“I’ve never worked so hard to make things look so simple” was the catchphrase of Blue Sky Studios’ Harald Kraut on The Peanuts Movie. “It looks simple on screen,” he explains, “but it wasn’t simple to get there because of the rules we established.”
Those rules were established to try to evoke the look and feel of Charles Schulz’s 2D, hand-drawn comic strips on the big screen. Broadly speaking, they involved taking a highly sophisticated 3D animation system and stopping it from doing everything it’s good at; sweeping camera movements, photo-real textures, creating the illusion of depth… All of that went out of the window in the service of staying faithful to Schulz’s original strips.
“We had to find ways to cheat the technology out of the movie,” says Art Director Nash Dunnigan, “We were completely reverse-engineering a lot of stuff. All the things that computer animation does great, we’re doing the opposite. We’re breaking it.”
The irony of creating so much extra work to achieve a simplistic look wasn’t lost on the film’s Supervising Animators. “There’s this great technology behind it all,” says Nick Bruno, “and to me it feels like you’re asking Norman Rockwell to just draw a smiley face! There’s like all this technology and we’re really holding back.”
Take Kraut’s role as a camera staging artist. In one of Blue Sky’s Ice Age films, his camera would be fluidly swooping up and around sets, and shooting the action from dynamic angles. Not so in The Peanuts Movie. “Every movie, to a degree, has a style,” Kraut tells me, “This one is that we don’t move the camera a lot. That was hard to accept, because not only could we not move the camera, but ninety per cent of the time we’re looking at square things, like a wall, we’re never looking into the corner of things, or up and down. Definitely no Dutch angles!”
The camerawork on on The Peanuts Movie was so deliberately restricted that when it was time for Harald Kraut start work on the next Ice Age film, he found it hard to break out of the Peanuts style. “A couple of months ago, I started moving on to Ice Age, which is a more conventional movie with dynamic shots and I thought, ‘I really want to move the camera here…’, but you get very stiff! You’ve got to put oil in the joints again and relax about moving things again.”
Did Kraut find those self-imposed limitations frustrating while working on Peanuts? “They weren’t easy. I’m not kidding you, when I first heard about this, I really hated it. I thought ‘I’m a cinematographer, I don’t want to not move the camera’. To start with, I tried really hard to. When a character moves around a screen, sometimes you just adjust the camera to maintain a good composition as opposed to restricting the character so they can’t move too close to the edge of the screen. I tried to sneak in stuff like that, but I had to admit to myself, it just doesn’t look right. In any other movie it would be just the thing to do and nobody would discuss it, but in this movie…” he shakes his head, “we gave ourselves a lot of problems that you normally wouldn’t have.”
His overall attitude to the restrictions though, are that if it was good enough for Charles Schulz, it’s good enough for Blue Sky. “It’s what Schulz imposed on himself in the comics, drawing the same thing over and over again for fifty years and making it look fresh every time. We only had to do it for ninety minutes!”
Schulz’s versatility within such strict limitations—four square ink-drawn panels—was an inspiration to The Peanuts Movie team. Director Steve Martino tells me, “Schulz was a master at creating emotion with a minimalist set of tools. Those little eyes are just ink-drops, they’re not eyes with an iris and a pupil and a socket and all of the things we normally would use in animation, but on that page, he evokes all the emotion you’d ever want. You look at Charlie Brown and you can tell that he’s happy, he’s sad, he’s pensive. You get all the emotion. When we do those little ink-drops, it comes down to how you shape them. It’s a little droplet, but if the top edges have this kind of angled edge, now you feel worry or sadness. If we take that little ink drop and exaggerate it up in an oval that grows and has a rounded arc, it feels happy and joyous.”
“It was an exercise in minimalism,” continues Martino, “I think if you look at the progression of Schulz’s comic book through to the sixties in particular, you could see the journey that he went on. He drew with a lot more perspective and detail early in his career, then just pared it down and pared it down to the pure essence of what he needed to convey his story and his idea. I think that’s beautiful but it’s challenging to try to recreate.”
“I did this little shot in the nurse’s office where all it is is the camera just rotates up and Charlie Brown goes into a little fantasy moment and as that camera rotates up, you start to see the underside of a table and it starts to introduce new perspectives, so what you do is you move and you rotate at the same time, so it looks like a 2D flat plane is sliding behind rather than getting all the perspective. So you have to do all this extra work to make it seem simple, flat.”
Martino learnt however, by working with another animator and director early on in his career that limitations can be creatively stimulating.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Terry Gilliam on a couple of interactive projects much earlier in my career,” he remembers, “and when I was working with him at his studio and he would tell me stories about working on Monty Python And The Holy Grail or Brazil and how he was so limited in budget but how those limitations drove creativity in a way that was far better for him than when he actually had a huge budget. So I’ve always lived by that mantra. I think it’s a wonderful lesson.”
One self-imposed limitation was pulling back on Blue Sky’s ability to make things look too convincingly real or move in a realistic way. “It couldn’t be photo-real,” says Dunnigan, “it had to have some style, so we pulled back on the realism of texture, so the overall shapes of characters, of a tree, of a dog house, of the house, that those elements would still stand out and they wouldn’t get smothered by lots of texture details”
Animator BJ Crawford (responsible for a beautiful 2D animated sequence from Charlie Brown’s imagination in the movie) remembers early development experiments that were discarded for lacking the stylised Peanuts feel and looking too real.
“In those initial tests,” says Crawford, “I do remember that we discussed the performers and how they would move. These characters have the proportions of like, infants, but they’re eight or nine years old. So I remember playing around with moving the Peanuts characters with that aesthetic and with more infant-like movements. So they’d fumble and climb and crawl a little bit more like kids that weren’t comfortable in their own skin yet. There were some successful things about it, but it started to look a little too real. […] There was a certain kind of cartooniness that was absent from when you tried to replicate infant-type movements from real-life.”
All the restrictions and limitations in service of the film’s highly stylised look though, were worth it in Kraut’s eyes. “With very stylised films, in the first five minutes you become very aware that this is different, maybe even uncomfortable, but if the story is good enough—and I believe we have a really good story—you start following the story and that goes aside”.
What is it about this story and these characters that was worth working so hard to communicate, I ask Kraut.
“I’ve always thought of Charlie Brown as some kind of superhero,” he answers. “The guy gets beaten down every single time and he just bounces right back up. He’s the epitome of optimism. You think ‘if this happened to me half the time, I’d give up’ but he doesn’t, that’s his superpower.
“We’re all trying to pretend to be something much stronger than we actually are, but we feel that we won’t be accepted if we show our weaknesses or what scares us or what we’re shy about. What I like about these characters is that they’re honest about it. It moves towards an honesty about who people are.
“Charlie Brown’s not pretending to be macho. I guess that’s why so many people can identify with him, because they recognise that in themselves. Unlike Superman and Spider-Man and whatever-man, they’re not pretending to overcome it with superpowers that essentially are unnatural, they’re just saying ‘this is the truth’. I fumble when I talk to a girl and I fall and that’s me. And that’s Charlie Brown!”