Charles Schulz‘s original Peanuts strips mastered the language and tapped the potential of cartooning so brilliantly that when 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky announced a new adaptation to be created in computer animation, I was somewhat concerned about how much they would be sacrificing.
The TV specials and earlier animated movies were one thing – being hand-drawn, they shared so much of their artistry and creative process with the comic strips, and employed many of the same techniques to similar ends – but CG is another thing entirely.
John Lasseter, head of Blue Sky’s fellow CG studios Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, once hit the perfectly formed nail on its impossibly symmetrical head. This quote has been doing the rounds for decades now and it’s still true.
A simple rule of thumb is that the more geometric something is … the easier it is to reproduce on a computer. The more organic something is, the more difficult it is to reproduce on computer.
We might see the most breathtaking representations of nature in CGI, or elastic renditions of hand-drawn style squash-and-stretch, but they’re all being achieved through a painstaking ‘breaking’ of the system.
The best of modern computer animation has required the software engineers and animators to walk into the wind, slowly inching along against the system’s in-built resistance. They’re forcing the computers to output images that just don’t come naturally to them, if you pardon the expression.
All of this only makes the accomplishments on display in the first teaser trailer for Peanuts even more dazzling. It’s full of clever, and no doubt laboriously-achieved, ‘breaks’ to create a series of compelling effects.
The techniques are probably not all obvious in real-time motion, but I’ve pulled some individual frames that best illustrate what’s going on.
One of the inherent problems comes from Schulz’s character design. In CG, the underlying premise is that each character is represented, with very few exceptions, by a single, three dimensional model. This is then posed and animated with techniques far closer to working with a stop motion puppet than anything you’d do with a pencil.
The Peanuts poses that we’re very familiar with, some 64 years since the strip first launched and 49 years since their first TV special, don’t adhere to those principles at all. Schulz’s characters were expressed and positioned in ways that made the best of their original medium, not this one.
Here are some frames of Snoopy as he appears in the teaser. Note how it sometimes looks like there’s two ‘different layers’ of animation at work, with Snoopy’s body and head being in one, his features being in another.
And did you spot the two very different designs for Snoopy’s eyes? Swapping out parts of a character design like this is as rare in CG as it is common in hand animation.
There are clearly different rules being applied when the characters move from being face-on to being in profile. Look at Charlie Brown’s mouth to see a very clear example of how the characters require different technique depending on their orientation.
I think it’s worth saying that these frames do also show the benefits of CG animation, right down to how Chuck’s ears keep their size, shape and location perfectly from moment to moment. And that’s before we even look at the texture and lighting, both of which are CG-specific as well as being very attractive and emotive.
Also in the ‘second layer’ of animation are the effects that mimic hand drawn lines, most typically motion as it would have been drawn into a cartoon strip panel. At 24fps, some of these might be a little harder to spot, but here’s a great example.
Actually, that’s a tremendously interesting frame in a number of ways. There’s a full suite of cartooning techniques in use. Snoopy’s exaggerated mouth is great, the positioning of his ears and eyes is fantastic, but nothing is more noteworthy than his number of… I was going to say arms, but he is a dog. His legs.
Look at Snoopy’s feet in the next images for some even more extreme distortion examples, as well as some very bold motion lines. These ‘tricks’ evoke motion blur without simply employing motion blur, referring instead to age-old cartooning techniques that Schulz or, say, The Looney Tunes crew would have called upon.
Actually, the use of multiple limbs to depict action is said to date back to cave paintings. CG has typically steered clear of the style, not least because it’s hard to employ in the medium, and a little bit because when actual motion is occurring, realist impulses suggest that it doesn’t need to be indicated in this way. But Blue Sky have obviously realised how integral these approaches are to the Peanuts feel.
The duplication of anatomy really does go to extremes just a few seconds later. Pay attention to how Snoopy’s design is very fluid here. His arms get very close to the Rubber Hose style of early American animation – something far older than Peanuts. In many ways, this sequence would have been much easier to create with pencil on paper and not fighting against the simulated volume inherent in a CG image.
See how they’ve drawn Chuck’s dizziness in? Well, I say drawn.
Something that CG is very good at is creating 24 different frames per second. For fully hand-drawn animation, each frame has to be drafted separately, but CG will take the input of key poses and calculate in-between frames for all of the movements that bridge them.
Hand drawing 24 different frames per second can be so labour intensive, and therefore expensive, that many films aren’t created this way at all. Much of Studio Ghibli’s work, for example, is animated ‘on twos.’ This means each animation drawing is photographed for two consecutive frames and only 12 frames are needed for a full second. As a result, movement doesn’t feel entirely smooth.
If you watch a lot of animation, I expect you will have seen a lot of animation ‘on twos’ and even seen some ‘on threes.’ I’m including the Peanuts TV specials here, and some TV anime goes far beyond even this.
But this kind of labour-saving isn’t a necessity in CG at all. Very rarely will a CG movie have a look where the motions slightly ‘strobe’ because consecutive frames are the same.
This Peanuts teaser is a notable exception. This certainly doesn’t apply to Snoopy when he’s zipping around all over the frame, but at other times the characters are regularly held in the exact same pose for two consecutive frames. This can only have been done very deliberately, and the effect is to imply a look that’s subtly reminiscent of hand drawn animation.
There would be little use in my showing you two identical images and asking you to accept them as consecutive frames, but here’s an example of Snoopy and Charlie Brown moving out of sync.
And while we’re on the subject of strobing, let’s go back to the sequence where Snoopy has Charlie Brown surrounded. Every frame with Snoopies is followed by one where there are no Snoopies at all.
Again, that’s not the traditional CG way.
Later in the teaser, Charlie Brown and Snoopy move out of their abstract Blue Sky – which is probably just a coincidence, but you never know – into a static frame and a composition that’s very much in line with the original strip. We get to see some great squash and stretch in this section, and more of those expressive ‘overdrawn’ lines.
These are not all consecutive frames from the sequence. I left several out, but these do indicate the variety of poses that the characters go through.
Not only have they gone for poses and techniques that are bold and effective, and done so even when that has required a lot of work in CG, everything is very much in Schulz’s own style too.
One final frame. Here’s Woodstock with a tweet bubble. In the teaser, it’s animated. I bet he’s going to actually have these in the film.
There’s a kind of intensive, frame-by-frame craftsmanship in all of the best animation, but when a CG movie like this seems to use so many techniques from older disciplines, somebody is always bound to ask if the film might not have been better off produced in hand drawn animation in the first place.
Even if we take it for read that market forces would have made the use of CG absolutely mandatory, and I don’t know how true that actually is, it’s also the case that Blue Sky haven’t just defaulted to using easy CG options. It’s abundantly clear that Peanuts has been designed and is being animated with love and a real desire to do the job effectively. Blue Sky’s work on Charlie Brown and Snoopy corresponds elegantly with where the characters originally came from, while at the same time, it’s cutting edge stuff. Even in this trailer we’re seeing CG do things that no CG feature film has done before.
All of this ‘innovative borrowing’ is going to make Peanuts a movie like no other. And while I guess we’ll never know for sure, I think Charles Schulz would have been very impressed himself.
Peanuts is set for release in late 2015.