Charlie Brown And Snoopy: The Peanuts Movie animation cheats

The Peanuts Movie animators had to devise some sneaky cheats to make the film and its characters work…

“Animation pick-pockets” is how Nick Bruno, Supervising Animator on The Peanuts Movie, describes himself and his colleagues. “We’ll bump into you and take your wallets,” he explained on a visit to Blue Sky’s Connecticut studios this June, “but you just feel the bump and don’t notice us taking the wallet.”

“It’s all a bunch of smoke and mirrors,” agrees fellow Animation ‘Supe’, Scott Carroll. Though the same could be said of all film-making, not least animation, the peculiar demands of The Peanuts Movie required even more sleight of hand than usual.

The problem was inherent in the task Blue Sky Studios had set itself: making Charles Schulz’s 2D, ink-drawn Peanuts gang into 3D, computer-generated characters while retaining their idiosyncratic comic strip look and charm.

Early experiments weren’t promising. What might have seemed like the straightforward approach of taking an average set of proportions from the comic strips to model a 3D character  proved… unsatisfactory.

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“It looked horrifying,” says Bruno, rotating an early 3D model of Charlie Brown’s basketball head to illustrate. “That doesn’t look like Charlie Brown, that looks like a clown”. He’s right. Face-on, what he’s showing us is unmistakeably Charlie Brown—the ink-pool eyes, scribble of hair, wobbly mouth and little round ears—but rotate it just a fraction and Charlie disappears. As a profile, it’s barely recognisable.

One reason is that in his Peanuts strips, all seventeen thousand of them, Charles Schulz exercised a kind of artistic license when it came to character design. From pose to pose and panel to panel, character proportions change. Compare a comic strip Charlie Brown profile to a front view and you’ll see the nose move higher, the ears move lower, the hair turn from “a candy-cane hook to whatever that squiggly thing is”, says Carroll. “And then the eyes are completely different. From the side, they lean forward, but how does that happen on a 3D form without sinking into the head?”

Schulz took a similar approach to foot-size and the number of fingers on a character’s hand. “Sometimes there are five fingers, sometimes there’s four, sometimes there’s three…” says Bruno. The inconsistencies don’t read wrong in the comic strip, but on screen, it’s a different matter.

Fidelity to Schulz’s work needed to be reconciled with the requirements of a CG character model. Blue Sky’s solution?

“Be faithful… and cheat!”

If the traditional CG workflow of building a 3D character model that could be filmed from all angles meant sacrificing Schulz’s pen line and character poses, then the traditional CG workflow had to go. In its place, the team looked to stop-motion animation techniques.

The solution was to build multiple heads for each character and swap them as the movement required, stop-motion style. Bruno explains, “In the movie, if Charlie goes from profile to a three quarter position, that’s a completely different head model. All different eyes, all different head, hair, everything,” says Bruno. “It’s like a Mr Potato Head, you’re moving different parts around.” That way, the audience sees a recognisable Charlie Brown from each angle, even if they’re not all part of the same integrated CG model.

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Bruno and Carroll illustrate once again using a model of Snoopy’s head. “Snoopy is even more scary. He’s a flounder. His head is like a Picasso. He’s got two eyes on one side of his head.”

Attempting to achieve Schulz’s Picasso perspective on Snoopy without the head-swapping technique would mean the camera moving around Snoopy’s head to reveal a nightmarish blank face devoid of features (imagine the camera doing just that on the Flying Ace image above). There’d be no mouth either, because in order to recreate Schulz’s drawings, Snoopy’s mouth in the film is really “just a floating piece of geometry.” “If we didn’t do this trick, his lip-line would go up around the other side of his face, and you just would never see it.”

The same goes for Snoopy’s Flying Ace goggles, which are swapped “from two goggles on one side of the head, to shrinking one to make it look like it’s turning back in space.” Another problem, another clever cheat.

