Annecy: How Big-Budget ‘The Peanuts Movie’ Stayed True to the Strips

'The Peanuts Movie' director Steve Martino explains how the CG toon's "snappy" style protects Charles M. Schulz's (AKA 'Sparky') style

'The Peanuts Movie' Director Explains How
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Yesterday, the trailer for Fox’s “The Peanuts Movie” debuted online, winning over skeptics who’d wondered whether Blue Sky (the toon studio responsible for the “Ice Age” franchise) was worthy of bringing Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s beloved characters to the bigscreen.

Wednesday morning, director Steve Martino and art director Nash Dunnigan took the stage at France’s Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival to share the elaborate thought process that went into respecting the legacy of Schulz — known by the nickname “Sparky” by friends and members of the production. And who better to tackle the challenge than the helmer who’d taken such care in adapting “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who,” embracing computer-animation technology while staying true to Theodor Geisel’s original designs?

According to Martino, nearly everyone he encounters responds to news of “The Peanuts Movie” with the same concern: “Don’t screw it up!” But the challenge is far more complicated than “Peanuts” fans might think. “It’s the complexity of getting something to the screen that looks so simple,” said Martino, whose crew had to develop a computer-generated animation technique that preserved the hand-drawn “soft wiggle” pen line of Schulz’s strips, while translating the characters into a full-color, stereoscopic 3D world.

“I want to find that pen line in everything we do,” told his team. Easier said than done for an ensemble of 14 bobble-headed characters whose faces, the Blue Sky artists quickly learned, Schulz had drawn in just six different poses: profile left and right, facing not-quite-forward (turned a quarter left or right), looking “extreme up” (nose on top) or “extreme down” (nose all the way down).

When it came to Charlie Brown, they found that his features changed every time he turns his head: When Charlie Brown swivels his face forward, his nose moves up, but his ears move down, meaning the animators couldn’t build a single virtual model for the character, but instead had to build separate models for each of his poses, then cycle through them, dropping the “in-betweening” (or smoothing stage) typical of computer animation. Rather than using the popular bejeweled eyes seen in most CG toons, the “Peanuts” characters’ peepers retain a certain inky quality. So does the curlicue of hair in the center of Charlie Brown’s forehead, and many of the visual effects, from rain to the cloud of dust that follows Pigpen everywhere he goes.

Though working in 3D, the animators also had to rein in the stereoscopic aspect of what they were doing, using perspective in the backgrounds, but limiting it with the characters. When it comes to Charlie Brown’s head, “It’s got dimensionality, but you can’t have his face become this big basketball reaching out into the audience,” Martino explained. “So we embraced old techniques from 2D animation.” Motion blur doesn’t work in the film’s “snappy” style (inspired not only by Schulz’s drawings, but also the “Peanuts” TV specials directed by Bill Melendez), so they used “multiples,” where movement is conveyed by duplicating certain elements in the same frame.

The many TV specials also suggested how Martino should handle the characters’ voices: The entire kid cast is voiced by actual children, aged 7 to 12, rather than easily marketable stars, while the adults’ speech will be handled as a muffled trombone, as it was for television. When Snoopy “speaks,” the production plans to use vintage recordings of Melendez’s voice.

“You look at Snoopy, and he’s the ultimate Picasso challenge,” Martino said. “He’s got two eyes on the side of his face.” The helmer showed the crowd an example of Snoopy in profile with both eyes, nose and mouth all facing the viewer. “We’re animating for the camera,” he explained, rotating the model 180 degrees so audiences could see what the other side of his head looked like in the same shot: completely blank, except for the toon beagle’s appealing white fur, more like a plush animal than a real dog.

Schulz drew more than 18,000 comic strips over the course of “Peanuts’” 50-year run, which provided a direct reference for any visual question, no matter how small. That also applied for the addition of Fifi, a French poodle mentioned in Snoopy’s fantasies, but never before seen. (She was designed by synthesizing traits from other animals Schulz had drawn during his career.)

Like any cartoon character, from Mickey Mouse to Calvin and Hobbes, designs changed over the years, so the crew tried to focus on the way Snoopy and the dog’s best friends looked during the strip’s “golden era” in the ’80s and ’90s. “It was never a case where we had to imagine what something looked like,” Martino said. “If you go back to the comic strip, the answers were always there. You just had to do the work.”