Given the Picasso-esque posing of Charles Schulz’s beloved characters, Blue Sky departed from its customary procedures for the Oscar-contending The Peanuts Movie. This included rigging and materials. They created hundreds of poses, but to hit all of the poses that Schulz drew and stay on model, they built a system of parts that they could move, slide, switch out and replace. When I was up at Blue Sky last summer, I spoke with Sabine Heller, character development supervisor, Justin Leach, rigging supervisor and Nikki Tomaino, lead materials tech director
Bill Desowitz: Tell us about the process of creating a very specific style to adapt Schulz’s hand-drawn expressions.
Sabine Heller: We spent 18 months on just one character, Charlie Brown. We basically made a deal with the production manager to say this was so difficult that we have to figure it out on one character first and then we can move on to the other characters.
BD: So I understand that you had to add all of these custom controls to switch poses.
SH: Yeah, it’s really interesting because we had to find one model that we could rig and it was hard because normally it doesn’t move all the way around. But they trusted us to make one character and then all the other characters from that character. We made a body that fits all the kids and a head that adjusts to make it also fit the other kids. You could even put a dress from Lucy on Charlie and the hair so it looks exactly like Lucy. You to bring it into this character view so it actually looks like her, and then, of course, when you put at the end the pose of animation, it looks more like him. In all, we had six character views. When you look at it, you can see that the nose moves down, and the ears move up and then the shape of the head completely changes. So we were able to get a control and ask for a specific character view and that character view in this instance is the profile and make it look more like Charlie Brown.
BD: What was it like studying the artwork?
SH: It was a very specific language and we had to pay attention to the direction of the lines when when he looks left or he looks right. And when he looks the periwinkles.
BD: And his hair is very strange.
SH: Design called it popcorn.There were a lot of food references. M&Ms and yogurt for how they integrate to skin. And in animation they compared them to melted chocolate chips.And we made it so we could slide it all over the face and they would always be on the surface but totally disposable, which was something we don’t normally do. And we had expression lines and made special set-ups because Charlie Brown blinks differently because he has no eye lids. So we made a half-way eye cut with the eye lid for the blinks.
SH: We had a special plug-in for that. You can visualize it in Maya, because otherwise that wouldn’t be possible.
BD: And what about Snoopy?
Justin Leach: He’s really interesting because he has two eyes on the side of his head. We had a default pose when you rigged him and then when you turn on our flip attribute you can see he has two eyes on one side of the face. Another interesting thing is that all of the characters have to have huge expressions. It gets so crazy that what we ended up doing is create a special plug-in in R&D to make something that only moves on the surface. Normally, in Maya, what we do is move it up and get a cheek bulge. That’s something that we didn’t do at all with these characters. We kept the look-line on the surface off the face and always follow along the silhouette.
BD: That’s tough for the computer.
JL: Yes, going around curved surfaces doesn’t work so well normally, but that was one of the key things we created in R&D. And this was difficult for a lot of other departments because moving this topology all the way around, so something before that was [on the bottom] is suddenly way up [on top], which, of course, for fur and materials is not the easiest thing to handle.
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