he has in his career.
“It was definitely a huge dream that I doubted many times throughout my childhood and my career,” Jeffords admits. “Many people helped get me where I am. I’m a pretty optimistic person and, strangely, probably, unrealistic at times.
“I think I’ve always been that way as a kid. I was weaned on the old Disney films. That’s where I found a love of animation. The theme is 90 percent fulfilling your dreams or your dreams coming true. Those are the types of films that I admire the most: Somebody who, against all odds, defeated whoever and became who they are.”
Smurfs: The Lost Village didn’t always make the aforementioned point. The story went through several revisions after Sony’s management was overhauled.
“This one, in particular, went through a lot of changes,” says Jeffords, who is married with four kids, ages 8 to 16. “You wouldn’t recognize it. Once new management came in, they looked at it with fresh eyes. They said, ‘You guys have a story in there. It’s secondary right now. You have to bring that to the forefront.’
“As a storyboard artist, 90 percent of the job is throwing drawings away. You have to have thick skin. There is a lot of artwork that is never seen, unless it gets into the cut scenes.”
He was wholeheartedly supported by his parents, including his father who was heavily recruited by minor league baseball. Jeffords explains that his family never questioned how he would make a living through illustrations.
“He turned it down because of being a dad, a family guy,” Jeffords says. “He really tried to get me into sports as much as he could. I was horrible. Thank goodness, my younger brother came along and was great at all of that stuff and took the spotlight off of me. I just say follow your dreams and do what you love and eventually it’ll pay off.”
That resonates with Smurfs: The Lost Village.
“The whole idea of the film is there’s a character, Smurfette, who doesn’t have a purpose,” he says. “Smurfette is the only one who has a name that doesn’t match what she does, not to mention she’s the only female.
“That’s part of her journey and my journey. Moving from Michigan to Arizona was a culture shock to me—especially going from elementary school to junior high school. Identity for me was a huge thing. I didn’t know who I was or what my trajectory was. Now, the idea of being able to draw for a living, even to my kids, sounds like it’s made up. They ask, ‘Dad what do you do all day?’ I tell them I draw pictures. For them, that has to be the coolest thing ever.”