For artists who grew up admiring the work of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, nothing can bring on a panic attack faster than attempting to draw Charlie Brown’s head for the first time. So when the artists at Blue Sky Studios, the creative folks behind the new computer generated 3D “Peanuts Movie” needed some sage advice about how to create Schulz’s iconic characters, they turned to former Atlanta Constitution graphics editor Paige Braddock. For the past 15 years, Braddock has been the creative director at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates in Santa Rosa, California. The cartoonist and creator of the ground-breaking LGBT comic strip “Jane’s World” was the last artist to be hand-picked by and to work directly with Schulz before his death in 2000.
In an interview with Eldredge ATL, Braddock (who attended the premiere of “The Peanuts Movie” last weekend in Los Angeles with the film’s creative team) discusses her role in helping to bring the cherished franchise back to the big screen, her thoughts on the film and yes, the challenges of drawing a certain blockhead’s sort of circular skull.
Q: What can you tell us about what you’ve seen of the finished film so far?
A: Everyone was worried about the characters being rendered in CG and that it wouldn’t feel authentic to Schulz. My first thought seeing the final clips coming through is that it looks completely authentic to Schulz. Existing fans, new fans, everyone’s going to be happy. It feels like Peanuts.
Q: For those not lucky enough to work with you at the AJC in the 1990s, can you talk a little about how you got this unbelievably cool job?
A: (laughs) I was a member of the National Cartoonists Society and I met Schulz at an event and he offered me a job to come to California. In his later years, he wanted to transition away from the licensing things, wind down and just focus again on the comic strip. So I helped out with all the licensing art. Unfortunately, he passed away about a year after I got here and I ended up taking over as creative director. We manage all the Peanuts products worldwide. Everything comes through this office for editorial review. The job at the AJC really prepared me a lot for this job. You’re talking about consistent narratives, story and character integrity, all those things you learn as a writer and editor. All of that translated to what we do here.
Q: In “The Peanuts Movie” production notes, the filmmakers praise you for opening up your offices to them and how being able to meet with you helped them as they began this project. Because you were the last artist to train with Schulz, you had some really unique insights into the work. What was that meeting like with the Blue Sky team?
A: Those guys are amazing artists. Some are cartoonists and some are animators. It’s actually a very different discipline. It was a blending of two worlds, to bring this cartoonist’s work to this new platform and figure out how we were going to animate it. I was humbled by meeting all these guys. What I was able to bring to the party was 15 years of being in the thick of it with these characters. I’ve studied the nuances of Mr. Schulz’s drawings, the voices of the characters, how they move. I have all these files of reference materials that I’ve built up over the years and I shared all that with the Blue Sky team as they crafted what these characters would look like in CG. Hopefully, I was helpful.
Q: The Blue Sky folks credit you with giving them some important advice. At one point you told them, “Relax, Schulz’s lines were loose and organic. You can’t get close to that line quality if you can’t relax…”
A: (laughs) It’s so true!
Q: How difficult was it to tell that to animators used to working on computers?
A: Here’s what happened. Every animator I know has such a reverence for Schulz’s work, you tend to seize up when you’re tasked with recreating it. You want it to be so good. It can be really intimidating. You have to do this Jedi mind trick on yourself in order to relax even though you’re totally stressed out!
Q: When I read that the Blue Sky Studios’ artists blew up Schulz’s original ink lines and projected them for the animators and they all stared at it in order to understand how he worked, I felt more confident about a CG version of this franchise. Charles Schulz was continuing to teach these new artists how to tackle drawing his characters. Did that relieve you as well?
A: Definitely. Within 10 minutes of meeting the director Steve Martino, I remember thinking, “We’re OK here. This is all going to be fine.” He was so into the details of what made Schulz’s work resonate with people. The subtleties of the dots of the eyes and how they shift, depending on the emotional response, the hair, the postures of the body. He was really plugged into all the nuances the average person wouldn’t pick up on. I immediately knew we were in really good hands.
Q: A lot of fans were also reassured that Craig Schulz, Charles’ son, co-wrote the screenplay and that the focus would be firmly on Charlie Brown in this first feature. The allure of Snoopy is always going to be there but as “Peanuts Movie” producer Michael J. Travers observed, “This film is really an extension of Charles Schulz’s legacy.” Did that resonate with you as well?
A: There’s always the potential for Snoopy to steal the show. I actually told Steve Martino after I’d seen a first pass at the movie, “Oh my God, people are going to fall in love with Charlie Brown all over again.” The way he captured his innocence and his willing to keep trying. Everyone is pulling for him.
Q: Another valuable piece of insight you gave the animators was how nearly impossible it is to properly draw Charlie Brown’s head when you first attempt it. What’s the key to getting it right?
A: (laughs) I wish I knew! To this day, every time I attempt to draw it, I end up redoing it three or four times. It’s not an oval, it’s not a circle. It’s this thing that’s wider at the bottom than it is at the top but it’s such a subtle difference in width that it kind of looks like a circle. It’s impossible (laughs). Half the time, I end up grabbing one of Schulz’s drawings and tracing the head and then drawing everything else!
Q: I love that the hold music I heard when I phoned you at Charles Schulz studios this morning was Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts jazz score. The music is also being used in the new film and the filmmakers even sought out permission to use Bill Melendez’s Snoopy and Woodstock voice tracks from the old TV specials. They really thought about everything, didn’t they?
A: One of the real challenges of this movie was that you know you’ve got fans our age who grew up with the strip and the specials and then new fans, younger kids who perhaps don’t know the history. I mean, if you or I went to see this and it didn’t feature the Guaraldi music, we’d be really mad. You have to have the right mix of the established Peanuts culture and then something that feels new as well. That’s a really hard line to walk.
Q: Visually, what stands out for you in The Peanuts Movie?
A: One of the coolest things was the neighborhood, the world they constructed for the movie. When you look at the comic strip, you only ever see a front step or if you’re in the French countryside with Snoopy, the corner of a building. Because of the spatial constraints of a comic strip, you only get slivers and glimpses of the world Peanuts inhabits. I told the director Steve Martino that when I first got this job, I went on a kind of pilgrimage to Schulz’s hometown in Minnesota. I realized that when I went to his old childhood neighborhood, I was in the Peanuts world! All the houses had that stoop that he drew in the comic. In the movie, they blow it out and immerse you in that world.
Q: I love that the animators even thought about the technology the Peanuts characters would use so, consequently, Charlie Brown is talking on a rotary phone in the movie. Was that a lengthy discussion?
A: We went round and round about that. Certain things just work in comics and animation that don’t necessarily work in the real world. Everyone who sees that in the movie is going to know that it’s a phone. In 2015, it’s even more humorous that’s a rotary phone. The reality is, the more advanced technology becomes, the less fun it is to draw. Try comparing drawing a smart phone to drawing a rotary phone. One is essentially a square. Where’s the visual interest in that? There is none.
Q: And I’m not sure I want to see a flatscreen in Charlie Brown’s living room…
A: No. You need the rabbit ears!
Q: Tell us what’s up with our old friend Jane Wyatt from your comic strip Jane’s World. Where can we see her next?
A: I’ve been so busy that I haven’t done a new Jane’s World graphic novel. But I sold a prose novel based on the Jane’s World comics. It’s coming out in June 2016. Jane’s roommate Ethan talks Jane into signing up for this low budget online banking service and her account gets hacked and she accidentally purchases a mail-order bride from this formerly Russian country. Jane doesn’t realize it until this woman shows up at her house with big rolling luggage. As you might guess, Rich, then mayhem ensues as it always does in Jane’s World!
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.