By Jennifer Walden
Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, Lucy… all the classic Peanuts characters hit the big screen earlier this month thanks to the Blue Sky Studios production The Peanuts Movie (20th Century Fox).
For those of you who might have worried that the Peanuts gang would “go Hollywood,” there is no need for concern. These beloved characters look and sound like they did in the Charles M. Schulz TV specials — which started airing in the 1960s — but they have been updated to fit the theatrical expectations of 2015.
While the latest technology has given depth and texture to these 2D characters, director Steve Martino and the Schulz family made sure the film didn’t stray far from Charles Schulz’s original creations.
According to Skywalker Sound supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Randy Thom, “Steve Martino (from Blue Sky) spent most of the year hanging out in Santa Rosa, California, which is where the Schulz family still lives. He worked with them very closely to make sure that this film had the same feel and look as not only the cartoon strip, but also the TV specials. They did a wonderful job of staying true to all those visual and sonic tropes that we so much associate with Peanuts.”
Thom and the Skywalker sound team, based at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, studied the style of sound effects used in the original Peanuts TV specials and aimed to evoke those sounds as closely as they could for The Peanuts Movie, while also adding a modern vibe. “Often, on animated films, the first thing the director tells us is that it shouldn’t sound like a cartoon — they don’t want it to be cartoony with sound effects,” explains Thom, who holds an Oscar for his sound design on the animated feature The Incredibles, and has two Oscar nominations for his sound editing on The Polar Express and Ratatouille. “In The Peanuts Movie, we were liberated to play around with boings and other classic cartoon type sounds. We even tried to invent some of our own.”
The Red Baron and Subtle Sounds
The sound design is a mix of Foley effects, performed at Skywalker by Foley artists Sean England and Ronni Pittman, and cartoon classics like zips, boinks and zings. One challenge was creating a kid-friendly machine gun sound for Snoopy’s Red Baron air battles. “It couldn’t be scary, but it had to suggest the kinds of guns that were used on those planes in that era,” says Thom. The solution? Thom vocalized “ett-ett-ett-ett-ett” sounds, which they processed and combined with a “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” rhythm that they banged out on pots and pans. The result is a faux machine gun that’s easy on little ears.
Another key element in the Red Baron sequences was the sound of the planes. Charles Schulz’s son, Craig, who was very involved with the film, owns a vintage WWI plane that, amazingly, still flies. “Craig [Schulz] flew the plane and a couple of people on our sound team rode in it. They were very brave and kept the recorder running the whole time,” says Thom, who completed the sound edit and premix in Avid Pro Tools 12
They captured recordings on the plane, as well as from the ground as the plane performed a few acrobatic aerial maneuvers. During the final 7.1 mix in Mix G at Skywalker Sound, via the Neve DFC console, Thom says the challenge was to make the film sound exciting without being too dynamic. The final plane sounds were very mellow without any harsh upper frequencies or growly tones. “We had to be careful of the nature of the sounds,” he says. “If you make the airplanes too scary or intimidating, or sound to animalistic, little kids are going to be scared and cover their ears. We wanted to make sure it was fun without being scary.”
Many of the scenes in The Peanuts Movie have subtle sound design, with Foley being a big part of the track. There are a few places where sound gets to deliver the joke. One of Thom’s favorite scenes was when Charlie Brown visits the library to find the book “Leo’s Toy Store.”
“The library is supposed to be quiet and we had to be very playful with the sound of Charlie’s feet squeaking on the floor and making too much noise,” says Thom. “After he leaves the library, he slides down the hillside in the snow and ice and ends up running right through a house. That was a fun sequence also.”
One surprising piece of the soundtrack was the music. The name Vince Guaraldi is practically synonymous with Peanuts. His jazzy compositions are part of the Peanuts cultural lexicon. If someone says Peanuts, it instantly recalls to mind the melody of Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” tune. And while “Linus and Lucy” is part of the film’s soundtrack, the majority of the score is orchestral compositions by Christophe Beck. “The music is mostly orchestral but even that has a Peanuts feel somehow,” concludes Thom.