The Peanuts Movie – Finding the Sparky Line

Here’s how The Peanuts Movie creators tried to honor the look and feel of Charles "Sparky" Schulz’s original comic strips…

This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK. 

On a desk in a Santa Rosa office sits a red and gold box measuring 10×8 cm. It dates from the 1940s, is one of only three such boxes in existence, and contains around a hundred of what comic book artist and creative director of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, Paige Braddock, calls “the holy grail of pen nibs.” These are the nibs used by Charles “Sparky” Schulz to draw over 17,000 Peanuts comic strips.

When the R. Esterbrook Company stopped manufacturing Charles Schulz’s preferred 914 pen nibs, he bought up the remaining stock. Three boxes are all that remain—one on display at the Schulz Museum adjacent to his former studio, one kept in the studio safe, and the one we’re shown by Braddock, a gift from Sparky on her first day at the company.

As Braddock tells it, there’s nothing quite like them. “Other cartoonists have asked,” she tells us, “and we’ve all tried to find similar nibs but no, can’t find anything as good.” What makes them unique? “It’s a very versatile quill,” she explains, “it’s what I ink with because it gives you closest to his line.”

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Getting closest to Sparky’s line isn’t only Braddock’s goal. It’s also the task the artists at Blue Sky Studios set themselves when they began work on The Peanuts Movie, a project that many of them had been unwittingly preparing for since childhood.

“I think Peanuts characters were some of the first characters I tried to draw myself, they seemed so simple!” remembers The Peanuts Movie director Steve Martino. “Paige actually gave me one of the pen nibs and I spent an entire weekend trying to draw Charlie Brown with India Ink and pen. That Charlie Brown head is one continuous pen-stroke—it is so hard to get it right!”

Martino isn’t the only Blue Sky artist to have had an early introduction to drawing the Peanuts gang. Chatting to supervising animators Nick Bruno and Scott Carroll and art director Nash Dunnigan, all three remember copying Schulz’s characters as children. “I’ve got sketchbooks of me drawing Snoopy and Charlie Brown and the other characters again and again in different scenes,” says Carroll, “as a kid, there’s a charm to them and they connect immediately.”

Bruno is able to go one further. Looking back, it was a Peanuts-branded toy that sparked his early interest in animation. “When I was a kid, I had a little Fisher Price movie color-wheel toy where you put a cartridge in, and the cartridge I had was Snoopy vs. The Red Baron from the Thanksgiving special,” he reminisces, “you clicked it, and every time you click, it goes to a new frame, so if you click fast it plays at real speed. That was the first time I realized, it’s just drawings!

Before The Peanuts Movie frames could start clicking, the Blue Sky artists faced a daunting task: translating the beautiful simplicity of Schulz’s drawings into 3D CG characters, all without losing the Sparky line. How did they go about it?

The Van Pelt University

Knowing that Schulz based the Peanuts neighborhood on his own snowy Minnesota childhood, that’s where his son Craig, The Peanuts Movie co-writer, and Martino went for inspiration. They brought back photographs of the area’s houses, trees, and skating lakes to use to help to fill in the gaps from the comic strips. “Sparky gives us pieces of trees in the strips,” explains art director Nash Dunnigan, “but we had to expand the world.”

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While that was happening, even more research was going on to design the movie’s characters. “Scott and myself went through the strips and Photoshopped out something like 575 different drawings of just Snoopy, just his body and his poses, and then a whole other 400 and something of just his facial expressions,” remembers Bruno.

All of this was used in the creation of a Peanuts ‘boot camp’ referred to affectionately as the Van Pelt University, so-named for Lucy Van Pelt, the Peanuts character who’s always telling the rest of the gang what to do. Every animator who came onto the project had to spend a minimum of three weeks at the Van Pelt University, studying Schulz’s strips, character designs, and poses, as well as the man himself.

“We got every bit of documentary stuff we could find on Charles Schultz himself,” says Carroll, “because the strip is essentially his diary, so when it came to being faithful, we wanted to make sure that our crew didn’t just understand that the drawings are important to us, but the man behind the drawing was real, and changing the drawing is not just changing the drawing, it’s not being true to who that guy was. I think that sort of scared everybody into being like ‘I’m not going to mess this up!’”