Moving Mr Potato Head

That done, the next cheat came in moving the film’s Mr Potato Heads from pose to pose. “You show that to some people and they say ‘how are they going to animate that without scaring away all the children in the audience?’” says Bruno, “the trick is, as animators, part of our job is being magicians.”

The kind of magic Bruno is talking about involves distraction. “Have the character blink, so you look at that and don’t notice the head quickly turning. You probably don’t even notice when we blink, we change to a different eye-shape. For the eyes we have what look like two little watermelon seeds and then they quickly turn into just a pen-drawn line for the closed-lid shape. It’s amazing through motion how you can trick the eye. We’re popping very quickly from pose to pose.”

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“On this movie, unlike any other movie we’ve done, we’re more animating in a 2D sense, using 3D props,” says Carroll. “Because we had to do so much trickery in that way in terms of going from one pose to the next and swapping out heads, our animation style dictated that very fast, snappy style.

“Early in our research phase we were looking at a lot of old films, a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd,” remembers Carroll. “They did a lot of smoke and mirrors magic there too. We were very specific about where the audience is looking. We’d make sure you’re looking at this one spot, then all this other stuff around it can change and we can get away with things.”

Things like, in true Schulz style, the number of fingers on a character’s hand changing mid-shot. “I remember one animator was doing a shot where he had Charlie Brown’s hand up on his face and it was a five-finger pose and within just a quick move on camera, not even moving that far away, he went to a different hand with four fingers.” To achieve close-up magic of that sort, the team built hand models that “could start sucking in fingers if they needed to, like an amoeba,” says Bruno.

Finger numbers aren’t the only things that vary, character design-wise, in the movie. Just like in the comics, the characters’ arms change length as well. As the characters have such big heads, a simple move like scratching the top of them meant that the arms had to almost double in length.

“The toughest thing to do,” says director Steve Martino, “is have them take off their hats, because their arms are not just too short but their heads are so big and round, like a sports mascot, that their arms have to go all the way out to grab and it just looks like a snake is slithering around a head. We do a little cheat where it looks like he goes to grab his hat and in the next frame he just has it. You start and end the motion as if he did, but you miss the frame where he actually grabbed it and pulled it off.”

Martino continues, “you’ve got a character that’s three and a half feet tall and a giant head and these little arms, how would we animated them reaching a doorknob, scratching the top of their head, reaching up to get something even higher? And that’s where the artistry of the animators come in very often. Very often, some of those reaches happen behind the head so you don’t focus it right in front of camera.”

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“There’s a lot of poses you can’t hold on,” says Carroll. “If you freeze the film at that specific frame they would look pretty ugly or, the pose itself would look right, but if you stared at it for too long, it looks really weird – like Charlie with the super-long arm. You can’t just hold it there for a long time, you have to get it out of that pose. But if you didn’t do that for a big reaching moment then it wouldn’t look right either.”

Speaking of hands, instead of using articulated hand models able to grip objects, the team borrowed another Schulz cheat from the comic strip: a Peanuts grip is all illusion. “Usually, you really try to articulate that hand grasping around the phone and get all those pressure points and make it look really real” but a Peanuts grip is “the hand-pose and like, a magnet, it just sticks there”. 

Flattening out the world

Creating the illusion of depth might be the goal of any other 3D, CG animated film, but not The Peanuts Movie. In keeping with Blue Sky’s overarching goal of staying faithful to the world of Charles Schulz’s comic strip, the Peanuts animators, set designers and camera artists wanted, in Charlie Brown’s world at least, to evoke the flatness of a four panel comic strip. In 3D.

They did it by using an old-fashioned camera fix: the long lens. “In Charlie’s world we actually had to shoot with long lenses because the characters are so round that when we used the focal lens in computer environments, if you get too close to the character, they look very strange, you get very weird parallax,” says Art Director Nash Dunnigan. “In order to get it to feel faithful to the comic, we actually had to build the sets, shoot from further out and use much longer lenses because it compresses the space and actually makes it feel more like the comic strip.”

