Very early on, a Peppermint Patty pencil test laid the groundwork for “finding the line” and implementing the Charles Schulz signature comic strip style in The Peanuts Movie. The result is an animation breakthrough at Blue Sky as 2D dictates form and function in creating a different CG aesthetic.
“I do the hand-drawn animation and concentrated on Peppermint Patty: poses, shapes and characterizations,” explained animation development lead BJ Crawford. “I created a test where she calls Charlie Brown on the phone, hitting all the poses and filling in the blanks. There was a confidence that people gained in seeing the test with the simplified lines. We could get a good performance that would translate into animation.”
The key was animating on 2s like the celebrated Bill Melendez Peanuts specials. “Melendez would make a change every other second since they were on a tight budget. It has a nice texture to it when you play it back,” added Crawford. “That’s what this test is on…movement every other frame. When we went to 3D we decided to translate all that so the characters are moving every other frame. And we’ve gotten rid of the motion blur, which gives it more of a stop-motion feel.”
There are four sections where they illustrate Charlie Brown’s thoughts in bubbles with hand-drawn animation. “We brainstormed what that might look like,” Crawford continued. “Steve Martino and the artists wanted the window into Charlie Brown’s mind to be like opening up a comic strip that started moving. Line weight is important. There are motion lines and impact lines. My job was to take the actual character and take them through the scenarios.”
There was a lot of interpretation but not a lot of inventing by Crawford. For example, he was able to find the areas of the comic strip where Charlie Brown runs toward the football, kicks the football and then lands. The animator then just had to fill in the blanks. “The swooping line is on briefly but adds a nice swiftness that gives the aura of the strip coming to life.”
Meanwhile, supervising animators Nick Bruno, Scott Carroll and lead animator Jeff Gabor taught the crew a brand new way of animating with stretch frames and animating on 2s. They created a Schulz style guide for every possible variation along with new tools for flipping poses because the eyes and mouths never moved in the strips. And so they built a rig allowing animators to sculpt every pose and every frame. That kind of flexibility with character design is obviously not CG friendly.
For instance, if you wanted to move the eye from one pose to the next, you flipped one eye over, turned on three controls, made it bigger, posed it and slid along the surface to position it in the desired location.
It’s all about capturing the imperfections and the hand-crafted Schulz DNA. “We got real excited when we could use this and started actually grabbing some of Sparky’s lines from the comics and incorporating it into the movie,” Bruno offered.
Blue Sky also made custom stamps and brushes for streak lines lifted directly from Schulz. “We’ve gone through all the comics and TV specials and broken all these things down into a science and vocabulary like we’re little archaeologists,” added Carroll. “In some cases we pay homage. Michael Beradini did an exact reproduction of Snoopy shooting at the Red Baron.”
It’s wildly difficult, according to Bruno. “You want that wiggle that’s shaking constantly — that keep alive quality that BJ [recorded] and every animator had to do when touching that stuff.”