This Peanuts article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
One per month for over a decade. That’s the number of requests the Schulz family estimates it had to field from studios wanting to make a Peanuts feature film since creator Charles “Sparky” Schulz passed away in 2000.
“We’ve had studios knock on our door for years,” Craig Schulz told us on a visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in June of this year. “Ever since my dad died, on a monthly basis I’ve had a studio call up and say ‘hey, ever thought about doing a movie?’”
For a good while, the answer was always no. The sort of “no,” though, characteristic of the Schulz family; one that usually involved a friendly meeting, often taking place in The Warm Puppy Café of the Schulz-created Redwood Empire Ice Arena in the family’s home town of Santa Rosa, California.
“I was willing to talk to everybody,” said Craig, “I said ‘I don’t mind listening to you’, but I’d always tell them ‘we’re not going to do a movie but if you want to come up I’d be glad to talk to you’, so I met with a lot of people. A lot of writer-producers, independents and studio heads.”
It’s not only a Peanuts movie feature the family has turned down, Charles Schulz’s widow Jeannie, President of the Board of Directors at the Charles M. Schulz Museum told us, “people have wanted to do a life story about Sparky’s life, and I keep saying ‘No, the life is all in the comic strip. His life is ‘I got up in the morning, I ate breakfast, I went to the studio and I drew something’. It’s all in the comic strips.”
The Peanuts Movie, made by Blue Sky Studios, came out in the US in November and is released in the UK this month. How then, did Blue Sky persuade the Schulz family to budge from its staunch ‘no movie’ position?
To quote Craig Schulz—using a metaphor apt for the baseball-playing Charlie Brown gang—Blue Sky “stepped up to the plate.”
“The family said that we didn’t think the 3D CGI look would fit Peanuts,” Craig told us. So, years before the Peanuts movie went into pre-production, Blue Sky took a massive gamble on proving that it would. “They gave us two or three minutes of animation they had done, it cost them millions of dollars, just on spec, for us to look at. Really, that’s what triggered it for me.”
By taking that gamble and risking hour upon hour of design and animation time with no guarantee of winning the gig, Blue Sky was able to convince the Schulzes that they were the ones to make a CG Peanuts movie work.
That’s not to say the test footage was an instant hit with the family. Jeannie Schulz remembered, “I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of 3D five years ago. When I saw the first 3D characters that were done as a test film, I told Craig, ‘I don’t really like that. Looks to me as if they’ve filmed a water pitcher and you just see… a water pitcher!’”
“It wasn’t perfect by any means,” agreed Craig. His other siblings also had reservations. “The family didn’t necessarily like the characters, they were kind of shocked. I knew that given enough time, they could be fixed, and that’s exactly what happened, by waiting that four or five years from the time they showed me that to the time we met Steve [Martino, The Peanuts Movie director] to actually do the movie. Even Steve, to this day, will not look at that stuff, he’s embarrassed by it.”
Blue Sky director Steve Martino, who had proved himself capable of bringing the 2D work of a much-loved American artist to the big screen with 2008’s Horton Hears A Who!, was the family’s choice of director. “We had a number of great conversations sitting at The Warm Puppy, right next to the skating rink. All of our important meetings were in the Birthday Room of The Warm Puppy! I love that. In most Hollywood movies, it’s in some fancy restaurant or some amazing office or some Hollywood setting, and ours was in the Birthday Room of the skating rink Warm Puppy café, with all sorts of balloons around,” Martino laughed, “but that set the tone.”
When we asked Steve Martino about his memories of the test footage, he hung his head and laughed. “Oh my gosh… we were so naïve back then.”
“It was just an attempt to see what would happen if Snoopy were skating around on a skating pond” Martino explains. “What I think we learned is that we can make the world look very rich. We could make what were watercolour backgrounds in the TV specials or in the comic strip of Charles Schulz’s drawings, feel like a world that existed. In other words, snow could fall and snow could feel like snow, but stylistically it would look right.”
Craig Schulz continues, “As far as the trees and the snow and the pond, everything else, when I saw how beautiful it actually looked and that they were true to my dad’s lines, I knew there was a lot of potential there.”
Making the world look rich but not too rich was also a tricky balance to get right. As Craig tells us, “They wasted a lot of time being super-realistic, and then realized that just didn’t work for the Peanuts world.”
“They’d come off of Epic, which was real-world in look—the people looked like real people, the trees looked real—and in the early versions of our film, you look at a tree and I thought it was a real tree, it looked so realistic. Steve realized that was stealing away from the characters. When you have the characters in front of real live bushes and trees and snow, it was sucking the energy out of them so they had to dial all that stuff back. That’s not how my dad drew the comic strip. The characters were front and centre and everything else was in the back, very minimalised so your eye wouldn’t go to that.”
The next and major problem was the characters. “They spent a solid year trying to figure out how to make the characters look right in 3D,” Craig remembers.
“We had no idea back then how to make the characters look right,” Martino tells us, laughing. “Like Woodstock, our initial thinking when we got on this was, ‘oh, he’s a bird with feathers’, we’ll give him more feathers. And it’s like, that’s not going to work.”
How then, did Blue Sky go from a feathery Woodstock and a water pitcher-Snoopy to the recognisable characters seen in the final film?
For Martino, the lightbulb moment came for him at the Museum in Santa Rosa, at an exhibition recreating the workspace of Charles M. Schulz (“Sparky” to those who knew him). On repeat next to Sparky’s desk, a television on repeat plays footage of him drawing his characters in pen and ink. Watching that, Martino says he realised the key to the characters was committing to Charles Schulz’s pen-line and paring everything right down. “As I stood there in front of Charles Schulz’s drawing table and saw him draw those characters, it’s like, that is the source. That’s what we have to pay attention to.”