Annecy: 'Peanuts' Director Steve Martino on Translating the Comic to CG-Animated Film

'The Peanuts Movie'

“We embrace that 2D thinking but do it with computer animated 3D models,” the director explained.

The Peanuts Movie director Steve Martino and art director Nash Dunnigan brought exclusive footage on Tuesday to the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France.

The duo spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of bringing beloved characters to the big screen while staying true to the simple aesthetic of creator Charles Schulz in a 3D world.

“From day one I knew there would be a lot of people that would go ‘Computer animation? I don’t know,’ ” said Martino of the strip’s longtime fans. There was internal debate about how to approach the aesthetic of the film before they decided to stay as close to Schulz as possible.

Martino took inspiration from the Charles Schulz museum and videos of Schulz sketching Snoopy and his pals. “It came to me that mantra on this film would be to find his penline in everything we created,” he said. 

Martino cites the dog house and even Snoopy’s smile as examples of the way the team embraced the aesthetic. “That’s all about still paying homage to and referencing the line that Sparky (that's Schulz to you and me) gave us.” The Blue Sky team refers to Schulz by the affectionate Sparky on request of his son and film collaborator Craig Schulz. “We spent hours and hours and hours deriving our poses from the comic strip, our design aesthetic — everything came from the comic strip.”

The story centers around Charlie Brown and his beloved beagle, as Charlie first encounters the Little Red Haired Girl and attempts to change himself in order to woo her. He fails to become a cooler Charlie, but woos her just the same with his natural, kind character. In between, there are lots of action scenes for both Brown and Snoopy, who fights the Red Baron as the Flying Ace and zips around the Eiffel Tower.

Blue Sky, the studio behind Dr. Seuss’ adaptation Horton Hears a Who, adapted existing technologies to stay true to Charles Schulz line drawing and vintage aesthetic. “There’s a lot of handcrafting in the animation,” Martino says, including traditional blur methods with multiples on screen at one time. “We embrace that 2D thinking but do it with computer animated 3D models,” he says.

“In order to capture that kind of 2D aesthetic from the comics and try to get the essence of that in 3D, we had to — not abandon — but break our old production pipeline a bit. It was a new approach for our studio,” said Nash.

“The characters are so round and so simple, we couldn’t shoot them close up because they are big orbs. So we had to use longer lenses, but that also helped the aesthetic, because Schulz drew Charlie Brown’s world kind of tableaux, kind of stagey, so using long lenses helped shoot the characters better and helped communicate the aesthetic of the comic better.”

The team still has about one month of animation on the film before taking it to post production and sound mixing, and then on to its Nov. 6 U.S. release date. The film will roll out globally between then and the Christmas holidays.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” jokes Martino of the end of the three-year process. As for showing Snoopy to Annecy audiences: “I’m really excited to share these things with the people that really nerd out about animation.”

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