Three years ago, the team at Blue Sky Studios (blueskystudios.com) was just finishing up work on Ice Age: Continental Drift, when it was approached by the family of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz.
“Craig and Bryan had seen our work on Horton Hears a Who!,” recalls Blue Sky director Steve Martino. There wasn’t a specific story in mind, but the team recognized the incredible opportunity that would come in turning the beloved characters from the famous 2D comic strip — and cel-animated holiday specials — into more contemporary 3D/CG representations.
“Everyone has a connection to these characters,” says Martino. “There was a tremendous amount of pressure to not screw it up!”
It had to be done right, he says of the 20th Century Fox film, knowing the first images would fall under incredible scrutiny. While Schulz died back in 2000, his work lives on and is celebrated at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, which his wife Jean opened up to the studio, giving them access to more than 50 years of “Peanuts” archives, including a digital library.
A lot of time was spent in Santa Rosa, developing storyboards and a script for what would ultimately become
The Peanuts Movie
— an entirely-CG, stereo 3D film that opened in theaters nationwide on November 6th. Martino says development was done in a traditional manner, using markers and paper, rather than the Wacom Cintiq tablets Blue Sky would normally employ. The script and storyboards would be refined out west, and then at Blue Sky in Connecticut, they would be cut into story reels. The cartoonist’s son, Craig Schulz, even came out to Blue Sky, where he shared stories of his dad — lovingly referred to as “Sparky” — with the studio’s team of 400.
In taking the strip’s familiar characters — Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, Sally, Lucy, Linus, Pig Pen and the little red-haired girl, among others — into the 3D world, Martino says the directive was to “find the pen line.”
“The on-going mantra,” says Martino, was that the look had to have “a hand-made quality, even though they were using different tools.”
Charles M. Schulz, says Martino, was a master of his format, and knew how to manage it both beautifully and aesthetically. Blue Sky would be challenged with designing the 3D characters, their movements and props, as well as the world they reside in, which ultimately resembled the simple Minnesota town where Schulz grew up, including its indigenous trees.
Nash Dunnigan is an art director at Blue Sky and says the 15 human characters designed for the film were based on known angles from the print comic strip and animated holiday specials.
“If it feels wrong, it feels wrong immediately,” says Dunnigan of the cast’s 3D representations.
“So many people loved Charlie Brown,” adds Sang Sung Lee, lead character designer. The studio, he says, did numerous tests to get attributes as simple as Charlie Brown’s single line of hair to look correct.
“We never focus on a character from an unfamiliar angle,” adds lead set designer Jon Townley.
With more than 18,000 strips for reference, the team was able to look at character variations from throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Snoopy received considerable scrutiny, and ultimately the team put together a “perfect assembly of the character” — one that the team at Blue Sky unanimously agreed represented his most pleasing proportions: a perky tummy and loaf-of-bread feet. Audiences, they believe, should have the same nostalgic reaction when seeing him on-screen.
Blue Sky character development supervisor Sabine Heller lead a team that created models and rigs. “The design,” says Heller, “was set by Charles Schulz.” Their task “was to interpret” how the 2D would be represented in 3D.
Models, she says, were much harder to rig than one might initially have thought, considering the characters’ simple shapes. For example, if a character were to be shown in a profile, with their hands raised and mouth open, viewers should not see the arm through the space of the open mouth. Instead, the rig would have to be routed behind the character’s head and out of view, making the model more complex. Character heads also connect at different points to the neck, based on the angle the head is turned. A study of Schulz’s work showed he used six different character views throughout the course of the comic strip.
Keeping the hand-made feel was also a challenge, as computers often eliminate natural inconsistencies. And for motion, the jitter often illustrated in the comic strip and in the cel-animated specials, needed to be maintained. This meant, when Snoopy jumps up and down, the viewer might see three sets of feet jumping, rather than one set moving very fast.
RIGGING & LIGHTING
According to rigging supervisor Justin Leach, 20 artists spent 18 months creating the rigging for the film’s characters. Autodesk Maya was the studio’s primary tool. They also employed a shrink-wrap deformer. The studio maintains a Linux-based pipeline.
Lighting supervisor Jeeyun Sung Chisholm and effects supervisor Elvira Pinkhas explain that each character came with its own detailed “bible” that needed to be followed. Skin could not be too simple, nor too realistic. Ears were allowed to glow with color, and there was always a little light bounce on a character’s chin.
The indoor and outdoor scenes have clear temperature differences, with the latter appearing warmer, thanks to sunlight. The film’s dance sequence represented one of the most challenging lighting scenarios due in large part to the realistic mirror ball and all of the reflections it cast.
Studio ++ was used for lighting. Compositing was performed using The Foundry’s Nuke. As many as 60 artists had their hands in the film’s lighting, and an average of two or three shots were completed each week.
Blue Sky’s VFX team normally handle effects that range from water and fire to rain and snow, but The Peanuts Movie presented a unique visual that’s closely tied to Pig Pen — a character that carries the effect with him. His dusty/tumbleweed-like aura was applied after character animation was complete. The studio created a spherical shape around him and spent a lot of time determining the performance of his swirling dust cloud, which consisted of four different types of elements.
For VFX, Blue Sky starts in Maya, exports out to Houdini and then exports to the studio’s proprietary renderer. Custom plug-ins are used to create motion blur.
Camera angles were also closely considered. It was determined that Schulz illustrated the strip as if from an angle three feet off the ground. This would remain consistent throughout the film. Only in Snoopy’s dream sequences would angles and motion break from the rule.
Dan Abromovich served as stereo supervisor on the film and says his team began conducting tests early on to determine how much the stereo effect could be used. “Snoopy’s world has a lot of stereo 3D effects,” he says. “Snoopy’s is fantastical, with a lot of volume, and background miniatures. Charlie Brown’s is about half that, almost like a View Master.”
It was decided that all of the 3D stereo effect would go into the screen rather than out into the audience. Blue Sky created the stereo effect by replacing the initial camera in the animation with a stereo rig. The studio’s stereo pipeline is what Abromovich describes as a “hodge podge,” that includes Maya, Nuke, Studio ++, and new tools and plug-ins that are continuously being written.
And while most films appear at frame rates of 24 frames per second, The Peanuts Movie was animated on the “2s.” Each second of material consists of 12 unique frames played twice in succession. This created a visual quality much like that of stop-motion animation.