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Talking to director Steve Martino about modernizing The Peanuts Movie for the big screen

'I didn’t want to put iPhones in the characters’ hands.'

There’s a good reason Steve Martino was brought in to direct The Peanuts Movie, the first feature-length outing for Charles Schulz’s iconic characters since 1980’s direct-to-video Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown. In 2008, Martino was one of the duo who directed Blue Sky Studios’ Horton Hears A Who!, a theatrical CGI adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ picture book. The film was a big hit, making nearly $300 million worldwide on an $85 million budget, but more importantly to some fans, it was a hit that largely preserved the look and feel of a Seuss story.

That was an important goal for Schulz’s heirs, who were closely involved with The Peanuts Movie: Charles’ son Craig and grandson Bryan scripted the film, and his great-grandson Micah has a small role in the film. Martino worked closely with them to get the look and feel of the film right, and it’s surprising how few unpleasant surprises there are: the movie really does feel like a bigger, brighter, more beautiful version of Schulz’s comic strips and the classic TV specials they inspired. The humor is mild and timeless, the emotions are authentic and sweet, and the characters are very, very familiar. On a press tour before the film’s release, I spoke to Martino about the careful balancing act involved in recreating the look and feel of Schulz’s work in a modern-looking movie.

The Peanuts Movie

20th Century Fox

Tasha Robinson: You've talked a lot already about the pressure to respect people's memories of Peanuts in this film. But did sticking so closely to Charles Schulz's humor and visual style, and the classic animated specials, make you feel you feel constrained artistically in what choices you could make?

Steve Martino: Well, I would say I wanted to be true to what I loved about these characters from my childhood, but I also believed there was an opportunity to share them with a new generation. So working in computer animation, I thought, "We can bring them to life in a bigger, richer way, with a little more detail and texture. But in terms of storytelling, the constraints are based on who the characters are. And I actually felt that staying true to them was going to make a better story. The only thing we had any discussion about in the making of the film was, "What would be an appropriate pacing for an audience today?" Peanuts from the '70s, like any live-action film from the period, was slower. It's a slower-paced storytelling. So we tried to find that middle ground of maintaining some of the pace and tone of Peanuts in its history, and meeting an audience today.

That was the only debate? There was never an argument about whether to modernize the characters more, visually or narratively?

When we started on it — I'm a fan, and I have Craig Schulz looking out for the legacy of what his father created. And I didn't want to put iPhones in the characters' hands, or computers on desktops. I was striving for a timeless story, to make it feel like it could happen at any point. The only giveaways about era are a rotary phone and a typewriter, and the typewriter, we take the time to have Snoopy and Woodstock show everyone what it is, how it works. So no, I think working on the film, there was never a desire to modernize these characters in any way.

What was the process like of reproducing these scratchy, loose Charles Schulz lines in a 3-D CGI environment?

Well, I will tell you, it was probably the most technically challenging film that I've worked on, to make something that looks so simple. What we learned is, there was a way Charles Schulz drew these characters. There were basically six poses, if you looked at the head of Charlie Brown, for instance. And the characters do not look right unless they're matching those drawings. And that was a directive I had from the very beginning, "I want these characters to look like we've seen them in the comics." My mantra to the team was, "I want to find his pen line in everything we do." Even though we're creating a computer-animated, bigger experience for a feature film, I still wanted those touchstones.

Doesn't that make in-betweening particularly hard, if the characters only look right in specific poses, face-on or in profile?

Yes. The way we prepare the characters — we call it "rigging," which provides the controls for the animators — was a totally different setup than any other film. They could turn on multiple hands, multiple arms. They had full control to shape the facial expressions, eyes and mouth, with that Schulz pen line. The animators had to go through what we called Van Pelt University, a three-week training course to learn how to animate in this style. And it's much more akin to 2-D animation, very much like what director Bill Melendez did in the original Charlie Brown Christmas special, in terms of the way you'd think about it. The animators were essentially drawing by assembling different 3-D objects. And we animated on 2s — which means we held frames more than we usually would — and we snapped the characters to familiar poses. It creates a totally different style of movement, but I think it's a style that feels right for Peanuts, and is actually kind of fresh today, in the world of computer animation.

Speaking of Bill Melendez, he voices Snoopy and Woodstock in the film, even though he died in 2008. Did you build a vocal library from his previous work as Snoopy?

We did! Craig Scultz and I took a trip to Bill Melendez's studio, and that's some of the people who worked with Bill. And we said, "Do you have any tapes, any archived material, that's Bill doing Snoopy and Woodstock?" They did, so we brought that material back, and once I started cutting it into our early story reels, there was no going back. He's so funny. That voice is so charming. It's comedy gold. And there was no need, thankfully, to have someone else doing that voice.

Was there anything Snoopy-related in the script that you couldn't find something suitable for in those archives?

There were just one or two moments that we just didn't have something. Randy Thom, our sound designer at Skywalker Sound, figured out the formula. So if we had a moment we needed to augment, we could do that. Fortunately, there were very few times we needed to do that. I can't remember specific cases, but there was just one reaction I didn't have in my library, that we went outside for.

I've read that if you slow those Snoopy vocalizations down, Melendez was actually saying words. What's Snoopy's dialogue like when you're listening to it at regular speed?

It's funny! When Bill recorded, he would speak slowly, like "Nnnnooooooooooo..." drawn out. And then they would speed that up on reel-to-reel tape, and that would be Snoopy, and he'd speed it up double that, and that would be Woodstock. So Woodstock's voice would literally come out as tiny chirps. But yes, often there were words in there. But more often than not, we were going for reaction, so it was just a change in emphasis in vocal that gave you the effect. And laughs. Bill's laugh is amazing, and those are some of the best moments for me.

