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The Peanuts gang is celebrating a remarkable anniversary this holiday season—the iconic A Charlie Brown Christmas animated TV special based on the Charles M. Schulz comic strip turned 50. It first aired on Dec. 9, 1965, and has been shown each year since in the U.S.
With this in mind, the team at Fox’s Blue Sky Studios couldn’t resist the chance to pay homage to the special’s unforgettable dance scene when they made The Peanuts Movie, which has made $126.3 million at the North American box office since its Nov. 6 opening.
“For all of us who are fans, it’s one of the most memorable moments in the Christmas special—a favorite of not only mine, but a lot of the animators at Blue Sky,” said director Steve Martino, noting that as the movie’s story was coming together, there was a scene at the school’s winter dance during which Charlie Brown hoped to win a dance contest and ultimately dance with the Little Red Haired Girl. “It was a natural opportunity to resurrect some of the classic dance moves and also add new ones. We went back and studied what Bill Melendez [the animator who directed of the Christmas special and provided the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock] had done and replicated that. They were so charming and entertaining. And we wanted to build on the tradition, so we added a handful of new dances, but in the same spirit—that simplistic, repetitive style of movement.”
Animation supervisor Nick Bruno said they started with the 2D special and trying to match [the dancing] to the characters, such as Linus and Sally. “Some characters [in the special] weren’t built for the movie, so we found background characters that looked like them,” he related. “But on a per-frame basis, we basically copied exactly the dance moves. Some of the tricky things were legs floating in front of dresses in 3D. We had to cheat on that so you didn’t see up any characters’ skirts, so to speak.”
“One of our animators, Stewart Shaw, came up with dozens of extra dances [for the other characters] and we looked through them and picked the ones we felt were the most interesting, the most humorous, and in line with what you saw in the special — the charm of very simple poses and funny timing,” Bruno said.
Art director Nash Dunnigan explained that the special was the touchstone, but “while we wanted to be super faithful to it, we knew we needed to push it cinematically.” From a design standpoint, that meant the gym-set scene “pushed color — rich blues, purples, and everyone highlighted in pink and aqua. But we also had to make sure the had their signature colors and weren’t overpowered by the drama of the lighting.”
“We tried to get anything from the special or comic strips in there as a reference point,” he continued, noting that “the snowflakes hanging from the ceiling are right out of a Sunday strip [the comic strip is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year]. Even little Christmas trees were positioned as set dressing behind the kids, and those silhouettes reference the Christmas trees in the special.”
At the end of the sequence (spoiler alert), Charlie Brown inadvertently sets off the sprinkler system. “The effects department looked at reference for how [Schulz] drew rain, and they modeled the raindrops after the comic and then ran lots of tests, eventually coming up with a cycle that worked hand in hand with the style of the character animation. Anything the effects department did, they didn’t push into realism; they had the connection to what was done in either in the special stylistically or what Schulz had drawn in the comic strip.”
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