I was at Blue Sky Studios, where such animated feature films as “Ice Age” and “Rio” are created. And it was apropos, too, that I had found myself in a fluid line of arriving artists, because Blue Sky was nearing the finish on its forthcoming film “The Peanuts Movie” (opening Nov. 6), and every step of the way, artistically, the production had centered on “finding the line.”
Yes, these Blue Sky artists had been charged with a touchstone assignment: Find “Peanuts” creator Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz’s pen line. Learn its beguiling grace and warm humanity. Director Steve Martino had sat in the Northern California studio where Schulz long worked, and had been gifted with one of the late cartoonist’s pen nibs. Martino had tried to reproduce that line himself, with that nib, and had felt like Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite: Repeated failings resulted only in becoming more entangled, when not being brought down cruelly to earth.
Fortunately, Martino had hired several hundred people who are, like him, among the very best at what they do: Achieving aesthetic elevation. And so Team “Peanuts Movie,” supported by parent company 20th Century Fox, went in search of a line, and a feeling, and the genius spark of Sparky.
Now, to be clear: This is not your typical animated movie. The “Peanuts” filmmakers were trying to scale a rare peak: They were aiming to convert the poignant and hand-drawn 2-D strip and TV-special characters beloved by several generations into crisp, state-of-the-digital-art 3-D beings — without losing any of this world’s profoundly special appeal.
The script can be said to have the Schulz touch, in part because, literally, a Sparky son (Craig) and grandson (Bryan) co-wrote the screenplay. But aesthetically, “The Peanuts Movie” believes it has solved an elusive puzzle.
The making of an animated film is like a profoundly complex orchestra that is forever trying to deliver art with perfect timing and precision and interpretive sweep and dramatic force. Units rely on units, and success is tethered to that dependence and synchronicity.
And so, on this day, I focus on just a handful of elements in this intricate machine. Here is just a piece of how Blue Sky is bringing Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Lucy and Linus, Pigpen and Peppermint Patty to pixelated life.
Vincent D. Nguyen and Sang Jun Lee talk about their favorite eras of Schulz’s work. Colleague Nash Dunnigan, the film’s art director, says that to create Snoopy’s “hero matrix” — the consistent character look that carries throughout the entire film — they decided that the design of the 1970s and ’80s Snoopy was the most familiar and comfortable to the greatest number of fans.
Justin Leach (rigging supervisor), Nikki Tomaino (lead materials) and Sabine Heller (character development supervisor) share the steps for how they go about “translating the comic strip into a 3-D world.”
Animation development lead B.J. Crawford and Blue Sky colleagues — including Nick Bruno, Scott Carroll and Jeff Gabor — say they knew immediately that they wanted to work on this film, because they knew how special it would be to visually adapt “Peanuts.”
Cinematographer Renato Falcão describes the creative process by which the “Peanuts Movie” team — including Ken Lee, the film’s senior camera staging artist — studies Schulz’s original strips for how to depict this world from various angles and depths, from close-ups to panoramic landscapes.
Jeeyun Sung Chisholm lights a dance scene, as she and effects supervisor Elvira Pinkhas illuminate the challenges of lighting different skin tones beneath a big mirror ball.
“I have embraced Charlie Brown on this movie more than ever before. It’s that never-give-up quality,” the “Peanuts Movie” director tells me in his Blue Sky office, which is full of “Peanuts” mementos, paraphernalia and gifts.
NOTE: Comic Riffs thanks everyone at Blue Sky Studios, Fox Animation and the Schulz Museum & Research Center for their access and insights. Such Blue Sky talents as Michael Travers, Daniel Abramovich, Sabine Heller, Ken Lee, Nikki Tomaino and Jon Townley were also highly enlightening.