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Immersed in Movies: ‘Finding the Line’ in ‘The Peanuts Movie’ Design

Immersed in Movies: 'Finding the Line' in 'The Peanuts Movie' Design

As director Steve Martino emphasized in our first interview, Blue Sky had to raise its game to get pen line accurate in translating Charles Schulz’s iconic 2D aesthetic into the CG version of The Peanuts Movie. Funnily enough, the design team had no idea that it would turn out to be its most difficult challenge.

“We figured it was going to be the easiest of our projects since Sparky’s shapes are so simple and we had a wealth of information to draw on from his comic strips [18,000 at the Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa],” remarked art director Nash Dunnigan. “It was the opposite. We needed a new workflow to capture the most authentic and recognizable version of the characters in CG. Production had this collective impression of how the characters are drawn. But Schulz’s style and characters evolved. Snoopy from the ’60s and ’70s was quite often a quadruped; his head shape is different and his eyes look like a windshield closer to the top of his head. His eyes don’t become the friendlier graphic shape until the ’80s and ’90s.”

But what versions to use? The design team created an extensive Sparky matrix of poses, particularly for the lovable blockhead, Charlie Brown, and Joe Cool, Snoopy, and then gathered a Blue Sky Braintrust consisting of the eight supervisors and tech leads throughout production to select a few of the ideal versions.

“He drew 3/4 front side views and occasionally up and down, but not in the round, which goes counter to CG,” Dunnigan continued. The Schulz experts at the museum revealed that the ’80s and ’90s versions were the creative apex for Schulz with pleasing and consistent proportions. With Snoopy, for instance, he has a [nice] head shape and great balance of eyes, nose and mouth. The group voted on the best version consisting of ear, gesture, head shape, silhouette, nice tummy, foot shape and the energy of Sparky’s hand. We came up with what we lovingly call ‘Frankensparky’: a combination of all these attributes. All of the principal characters got this rigorous, analytical approach in finding the best characteristics with a shape that is unified with similar head, eyes and nose.” 

Subtly referring back to the comic strip style, it was all about “finding the line” in character and production design. And everything is skewed so there is no symmetry, which is another no-no for the computer. But it’s elegantly simple and imperfect and definitely organic to the world of the Peanuts gang. This allowed Blue Sky to develop a unique hybrid, 2 1/2D approach, with its shape language.

For Charlie Brown, there’s the subtle lean and that wild piece of hair. “We asked Craig Schulz what his dad intended with the hair,” Dunnigan recalled. “In the early ’50s and ’60s, it was a crew cut but it evolved into an elegant squiggly line by the ’80s and ’90s. Are we going to make this hair or honor the pen line? After nearly a year, Steve Martino committed to the graphic look: a curly Q pigtail that looks like a pen line so that when you step back to a medium or a wide shot, you have that reference point to the comic.”

This was definitely uncharted territory for Blue Sky. Not only did the design team have to faithfully capture the essence of  the Schulz graphic style — round yet off kilter shapes and squiggly lines — but it also had to work with production in figuring out if this pen line, 2D aesthetic was going to work in CG where you put the character in different lighting and environments.So it was up to the animators to pose and express the characters in a way that worked.  Fortunately, they had the snappy animation of the beloved Bill Melendez cartoon specials for reference.

“What’s great about embracing this 2D aesthetic is it enables you to do these fun things in the old-school style,” Dunnigan declared. “You can’t get away with rotating around the head. Everything is very specific to the camera. Again, Charlie Brown was drawn only from the front and the side. There’s no in-between going on. We did a lot of post-pose animation and not a lot of in-betweens. Even in silhouettes and clothes, whatever we modeled, the animators had the ability on the rig to add that wobbly pen line. It was all about the charm and imperfection.”

For the world of Peanuts, Martino and Craig Schulz took a road trip to St. Paul, where Schulz grew up, soaking up what still remains very much a quaint mid-century suburban vibe. “We came to the painful realization of Charlie Brown’s neighborhood through the strips was that he never drew an establishing shot,” Dunnigan revealed. “He always gave us bits and pieces. But Steve and Craig took a lot of photos of his old town, which helped us expand the world. There were a lot of great houses with front stoops and concrete steps that are right from the strips. We designed a neighborhood with the flow of action, including the Little Red Haired Girl’s house across the street from Charlie Brown. And there are wonderful food metaphors for Schulz shapes: Popcorn clouds and baguette clouds for punctuation.”

As for the color palette, Martino wanted the experience of reading a vibrant Sunday strip, so they looked for grace notes. “The characters are primary and everyone has a signature color and we had to let those play front and center,” confirmed Dunnigan. “So we had to make sure the backgrounds don’t complete with those bright, pure colors. But we did try and punctuate just like in the comics in those pillows in the upper right hand corner. You get these little bursts of hue and you’ll see that sprinkled in different set pieces.”

Snoopy’s fantasies are more stylized, of course. His Flying Ace persona becomes elaborately staged. Blue Sky used greater perspective and there’s “a lot more pen mileage going on.” The art director said it gave them “the freedom to inform our language, going from the tableau of Charlie Brown’s world to the more immersive, unlocked world of Snoopy’s flying fantasies. We shot with shorter lenses for a more active experience. Lighting and colors also become more dramatic. Scale opens up with his doghouse on top of the Eiffel Tower.

Summing up, Dunnigan observed, “We had to collectively use our own imaginations and feelings for what we thought was right and tried to project on what we thought the world would think was right. That was the big challenge.”

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