It's clear where you sped up the pacing from the 1970s, but you preserved the rhythm of how the kids sounded in the classic TV specials, which was created in part by stitching together sound clips from different takes. How did you preserve that specific sound?

Through working with the actors. The kids were great. What I found in my very first recording session with all of them was, they came in excited. They're kids, and this is their first recording session on this movie, and their natural instincts were to go really fast. "Waaaaah, it's so good to be here!" It was just because their adrenaline was flowing. And so we'd play a bit, we'd get used to the lines. And then I'd introduce to them the idea of what I call "Peanuts speed." And that's just taking your time. Where there's a pause, where there's a comma in the sentence, just embrace it. And all of the actors, all these kids, got that. As we got into the third, fourth recording session and after, I never had to say that again. We would just kind of get into our Peanuts mode. And you're right, it's a style where you do take your time a little bit. But the takes I used in the film were always the ones where the kids just totally owned it. We would record six, seven, eight takes, and ultimately I'd just say, "You know, you just be Lucy. Here's the moment." And invariably, those would be the takes I'd end up using in the movie, because when the kids were just feeling naturally in the moment, being the character, that's when it worked.

Why cast Kristin Chenoweth as Fifi, Snoopy's love interest? Why bring in a big-name actor to voice a character that doesn't have any spoken dialogue, who just makes noises?

Mostly because Kristin Chenoweth has such a history with Peanuts. She kind of got her start — she won a Tony for playing Sally in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. And that launched her career. She sang at Charles Schulz's funeral. Her career has been weaved into the world of Peanuts. And with Fifi, like Snoopy, we needed someone to give her life. In the movie, those are just vocalizations. They're reactions. But Kristin Chenoweth has an amazing voice — she's a great actress — and I thought the deep connection she had to Peanuts felt right. I didn't want to just cast it based on a name. It really is more based on the fact that she's so connected to the world of these characters.

"I wanted the audience to feel like they could walk into Charlie Brown's world, like it really existed."

You scanned Pig-Pen's dust cloud from the strips to make the movie version look more like Schulz's. Was there a lot of just straight incorporating his actual art?

Absolutely. As a director, you set the target for your team. And I said, "I want to find his pen line in the work we create." And our effects team took that on with great purpose. So Pig-Pen's dust is scanned dot-drawings for the dirt that moves around. They did the same thing with the rain — there's a moment in the film where a sprinkler goes off, and it's basically raining on Charlie Brown. And because we studied Schulz's work, we went to the museum and heard the stories — he was very particular about the way he drew rain, about the way he used his pen. And we said, "Well, let's just use that." The effects team said, "Let's use what he created." And now when you watch the movie, you'll see that the water shapes are actually in the pen stroke of Charles Schulz.

Given that his character models and lines changed a lot over 50 years, what era were you looking at for your model?

We looked at the early '80s as our target model. As we looked at the array of the kids — Charlie Brown and Linus and all of them — it seemed they'd evolved to the look we all kind of know and remember. I also think that in the '70s and '80s, he was in his most confident pen-work. As he got older in the '80s and '90s, his hand would shake, so the pen line had a lot more wiggle. Which is charming, but we chose that late-'70s, early-'80s as our target zone.

The thing that feels most altered here from past works is this vibrant, intense color palette, and it makes these familiar spaces feel new. What was the thinking on the use of color?

It came from looking at the comic strip. Charles Schulz always had the characters stand out — they were the most important thing in the scene. So what I chose to do was — I wanted a world that felt real. I wanted it stylistically like Charles Schulz would draw it, but I wanted the audience to feel like they could walk into Charlie Brown's world, like it really existed. Yet I wanted the characters always to stand forward and be most important. So I gave them the most saturated color palette. If you look at Charlie Brown's yellow shirt, Lucy's blue dress, those are the most saturated colors, so they would stand out against the background.

And I wanted the movie to be fun. My directive to my art director and my lighting team and materials team was, "Think about a Sunday comic strip." There's something about that that has vibrancy and fun. When I opened up the comics pages as a kid, I always got the feeling, "This is gonna be great." I wanted that feeling on the screen.

The Peanuts Movie

20th Century Fox

You have three generations of Schulzes actively working on this film. How did that come together? Did you go to the family for input? Did they come to you with the script?

Well, Charles Schulz's son Craig had been working on a script with his son Bryan for some years. And we had talked with them many, many years ago about the fact that we would love to do a Peanuts movie. But the time had to be right. So they had a story, and then Craig invited me up to Santa Rosa, and we had one of those power lunches in The Warm Puppy, in the birthday room of the café at the little skating rink where Charles Schulz ate lunch every day, and he talked to me about the idea he had for the film. And he wanted me to be a part of it. I was honored. And when I left that meeting, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be a challenge. A lot of people will really care about how this movie comes together, because we all have such memories of Peanuts."

There's such a long history of Peanuts animation. Do you think this is the start of a new era? Are there plans for more of these movies? Do you personally want to do more of them?

Well, I think the audience will begin to tell us whether this is something they love and want more of. My focus was to do the very best I could on the making of this film. So I just put my pencil down now. I haven't really thought about what comes after it. But I will say, the entire time I worked on this film, me and my team at Blue Sky Studios, we really felt it was our obligation to deliver this film to a new generation, to our kids, because we've loved these characters so much.