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.
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.