As an example, Dunnigan explains, in a scene where Charlie Brown grabs a cup from a coffee table and sits down to drink it, “his coffee table may actually be ten feet away from the couch, so when it looks like he grabs a cup and sits down, he grabs a cup and quickly goes back in space and sits down, but it looks flat and it looks like they’re right there.”

“If you were to build a practical set, it would be a huge cheat,” he adds. “I remember we built a street and it might have been a thousand feet long, but basically it’s compressed in camera and it looks like thirty, forty feet.”

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“The rule of the movie, the shooting style of the movie, because we’re really restricting this to the comic book style, is always parallel, flat-on, ninety degree angles,” explains Camera and Staging Artist, Harald Kraut. “Normally, if this was Star Wars or something, we would not cut here, you would see the camera gradually going around a character. That, we were trying to avoid because there would be too many moments where the character doesn’t look right so we cut instead to minimise that.”

“We were still trying to show the characters the traditional way, so you either see them from the front or from the side,” Kraut tells me, using the example of a scene in which the Peanuts kids walk into a classroom. “If you’re flat to the door, you don’t see the characters appearing because they’re just disappearing into the depth, which is also something we don’t want to do with these characters, to have them go towards the camera too much, because it gives it depth all of a sudden. We’re, at all costs, trying to avoid depth.”

The rules of aviation

One place where the film was allowed to create the illusion of depth is in Snoopy’s fantasy world, in which he uses his trademark dog house as a fighter plane in character as The Flying Ace in pursuit of The Red Baron. Even the relative freedom of those scenes, however, had limitations for the animators.

When Charles Schulz drew Snoopy ‘flying’ on his dog house, he never drew the bottom of the house, thinking that it would ruin the illusion. That’s the rule Steve Martino imposed on his animators, and it’s one they kept to, give or take a few cheats. “Never in the movie do you see the bottom of the dog house,” Harald Kraut tells me. “But like in the comic strips, we have tried a few things where the bottom of the dog house might be covered by clouds, or by an airplane wing.”

“If you watch the dog house in the flying sequences, all the animators are making sure it’s flat to camera, so you never really see it in perspective,” continues Kraut. “There’s a couple of shots where the camera’s all around and we’re intending to see perspective, but for the most part, it’s such an iconic shape that if it’s moving around the camera, you don’t want to see any perspective on it, so we’re cheating it.”

Another mainstay of CG animation was deliberately disregarded in the interest of staying faithful to the original comic strips. “Part of what we decided to do was eliminate motion blur because it gave it too much of a real volumetric sense, where it didn’t fit the style of animation,” explains Bruno. “Sometimes you have big jumps in movement, if Snoopy quickly runs from one end of the room to another, if you don’t have that blurred in a way, it really hurts your eyes, so we filled the gaps with multiple Snoopies or multiple hands or feet or motion lines.”

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“For a computer to create motion blur with that would be a complete mess because the computer just could not interpolate between those two,” adds Carroll. “From a purely technical standpoint, we couldn’t do motion blur and have it look good and we also wanted control of the motion blur so it also looked stylised and fit the style of the film and we could control that with the traditional methods.”

The no motion-blur rule, however, didn’t extend throughout the movie. You’ll see it in Snoopy’s flying scenes. “We did decide to do motion blur for the plane just because we wanted the plane to feel real, and for there to be a big difference between the plane in the fantasy universe,” explains Bruno. “We almost wanted it to feel like Snoopy’s dog house was green-screened on a live-action plate. In a way, you’re juxtaposing that realism versus the stylised Snoopy house. We thought that solidified too that this was Snoopy’s fantasy world.”

All that effort, all those workarounds, and all that cheating was designed to never be noticed by the audience. Animation pick-pockets? That’s selling these artists too short. Animation magicians is a more apt description.

Next: the final in this series of Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie features – Working Hard to Keep it Simple.

Charlie Brown And Snoopy: The Peanuts Movie comes to UK cinemas on the 21st of December.