Thursday, November 5, 2015

Trip Report: "The Peanuts Movie" Preview Screening


Where exactly does Charlie Brown live? Charles Schulz's legacy looms large over Sonoma County due to spending his life where the museum which honors him is now located, but the Peanuts gang frequently is seen in the snow during wintertime. Wherever it is, it's certainly not a big city like New York - but the round-headed kid and his accomplices do have a history there. When Charlie Brown first made it to the big screen in 1969's A Boy Named Charlie Brown, he made it to the big city for a spelling bee at what appears to be Radio City Music Hall - perhaps not coincidentally also where the film opened.

Nearly half a century later, Charlie Brown returned to New York, with both the presentation and the venue somewhat more state-of-the-art, as the high-tech and highly entertaining Museum of the Moving Image in Queens played host to a preview screening of the blockhead's first computer-animated outing on November 4, wrapping up a week of Peanuts Movie-themed events in both New York City (including Al Roker's now-infamous Charlie Brown Halloween costume on the Today show) and Hollywood (where Snoopy became the first fictional dog to get a star on the Walk of Fame). Art director Nash Dunnigan and Snoopy's lead animator Jeff Gabor were on hand to present behind-the-scenes information and a Q&A session after the movie where they gave insights as to the many struggles and questions that came up when transforming Charles Schulz's four-panel comics into a 90-minute movie. And one of those questions just happened to be "where exactly does Charlie Brown live?"

Dunnigan and Gabor began their talk by remarking that Blue Sky Studios - which I was surprised to find out are located in Connecticut - are "500 of the biggest Peanuts fans you'll ever meet" and that when they told people they were working with Peanuts, the two reactions they got were inevitably the same: "I love Peanuts!" followed immediately by "Don't screw it up!" Fortunately, Snoopy has six overprotective guardians in the form of Jeannie Schulz - his widow and head of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, who alongside Iconix Brands controls the characters as Peanuts Worldwide - and their five children (including Craig Schulz, who co-wrote and co-produced the film), who are extremely protective of how the characters are depicted. The animators were given access to the archives of the Schulz Museum and also had digitized versions of every Peanuts comic strip - Gabor remarked he's still animating Snoopy for some promotional materials and looks at a set of strips he considered the best for Snoopy reference every day. The Blue Sky team were told by the Schulzes that Mr. Schulz hated the name "Charles" and much preferred to be called "Sparky" (a nickname given to him shortly after birth after Barney Google's decrepit racehorse Spark Plug, who actually makes a cameo in the movie). It felt odd at first to call him "Sparky" since they had never met him personally, but the Schulzes made them feel like they were a part of the family with their cooperation.

One of the first questions the team at Blue Sky had to answer was "what do the Peanuts characters look like?" This seems like a strange question to ask seeing as we've seen them thousands of times in TV, in newspapers, and on merchandise, and Charles Schulz drew them thousands of times - nearly 17,000 comics strips for 50 years. But that longevity was exactly what complicated the problem - the characters as drawn at the beginning of the strip's run are much different from those at the end. Snoopy was the biggest example given - in the 1960s and 1970s he gradually evolved from being drawn with real dog proportions while walking on all fours to walking on his hind legs with a head larger than his body, a body structure Dunnigan and Gabor compared to that of a human toddler. To create the "hero" model of the characters - the model that would be used to represent the character in the movie - a number of Schulz drawings of the characters, most from the 1980s and 1990s, were gathered and the entire team voted on which aspects of each drawing were the most visually appealing. For Snoopy, three different drawings were chosen, and the team ended up choosing the ear from one, the head from another, and the body from a third.

From there, it was a process of going through Schulz's drawings and finding the best example illustration of every pose he drew the character in and which would look the best for the "hero" model they chose. In Snoopy's case, this includes everything from him sitting on top of his doghouse at his typewriter to laughing to various physical actions. Eight to ten animators were on the team at first, which eventually grew to 80. Every new recruit on the Peanuts project was enrolled in "Van Pelt University" and taught how to draw the characters in Schulz's style. The animators then had to have all of their drawings checked by their supervisors to make sure they were "on-model" (an animation term which means that they're being drawn according to illustrations given to animators as a model on how to draw them correctly).


After figuring out how the characters would be drawn in two dimensions, the next natural problem was what exactly would they'd look like in three dimensions. Interestingly enough, they had a point of reference for this matter, as the Peanuts characters were actually made into 3D figures for a series of View-Master reels in the '60s.


Although this made a good starting point, things got strange when they actually tried to make the characters into standard 3D "turnaround" models - 360-degree animated characters whose body parts can be moved to create animation. For one thing, in their analysis of Schulz's drawings, the animators determined Schulz only drew six facial expressions for every character - extreme left and right, three-quarter view left and right, head looking down, and head looking up (with their nose in the air and their mouth usually in a funny scream). Even this proved to be more complicated than it looked. Dunnigan and Gabor showed off some head tests they did with Charlie Brown as a model. If he were to look straight ahead, his nose and hair would look wrong compared to the original drawings, so it was decided to just utilize those six original poses. But even that had its complications - the position of Charlie Brown's ears and nose actually change places in the Schulz drawings between when he's looking to the side and when he's looking towards us. The early test of Charlie Brown moving from extreme to three-quarter positions was unintentionally hilarious, as the ears and nose indeed move positions and his eyes actually melt into his face at one point. To make matters even worse, the characters moving at 24 frames a second - the standard speed for animated film (that is, every second of film contains 24 unique "drawings") - just looked wrong. We weren't given an example of this, but Gabor remarked their 24fps test looked like someone wearing a Charlie Brown suit.