For several months, a team from Blue Sky flew over from the Connecticut studios to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa and worked three days a week at the museum studios, where they had access to an archive of over 8,000 original Sparky strips.

All of this research was put to use in the creation of “hero” character models. Taking inspiration primarily from the strips Sparky drew in the 80s and 90s—the period the Schulz family call “the classic style” for the Peanuts characters—the design team selected the most pleasing proportions from across the panels. The ear from image A, the head shape from image B, the body from image C, and so on.

As the debates continued over which elements represented the perfect version of each character, a language developed between the animators, a short-hand for talking about classic Schulz shapes. Clouds were either popcorn or baguette-shaped, while Peanuts characters’ feet were variously shaped like loaves of bread (standing), sausages (walking) or eggs (seated).

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Make It Wobbly

If the many lessons of the Van Pelt University could be distilled into a single motto, “Stay Faithful” would be it, the team says. With the subheading perhaps, “make it wobbly.”

“One thing the computer’s good at is making things perfectly straight,” explains art director Dunnigan, but one thing we had to pass down to the rest of the crew is to make it wobbly and make it feel like it has that signature pen line.”

Look closely at the model of Snoopy’s dog house above, for instance, and you’ll see the lines included to approximate Schulz’s hand-drawn wobble and soft edges. “It’s about having that little bit of connection to the pen-line, always.”

At a couple of points in the film, there’s more than just a connection to Schulz’s pen-line, as Bruno teases, “I don’t know if we can give away Easter Eggs, but you may see some Sparky artwork in the movie…” That’s not the only Easter Egg fans should keep an eye out for. Craig Schulz tells us, “We’ve put in little pieces from the Christmas Special, the Halloween Special…”

Peanuts fans will also be sure to recognize the name credited with voicing Snoopy in the movie: Bill Melendez, director of the Peanuts television specials. As Melendez passed away in 2008, archive recordings of him voicing Snoopy and Woodstock were incorporated into the film as an homage to his influence on the film. “We looked to the specials and tried to be as faithful to that, because that’s just as much Peanuts to people as the comic,” says Carroll.

Something else to keep an eye out for is a 2D sequence animated by Blue Sky’s BJ Crawford. He told us, “There are chunks of the film where Charlie Brown does a lot of narration, he talks through his emotions and what’s going on in his mind. There were also chunks of the film where we wanted to even go a step further and wanted to visualize what he was narrating. We thought, well, maybe he would be imagining himself in 3D, maybe he would be imagining himself in comic book panels, maybe in still images…Ultimately where we landed—which I loved because I’m a 2D animation-trained artist—was that they wanted to have his thoughts be as if you opened up the paper in the comic strip and stared down at that paper, and all of a sudden it started to move.”

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The goal in his 2D sequence, Crawford explains, was that “the Schultz line would still be there in every single frame of movement to emphasize that whole comic-strip-coming-to-life feel.” For inspiration, Crawford revisited Bill Melendez’s Peanuts TV specials, frame by frame. “I was studying every single movement, like ‘where’s his foot-placement in this?’ when he kicks the football, when he walks, sits down…”

It’s that same level of study that Paige Braddock and her Santa Rosa team have been putting in for years on Peanuts, continuously returning to Schulz’s original strips to hone their continuation of Sparky’s work. It’s a matter of stewardship and not authorship, as Braddock sees it. “You need to get your ego tied up in your own work and not in this, because you can’t bring your own style to this.”

Blue Sky’s BJ Crawford couldn’t agree more. “You have to check your ego at the door, and say that this project is a team effort, it’s something that’s greater than me.” Far from being creatively frustrating, it’s a rich learning experience, as Crawford explains. “When you embrace another artist’s style, you start learning how other artists solve problems differently to how you would solve them, and that’s an incredible perspective to be able to gain.”

Next: Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The Peanuts Movie animation cheats.