You’re a good plan, Charlie Brown
Can a drawn line feel so warm and fuzzy that it calms countless anxious onlookers?
Because with one peek at Charlie Brown’s new round noggin last month — as his computer-generated head debuted like a monument in full movement — long-worried fussbudget fans beheld the beautifully fluid lines and were assuaged.
In painting characters in a fresh way, the artists, it seems, had also rendered the would-be critics docile.
Ever since 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios helped announce a CGI Peanuts feature film due in 2015, legions of followers had begun fretting: Would a digitally rendered Linus and Lucy and Woodstock lose all the artful charm that characterizes the beloved strip and specials?
The worst-case CGI scenarios spooked fans’ imaginations, as if haunted by a hologrammic Garfield voiced by Bill Murray (a filmic flashback that puts the Odie in “odious”).
The Peanuts animators had put long months into trying to stay true to the spirit and style of creator Charles Schulz. But in March, a quick litmus test was shared with the world — most notably, with the millions of protective die-hards in Charlie’s armies.
So, does this two-minute-plus trailer featuring Snoopy and Charlie Brown mark the first successful step in a core visual mission: To somehow blend the cool-eyed realism of CGI with the line-drawn warmth of the master’s hand?
But how did the filmmakers get to this point — and with the big launch date just a year and a half away, where do they go from here?
1. The Seed
It was 2006 when Craig Schulz sat down with the seed of an idea.
Six years after his father’s death, the popularity of Peanuts was holding ever strong.
The feature’s characters were so ingrained in the culture that most client newspapers were continuing to carry the strip, and the merchandise kept selling, and phrases coined by the cartoonist continued to be part of the everyday vernacular.
And, quite significantly, the animated specials continued to garner high ratings. Amid this lasting appeal, the cartoonist’s son had a short-format concept for a Peanuts film.
And once he had the idea down, he turned to the third generation. “I was happy to show my son,” Craig says of Bryan Schulz, a screenwriter.
“He showed me how to make it bigger — how to blow it up more — and he helped me put in structure.”
Craig Schulz, though, proceeded with caution. 2015 will mark the 65th anniversary of the launch of Peanuts by United Feature Syndicate, and it is dicey to tamper with the legacy of, and love for, Charles “Sparky” Schulz’s institution of a creation.
“Nobody is more protective of the comic strip than myself,” Craig Schulz said. “The only one who would be more protective is Jeannie” Schulz, widow of the Peanuts”creator.
2. The Hire
“We’ve all been Charlie Brown at one point in our lives.”
Those are the words of Steve Martino — an Emmy-winning writer-director with Blue Sky who has worked on the studio’s Ice Age franchise.
And that is the connection to character that Martino carried into his meeting with the keepers of the Peanuts flame.
“He met the Geisels and talked to Audrey,” Craig Schulz says of Martino’s trip to La Jolla, Calif., where he shared his creative vision with Theodor Dr. Seuss Geisel’s widow. Audrey Geisel, in turn, shared her husband’s world with Martino.
“She personally walked him through a lot of stuff in the house,” including closets that contained her collections of things, Schulz says. “And she told [Martino] what she expected of him” with the movie.
Given that success, Schulz says Team Peanuts felt confident it could expect the same sense of vision from Martino on its film.
3. The Trip
Blue Sky Studios is in Greenwich, Conn., while the Peanuts base of operations is in Northern California. As with his Dr. Seuss film, Martino’s most logical step was to visit the creative epicenter of “Peanuts.”
“I needed to become more of an expert in the details,” Martino said.
Blue Sky crew members visited Santa Rosa. A group of storyboard artists headed west.
“I have been delighted that Steve Martino and his Blue Sky animation team have chosen to make Sparky’s studio here in Santa Rosa sort of a second home,” Jeannie Schulz said.
“Here, they can absorb what still has the feel of Sparky’s presence, as well as visiting the museum to look at original art.
4. The Canvas
When hand-drawn warmth gets adapted into the cool pixel-precision of CGI, the fear is often that something will get lost in the translation.
Steve Martino knows he is trying to bridge this chasm between two distinct visual languages.
In trying to create a style of movement for the characters, though, the filmmakers needed to solve a range of visual challenges. Fortunately, an animation master had already traveled along this path.
5. The Master
The Blue Sky artists hit obstacles as they tried to create each smooth-moving figure. Some of them were fresh off the animated film Epic, which, as Craig Schulz says, is “as close to human movement as you can get” in cartoon form.
They had studied Charles Schulz’s line. Now they needed to study the work of a man who had been in their shoes. “We step off of a legacy of how Bill Melendez created,” Martino says of the late Emmy-winning animator. “I go back to the Christmas special,” 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.
When Melendez visually adapted the static comic strip for the screen, he had to “paint on a different canvas,” Martino says.
For example, Martino explains, “Sparky drew Snoopy on the doghouse, the Flying Ace . . . but Bill Melendez [had to] make him fly — he put him up in the air. That’s amazing. . . .
6. The trailer and beyond
As March approached, so, too, did the deadline for the film’s debut trailer. Would fans appreciate how Blue Sky was, as Martino says, “bringing these characters into a beautiful CGI world”?
“My hope is that we’re lifting a filter,” Martino says. “Charlie Brown’s shirt has a cotton texture, and shoes made of leather. We walk into this world and see the shapes and objects and [know they’re] completely derived from what Charles Schulz drew.”
“I was with my family members, and it brought tears to their eyes when they saw the trailer,” Craig Schulz says. “There was the fur on Snoopy, and you could feel the texture and the way the clothing moved.”
Now that “Peanuts” fans have embraced the trailer, the filmmakers know they’ve got to continue with this high-level commitment.
“It’s been a big, long, difficult road,” says the filmmaking son of Charles Schulz. “But we’ve got to uphold the legacy and be genuine to ‘Peanuts.’ “
Michael Cavna writes for The Washington Post