Due to budget limitations, the original hand-drawn animated specials were animated "on twos". That is, rather than each frame being an original drawing, only every other frame is, making for 12 drawings per second. The solution to the facial expression problem was solved by having Charlie Brown blink when his face moves from looking in an extreme direction to looking towards us, which hides both the repositioning of his facial features and prevents his eyes from melting into his face.

As he often does, Snoopy makes things even more complicated. His head does not change shape between his extreme poses and three-quarter poses - the only thing that changes are the position of his nose and eyes. The end result of all this experimentation is that the animation poses chosen to directly mimic Schulz's drawings only work in those positions and not as a traditional 3D turnaround. We were shown some examples of what some of Snoopy's poses look like as a 3D turnaround, and the results were often comically disturbing. Snoopy in his Flying Ace getup with his mouth wide open, for example, results in one of the eyeholes in his goggles being detached from the rest of his face and his open mouth wrapping around into the back of his head. Thankfully, of course, this is only on the side of Snoopy that was designed not to be seen.

That's not to say that there isn't any 2D animation in the film: in a number of sequences Charlie Brown's internal thoughts are shown on-screen in black-and-white hand-drawn animation. Dunnigan and Gabor pointed out all of these sequences were animated by a single person, working directly from Schulz drawings. The squiggly lines in these sequences (an element one audience member who asked about their origin compared to Ed Edd 'n' Eddy) were used to create the idea of a drawing come to life.

Director Steve Martino's mantra was "when in doubt, look to the strip". This went for not only how the characters would be posed but also what background objects and facial expressions would look like. The team came up with a lot of funny nicknames for some of Schulz's drawing tendencies: the parenthesis-shaped protrusions which often come out of character's dot-eyes when looking in a certain direction are "peri-wrinkles" (pronounced like "periwinkle"). Clouds are either baguette-shaped or popcorn-shaped. And to those "happy clouds" (as Bob Ross would say) we can add "happy sausages" - when characters walk, the toes and heels of their shoes point towards the sky, making them "happy sausages" (as opposed to "sad sausages", which would be pointing towards the ground).

A promotional image showing the evolution of Snoopy. The 1970s version shows off "peri-wrinkles", while we can see happy sausage feet on the 1980s Snoopy.

A black-and-white Peanuts comic strip doesn't really need much other than the characters and some dialogue balloons - perhaps a line to represent the ground and a few baguette or popcorn clouds. Of course, an animated Peanuts movie without a background or color would look somewhat odd. Which leads to the answer to the question I posed at the start of this article: where exactly do the Peanuts characters live? The team took a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Schulz was born and raised, and took a look at the style of houses there: your typical old-fashioned suburban housing (not too far off from the houses in the Northeastern suburb where I live, actually). In fact, in the few instances where Schulz did draw a portion of a house in his backgrounds, they looked exactly like the sort of houses the team found in St. Paul. As for color, the colored Sunday comic strips often used very bold primary colors due to the limitations of color printing in newspapers at the time, which would be too bold and flashy for an animated movie. Rooms and furniture were given somewhat subdued colors which were chosen to make sure they didn't clash with the distinctive primary colors of the clothes the characters famously wear in the animated specials (Charlie Brown's yellow shirt, Lucy's blue dress, etc.).

The final step in the process was the stereoscopic effects, or how the film looks when you're watching it in 3D with glasses. The film goes back and forth between the main story in Charlie Brown's "real" world and Snoopy's Red Baron fantasies inside his imagination, and the 3D effects were purposely different in each. In Charlie Brown's world, the posing is frequently as if the movie screen was a comic strip panel, with the characters right in the center and some background elements to the left and right of them, with the characters posed stereoscopically "behind" the audience. In Snoopy's sequences, Snoopy is "outside" the audience in a way that you could theoretically reach out and touch him, and out of necessity he's often positioned towards the bottom or the sides of the screen. This necessity being that Schulz never drew the bottom of his doghouse when he was pretending it was an airplane - he intentionally made it vague as to whether Snoopy actually was flying his doghouse or if it was all in his head. The animators kept this aspect by never showing the bottom of his doghouse/plane in the fantasy sequences, though sometimes they had to cheat by hiding it behind a cloud in cases where the entire house would be required have to be on screen.

As you can probably tell from this recap, the event was a lot of fun and it was quite interesting to see how much went into recreating the look of the comic strip and TV specials while given it only the minimal "modern" computer-animated spin required to compete in today's movie market. But the final question that needs to be asked is: was the movie any good? For that, you will have to wait until tomorrow, either to see it for yourself or to wait for my full review. Either way, I have a feeling you won't be disappointed. I'll go into more detail tomorrow, but for now I can definitely tell you this: They didn't screw it up.

I paid for this excursion out of my own pocket. It was in no way sponsored by anyone or anything, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. PEANUTS characters ©2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.

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