Charles Solomon has written dozens of books on animation, and Chronicle Books is lucky to have him on board as author of The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation. The book covers the history of how the popular Peanuts comic strip became an even more popular animated special, which then became a series of specials (45 of them!) that have become fixtures of American pop culture. On December 18th I’ll be in front of the TV ready to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and sing along to “Christmastime is Here.” But until then, I asked Charles a few questions about the specials. As a bonus, you can also hear Charles on the KPCC show Off-Ramp talk about how A Charlie Brown Christmas almost never aired.
From Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales, 2002, watercolor by Dean Spille
Q: What drew you to write this book?
A: Initially, I was approached by Emily Haynes, my editor at Chronicle, and the Schulz Estate. I had interviewed Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez several times, and liked and respected both men. Those memories, plus my fondness for many of the specials made it easy to accept the assignment. And I was happy work with Emily and the people at Chronicle again. (This sounds like puffery, but it’s true.)
Q: You were able to get comments from several big names in modern animation, like Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Ralph Eggleston. What are the main ways that the Peanuts specials influenced them?
A: I think my friend Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) summed it up when he said, “People ask me, ‘Where did you get your style?’ It had to come from the things I saw as a kid. If you went back in time and changed what I saw, I would draw differently today.” Animators saw those specials as kids and they clearly made a lasting impression. Many of their best moments offer examples of compact storytelling and simple but effective animation: Talented kids learn from those examples, just as they learn from the great films of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki.
Q: A film is 50% visual and 50% audio, how did the team come up with the voice style of the kids, Snoopy and the adults?
A: Casting a voice for any character the audience already knows from a comic strip poses a challenge: Everyone who reads the strip “hears” the character in their head. The voice actor has to sound so right for the character that the performance erases the preconceived ideas. John and Faith Hubley were the first to use real children’s voices—rather than adult actors imitating children. Hubley had worked with Bill Melendez at UPA and Melendez admired his work enormously. I also suspect the filmmakers realized that children’s voices would lend an authenticity to the dialogue. Bill Melendez supplied Snoopy’s “voice:” originally he just did the noises for a temporary “scratch” track, but everyone, including Charles Schulz, liked them so well, they stayed.
Q: There must be a lot of challenges in taking a static strip and making it into a film. What are some of the most important factors in that success?
A: Translating a strip from the printed page to the screen poses myriad difficulties. Comic strip artists draw their characters in the most effective poses and from angles that look the best. Schulz usually drew Charlie Brown in either a profile, full-face or three-quarter view. Animators have to turn the characters in space and move them in ways that may involve awkward drawings: they can’t just use those “good” poses and angles. Because Schulz’s were so simple, even a slight mistake—the shape of the nose, the placement of an eyebrow—was glaringly apparent on screen.
Q: You interviewed Dave Brubeck who said, “There is a mixture of sadness and joy in the Peanuts characters. Their all-too-human disappointments and minor triumphs are reflected in [Vince] Guaraldi’s music. It is a child’s reality.” How important was the music to the specials?
A: I think the visuals, the dialogue and the music were three pillars on which the specials rested—remove any one of them and everything collapses. The music helps to set the tone and emotions, and it allows the artists to use animation without dialogue, so the audience doesn’t feel like its ears are being talked off—a problem in many recent animated films.
Q: What is your favorite Peanuts special?
A: My favorites are A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Great Pumpkin, but there are sequences in many of them I especially enjoy: Snoopy’s battle with the beach chair in Thanksgiving, or the “Fundamental-Friend-Dependability” sequence in Snoopy Come Home: Bill Littlejohn did some hilarious animation of Snoopy fussing with his dress, trying to keep tea from spilling on it.
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