I recently visited The Peanuts Movie at Blue Sky, nestled in lush Greenwich, CT. The footage looks terrific and the story seems very promising about Charlie Brown’s quest to woo The Little Red-Haired Girl. In fact, it’s the most difficult example of character building yet at Blue Sky. Despite the simple shapes from Charles Schulz’s beloved characters, Blue Sky had to raise its game to get the pen line accurate in CG. Since Charlie Brown’s features shift around for every pose, they built separate rigs for each major pose so you could switch off every time he moves. Similarly, there are separate rigs for the other characters as well. Every frame looks correct and consistent in keeping with Schulz’s iconic drawing style.
Director Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who!) discussed upholding the look, the styling and the spirit of “Sparky” Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang (in the coming months, I will dig deeper into the making of this unique hybrid). It began at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa where they experienced a deeper connection with the family and the work. It was really hard to capture the heart and soul of Schulz as they drew but they got the major beats while storyboarding. They also made use of the digital library of all the comic strips. The mantra was: “When in doubt, go to the strips.”
Bill Desowitz: Tell us what it was recreating this iconic, precious world and nailing the DNA of the drawings in CG.
Steve Martino: It’s been for us an interesting journey as we look at the purity of what’s in the comic strip. The characters were always first and foremost. He’d often do his text first and put in the characters and background was always last, only supportive in the sense of giving you a little taste of the space and where they were. As we put this up on a bigger screen, you get a little more sense of that place than maybe we did in the comic strip.
But we tried to do in the color design of the film is that the characters are the most saturated and in our compositions they’re always meant to be the thing that comes forward. It was an interesting balance to preserve the aesthetic of what the comic strip was but bring it to life, and my hope was that we took a little trip into that world.
BD: So you went to St. Paul and saw the Schulz world first-hand.
SM: We walked around the place where he was as a young boy and the neighborhood is still there. The houses still have the concrete three-step walk-up…he exaggerated this little ranch, post-World War II neighborhood. The trees are bigger today but I wandered into a park and there was the ball field. Nothing fancy. All the reference was there for 50 years even after he moved to California. That all came from his childhood.
BD: You also have the Bill Melendez shows to influence you as well.
SM: Absolutely. And for movement, Bill Melendez was a great roadmap, I think. One of the first things we did was took a shot that Bill did and animated it exactly like that with our characters. So in terms of the animation style, the movement style, Bill is a huge influence. Every other aspect of it is the comic strip. Anything that’s in this movie — the clouds in the sky to the snow on the ground to even the shape of the snowflakes that fall — are all derived from looking at the comic strip and trying to follow the design aesthetic, really the drawings that Charles Schulz put on the page.
BD: But you get to add so much more.
SM: You get to add a level of detail that makes it worthwhile to go to a movie theater. And what became important as we put that texture is that it could never overtake the silhouette. So even though Snoopy has more textured fur, we can bring him to life with that softness. But I didn’t want it to feel like a plush toy come to life so it kind of dances between the softness of a plush toy and his having beagle fur that’s pure white.
BD: And you actually get a lot of drawings in there as well.
SM: Yeah, we use drawings throughout the movie more so than I ever done on the films here at Blue Sky. We have some wonderful 2D animation moments whenever Charlie fantasizes about something whether it be good or bad. That’s done as the daily black and white strip. BJ Crawford has created some of the best 2D animation in terms of actually replicating the pen line that Sparky drew with, that wonderful little wiggle. It gave us a chance to include that in the movie in a way that was important to the story but is also our connection to the source. And then throughout whenever there’s speed lines. If someone gets bonked on the head, we bring back some of those graphic elements that are so iconic in Peanuts. I always liked those flower shapes when somebody trips or falls or gets knocked on the head. It becomes like cartoon language and to not include that would be terrible.
BD: Then there’s the story challenge of adapting this into a feature.
SM: Craig and Bryan Schulz developed the script many years before I even met with them. What I was very happy about was they looked at this as a feature film. They wanted to create a new story, so they looked back on certain ideas that would drive the character arc that we expect to see. As we worked together, what emerged was a wonderful thematic idea that was based on looking at Charlie Brown through 50 years. What we learn is that the kindness and honesty and never give up attitude that he’s always had are still important and valuable.
BD: And he’s a bit of rebel, too, in following his dreams.
SM: What I love about Charlie Brown is that he shows us his insecurity — those things that we all internally wrestle with. Charles Schulz put it wonderfully: “Do the kids really like me?” And we all relate to that. We see him try and the laugh is almost bigger because we see ourselves in it.
BD: And is Snoopy his alter ego?
SM: From what I’ve heard, Snoopy was the character that Schulz always wanted to be and Charlie Brown was the person that he really was. So Snoopy is bigger than life and is Joe Cool. He’s the flying ace, full of action, adventure. He’s the funniest character around and one of the most fun for us to animate because he’s pantomime.
BD: Talk about the new techniques required to pull off the iconic pen line.
SM: Our 3D animators in essence became 2D animators because every drawing was important. We weren’t utilizing the computer to interpolate and give us the in-betweens of the main keyframes. In any film we certainly finesse those in-betweens. This was drawing with 3D forms. Moving those objects around, we didn’t use motion blur. We used old-style 2D approaches so that when a character’s moving or running real fast, we used multiples. And adding on top of that pen line accentuation, so if someone moves quickly, it’s multiple feet.So it was embracing the old and utilizing the new. So it’s this hybrid experience.
BD: What’s the moment you’re proudest of?
SM: I’m proud of the ending and the message and proud that in the storytelling we can shine a light on the little things, the qualities that Charlie Brown has and see that that is really powerful, emotional, funny.