SVA and the ‘Peanuts’ Gang: Q&A with Alen Lai on the New Movie

November 5, 2015

Best friends Snoopy and Charlie Brown are set to debut in 3D. The Peanuts Movie, based on one of the world’s most popular comic strips Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, opens in theaters on November 6 to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the cartoon. Directed by Steve Martino, the film was produced by Blue Sky Studios and is being distributed by 20th Century Fox. SVA alumnus Alen Lai (MFA 2000 Computer Art), who led the FX team at Blue Sky for The Peanuts Movie, tells us about the challenges of simulating a hand-drawn style and the joy of recreating a world and its characters that are familiar to so many.

Blue Sky Studios has worked on impressive films such as Ice Age, Rio, etc. What was different about working on The Peanuts Movie?
The Peanuts Movie is a very different production from anything we have done. Mainly because of the distinct visual style that Charles Schulz created. We put in a tremendous effort to achieve a hand-drawn style that wasn’t easy to do in CG. We made the animation on 2s, and as a result the typical motion blur that you get for free at render time wasn’t an option for us. The motion of water or smoke needed to follow the same kind of snappy and cartoony motion the characters had, our usual physical-based simulation solvers weren’t designed to do that.

I think pretty much every department went through a really rough time of putting aside everything we knew, and coming up with completely new ways of doing things. In many cases, we had to modify the entire pipeline to do so. It was probably by far the most difficult film I have worked on. And people often think this is an easy film, because the final image looks so simple. All the complexity we had to deal with under the surface was pretty amazing.

Did you have a relationship with the comic strip before the film?
No. Snoopy is very popular in Taiwan. I knew of him as an icon growing up. But I didn’t know any other characters, nor did I read any comic strips. So I had to familiarize myself with the characters and comic strips as we prepared for production.

alen425What was the most challenging aspect about working on the film?
I’d say the most challenging aspect was finding the style. When we started this film, nobody really had a clear idea of what the style was supposed to be. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out the final style that we decided to use for the film. We had access to archives of all the Peanuts comic strips, and we referenced them regularly. However, the comic strips only provide a static look. For the motion, we needed to reference the animated Peanuts TV specials, or interpret the motion from Schulz’s drawings. Our director, Steve Martino, put it best: “You guys did not take the easiest way, but always the best way for the film.” There was a studio-wide effort to respect Schulz’s work and to be as faithful to the comic strip as possible.

Is there a sequence/scene in the film that you are particularly excited about?
My favorite is the opening sequence. This is the first encounter people are going to have with the Peanuts gang in 3D, so we really tried to create a fresh, joyful and colorful world with all the characters that everyone is familiar with. It sets the tone for the entire film. We designed the falling snow to look soft and fluffy like cotton balls coming down from the sky. To go with that, the camera of the first shot zooms out from extreme close-up to reveal the whole doghouse. For that shot, I generated 5.6TB of voxel snowflakes populating the surface that created the soft-looking snow on Woodstock and on Snoopy’s doghouse. I think it came out very beautiful.

A number of SVA alumni and faculty members (and one current student) were involved in the making of The Peanuts Movie: Mark Adams (Crowds) (MFA 2006 Computer Art), Allison Botkin (Fur Technical Director) (MFA 2013 Computer Art), Yaron Canetti  (Character Sim) (MFA 2003 Computer Art), Robert Cavaleri (CG Supervisor) (MFA 1993 Computer Art), Sheng-Fang Chen (Previs) (MFA 2003 Computer Art), Kevin Edzenga (Character Sim) (BFA 2009 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Alex Frenklakh (FX TD) (MFA 2008 Computer Art), Krzysztof Fus (Modeler) (BFA 2011 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), James Gu (Character Technical Director) (BFA 1999 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Soo Hee Han (Lighting) (MFA 2007 Computer Art), Sabine Heller (Rigging) (MFA 2006 Computer Art), Christopher Hill (Character Technical Director) (BFA 2007 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Youngwoong Jang (Lighting) (MFA 2006 Computer Art), Jina Kang (Lighting) (MFA 2003 Computer Art), John Paul Lavin (Technical Animator) (BFA 2012 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Yu-Li Liao (Rigging) (MFA 2004 Computer Art), Jonathan Lin (Modeling) (BFA 2012 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Elvira Pinkhas (FX Supervisor) (MFA 2005 Computer Art), (Raymond Ross (Lead Animator) (BFA 2004 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects) and Goo-Shun Wang (Camera and Staging) (MFA 2006 Computer Art), as well as current MFA Computer Art student Jennifer Hurler (Fur). BFA Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects faculty members Ignacio Barrios, Chris Chapman, Christian Haniszewski (Rigging) (BFA 2009 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), Matt Roach and Matt Simmons were also involved, as well as MFA Computer Art faculty member Ilan Gabai (FX).

Photo of Alen Lai.


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