It’s the big screen, Charlie Brown!
As the excitement mounts for Blue Sky Studios’ release of The Peanuts Movie (which opens November 6, 2015), the pressure builds with it. We are about to see our beloved cartoon gang on the big screen for the first time in years and we want them to look good. When it comes to revamping a franchise as well-loved as Peanuts, failure is not an option. Nobody knows this better than the creative team behind the upcoming computer-animated film, led by director Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who!, Ice Age: Continental Drift). The pressure is palpable, but the team is facing it with the same determination and optimism as Charlie Brown speeding toward that football.
At a small press gathering at Fox Studios, director Steve Martino shared the most common response he received about his upcoming project: “A Peanuts movie? Sounds great! …Don’t screw it up.”
I have heard these words spoken many times over the past three years. In fact, I was perhaps one of the first to say them to Mr. Martino or, as I like to call him, Dad. I remember the “family meeting” back in 2012 when my dad said he had an announcement about his next project. Without saying another word, he then pulled a Snoopy plush toy out of hiding and set it on the kitchen table. I got up and I calmly and collectedly jumped around the room like a sugared-up five-year-old. Once I stopped prancing with joy, I started to realize the gravity of the news. This was Peanuts, arguably the most famous and well-loved comic strip in American history. I couldn’t help wondering how was he going to handle this? Then I remembered, oh right, he’s Steve Martino, the guy who spent hours making my (totally kick-ass) warrior-Mulan Halloween costume out of cardboard and tape. He’s gonna make this work and he’s gonna make it work well.
As my dad began his Peanuts journey, it became clear that the biggest challenge of this film would be its audience. It needs to somehow find a way to satisfy the old-school fans of the comics/TV specials and appeal to a new generation of kids brought up on fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping animated films like The Lego Movie or Big Hero 6. Kids today have shorter and shorter attention spans, so full-length movies have to work twice as hard to win them over. When you look at an original Peanuts comic strip or watch, say, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, there is a lot of quiet time. It has a completely different rhythm that marks it as an artifact of a different time. But, while the pacing may be dated, the content is indisputably timeless and has the potential to attract a whole new generation of fans.
So how does one even begin to approach a project like this?
Well, if you’re my dad, you start with a lot of study. His first step was to become an even bigger Peanuts fanboy than he already was (an almost impossible feat). I was sent to a press gathering to take an inside look at the making of the upcoming movie and hear the full scoop on how Blue Sky adapted the charming basketball-headed tots for the big screen. Basically, I was sent by my work to go hang out with my dad.
The process starts and ends with the comics, literally. The first and last shots of the film feature the two-dimensional, hand-drawn style of the original comic strips. In a sense, the pen lines of Charles Schulz welcome you into the movie world, then guide you out of it. Watching the film, you can almost feel his presence.
Not surprisingly, channeling that presence was no walk in the dog park. It’s a science. As he spoke about the animation process, my dad made it abundantly clear that every second of the film was a product of intense research and calculation. His mantra throughout the filmmaking process was always, “Go to the strip.” Everything, even the cloud shapes (of which there are two types: “popcorn” and “baguette”), had to be flawlessly reproduced from Schulz’s original work. Blue Sky Studios worked very closely with the Schulz family and had exclusive access to a treasure trove of original Peanuts material compiled by the Schulz Museum and Research Center. No part of the moviemaking process was a guessing game. My dad certainly made sure of that. In the early stages of production, he took a huge group of animators to the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California to take a tour of the beautiful grounds, Schulz’s personal study, and the extensive comic archives. And who better to introduce the animators to their source material than the Schulz’s themselves? My dad always said that it was the Schulz family that truly “brought [them] the journey.”
It was soon explained that four generations of Schulz’s were involved in the making of this feature. Four. Count ‘em: Jean (“Jeanie”) Schulz (widow of the late cartoonist, President of the BOD at the Schulz Museum), Craig Schulz (son of Charles and writer/producer on the new film), Bryan Schulz (grandson of Charles, writer/producer), and 7-year-old Micah Revelli (great-grandson of Charles, voice of “Little Kid”).
Upon arriving at the museum, meeting the family, and beginning the design process, the animators definitely felt the weight of responsibility on their shoulders, not only as animators, but as Peanuts fans. It was as if Charlie Brown and his gang were “looking down” on them as they began their work. But, despite a “challenging first start,” the Schulz’s soon assuaged their fears and pushed them forward, welcoming the artists into the Peanuts family. They were even instructed to refer to Schulz by his preferred nickname, “Sparky.” Thus the four-year voyage began, with Sparky at the helm. As my dad would phrase it, “Sparky was our Production Manager.”
As I watched the video clips, the visuals alone were enough to elicit a nostalgic jolt, sending me back to my own days of watching Christmas specials and doodling Snoopy in my notebooks. The characters, while in stunning CGI, had the same simple, familiar forms of the comics. Animation Supervisor Nick Bruno gave some insight on the design of the film.
At the beginning of the animation process, the production managers in charge figured that the aesthetics of the film would be a piece of cake to produce. After all, nobody needed to create anything. The characters were already designed, right? WRONG. Creating a living, breathing, three-dimensional character from a 2D comic strip is the epitome of “easier said than done.” In fact, the design and animation teams spent over a year just trying to establish the look and feel of the characters, trial-and-error style. And, much like Charlie Brown’s attempts at flying his doomed kite, most efforts were failures.
Much of the challenge came from adapting two-dimensional characters into movable 3D models. You may think, what’s so hard about making something 3D? A circle becomes a sphere. Everyone’s happy, right? WRONG again. As the animators discovered, Sparky didn’t draw the characters to be perfect shapes. When Lucy turns her head from profile to front (more like ¾ front, as none of the characters are drawn directly face-forward), her nose moves up, her ears move down, and her bangs switch sides. What the hell? You can’t animate that! Not without it looking like a warped Dalí painting from hell. And if the human characters weren’t tricky enough, the animals were even more challenging. As Bruno said, “Snoopy is a Picasso.” When you think about it, he’s absolutely right. You might not notice it at first glance, but Snoopy’s entire face fits on one side of his head. Not only that, but his head shape changes in the blink of an eye when he raises his head to look up.
In order to transition between the recognizable “poses,” the animators had to make the movements fast enough to avoid spending time in those in-between warped zones. This way, the character movements have a choppier feel, but one that makes the characters feel more like cartoons and less like hyper-realistic, unrecognizable flesh blobs. To avoid fun-mirror style distortions, animators had to stand firm in their decisions. The team, above all else, aimed to “find the pen line” in the design of the film. Once again, this was easier said than done. The thing is, modern CG technology is engineered to make objects look real, or at least symmetrical. The animation process for Peanuts required animators to “beat the symmetry out” of their systems in order to find the charmingly imperfect lines of Charlie Brown’s cartoon world.
As much as the Peanuts strip is known for it’s drawing style, it is perhaps better known for its heart. “Sparky made people think, even when they didn’t know it,” said Jeanie Schulz of her late husband. As my dad fondly stated, “Sparky connected to the human condition” and had the ability to “take something simple and make it important.” He acknowledged that Charlie Brown is not the guy that battles dinosaurs or saves the world. He won’t ever be, but that’s what makes us love him. He faces the same questions we all do: “Do people like me?” “Will I be remembered?” Deep stuff, right? It’s the cripplingly dismal conundrum of human existence, Charlie Brown! But seriously, if the clips I saw are any indication, this movie promises to give us all the feels. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many “Aw”s from a theater full of adults.
The makers of The Peanuts Movie are not messing around. As dedicated fans, they do not take their responsibility lightly and are eager to honor and carry on Sparky’s legacy. From what I saw, they are certainly on the right track to do just that.
IMAGES: 20th Century Fox