New Peanuts movie has Miami Valley connections

Director Steve Martino, book author Jerry Schmitz, both Alter grads

Two well-known Alter High School graduates are now working for Peanuts … and for Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the rest of the famous gang.

“The Peanuts Movie,” which just opened at theaters nation-wide, is directed by Steve Martino who grew up in Trotwood, and graduated from Alter High School and The Ohio State University. “The Art and Making of the Peanuts Movie,” which traces the history of the movie-making process, was penned by Jerry Schmitz, who once lived in Erma Bombeck’s Centerville neighborhood and received both undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Dayton.

Martino will return to his Columbus alma mater on Thursday, Nov. 19, to take part in a panel discussion with Craig Schulz (son of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz,) and Fox Animation executive Ralph Millero.

Both Martino and Schmitz are obviously delighted to be part of the Charles Schulz legacy which began Oct. 2, 1950 when the famous cartoonist introduced readers in seven newspapers to the characters of Shermy, Patty and Good ‘’ol Charlie Brown. When the comic strip ended in 2000, Peanuts was being read by more than 350 million people in 2,600 newspapers around the world.

We’ve seen the books and toys and greeting cards and television classics. Now, after 35 years, the popular characters have returned to the big screen, this time in computer generated imagery. Much of the credit goes to Martino, a pioneer in the field of computer animation, who pitched the Blue Sky Studios proposal to the Schulz family. Though they had turned down other film proposals over the years, they said yes to this one.

Dayton days

Martino, 56, who also directed “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” said he’d been a huge Peanuts fan since he began reading the strip in the Dayton Daily News with his dad as a child. “We lived in Trotwood and when I read Peanuts I felt like I was reading a strip about myself and my neighborhood. The houses even looked similar,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I connected with Charlie Brown and those kids, I felt like I was seeing myself in the funny pages.”

Martino’s father, Armand Martino, was his greatest artistic inspiration — an art teacher at Meadowdale High School and art supervisor for the Dayton Public Schools. “He is the one who exposed me to art, took us to museums and made the experience fun. He kept the visits short so we weren’t bored. He never pushed.” In a gallery, said Martino, his father would ask which picture he’d want to hang on his wall and why? “It forces you to look,” he said. “In high school I started to think about it as a path for my studies. I was a graphic design major at Ohio State and took my first animation class and then I was hooked.”

His mother, Sally, gave him advice he continues to use frequently. “She was a big believer that if you’re going to do something, you go all the way and pay attention to the details and do it right — whether it was a dinner party or a Christmas or Thanksgiving family gathering.” His parents, who now live in Washington Twp., are still hosting those family gatherings.

Martino was, in fact, home in Dayton for Thanksgiving when he’d started working on the Peanuts film and his family decided to see a movie. “We looked at the list and realized we could either go to a film the adults would like or one the children would like, somebody was going to have to sacrifice,” he said. “With ‘Peanuts,’ the entire family can go and enjoy. It’s nostalgic for the parents and grandparents and Schulz’s humor was always directed to the adults. It was reflective of his own life but coming out of the mouths of kids.”

One of the lines from the film, he said, illustrates the point. “Lucy is giving advice and she says: “What girls want are winners. Have you won a Nobel Peace Prize? Have you won a congressional medal of honor? What are your real estate holdings, do you have a diversified portfolio?”

Directing Peanuts

It was as an adult, Martino said, that he really began to study Charles Schulz’s work. ” I realized that his brilliance comes from the fact he captured the human condition. He was able to put — in funny ways — those feelings we all have and are afraid to share. It was never about pop culture or the news, it was about those life experiences, such as ‘will I succeed?’”

The new 3D Peanuts film revolves around Charlie Brown’s quest to be a winner and his daring to dream big. “He stumbles along the way and doesn’t become the winner in the way that Lucy has in mind, but what we see are the qualities Charlie Brown has had for 50 years — kindness, honesty and overall perseverance,” Martino explained. “He’s that guy that never gives up, and those qualities are more valuable than winning a medal. They have a greater impact on the people around him.”

The role of the director, explained Martino, is to do everything that a live action director would do. “You’re involved in casting the movie and working with actors to create vocal performances. I direct the animators, shape the story through story-boarding and work closely with the writer/producers — Craig Schulz, (son of Charles Schultz,) Bryan Schultz, (grandson of Charles Schulz and son of Craig Schultz) and Cornelius Uliano.

When he started the three-year project, Martino said, it was just he and Craig Schulz talking about the movie. “At the end, it’s me sitting in the room with the art director approving final color corrections,” he explained. “Along the way I led a team of close to 375 artists, and animators at Blue Sky Studios in New York. In animation we create everything, come up with the world, design characters.”

Martino said he loves making movies the entire family can see. His own daughters, now 20 and 17, grew up on their dad’s films. Both were voices in “Horton Hears A Who!”

“I love to create an experience for the audience where the takeaway is that it was a long of fun,” he said, adding that the 80-minute Peanuts G-rated film also has its heartwarming and touching moments and is safer than other animated films. The new story is heavily based on the body of work Charles Schulz created. “When we laugh at Charlie Brown, we’re kinda laughing at ourselves,” Martino said. “We can see part of ourselves in what he created and that’s why it lasted for 50 years.”

Writing the book

Schmitz, who is handling publicity and marketing for the Blue Sky Studios production, was also a Peanuts fan when he was growing up. “I had a beagle named Snoopy, and a German Australian shepherd mix named Schroeder,” he said. “I played piano since I was 4, and was playing Beethoven by the age of 6 or 7.”

He can’t imagine growing up anywhere else and has fond Dayton memories of Marion’s pizza and UD basketball in the Don Donoher years. He has extended family in town he visits three times a year; his parents are Barb and Jerry Schmitz of Kettering.

Schmitz, 51, said he always loved film and was always involved with broadcast, music, marching band. He remembers going to see “Star Wars” at the Dayton Mall and he interned as a reporter at WHIO-TV. He got his big break when he was working as a tour guide at Universal Studios in Hollywood and met Steven Spielberg. “I went to work for him, he’s probably one of the most collaborative people I’ve ever met and passionate when it comes to story,” Schmitz said.

His role as writer of the Peanuts book was to document the process of making the film. “Most of the big movies have a book to go with them,” he explained, adding that these art books are targeted to film buffs, fans of animation or, in this case, fans of the Peanuts gang. “To me, they are like a love letter to the crew, the artists and filmmakers because they spend three or four years working on these movies.”

Hie work involves immersing himself in the production and with the crew. “I went to visit many times to follow their process,” he explained. “I probably interviewed 15-20 people involved.”

The goal, he said, is to honor Charles Schulz’s penline. “If you look at one of the strips, you’ll see the way he drew the characters — the way he would draw a cloud or a tree or the doghouse,” he said. ” When you watch the movie, it’s like you watch the comic strip come to life in full color.”

The message of the film, he said, is never give up and dream big.

Schmitz said a highlight of his work on the new book was the opportunity to go to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California and to be in the office where Shulz drew the strip.

“There’s just something about those characters that resonates,” Schmitz said. “Everyone has their Charlie Brown moments and days when they are a little crabby and annoyed like Lucy. His brilliance was the ability to tap into these voices of these kids that really were adults in kids’ bodies, and being able to express anxiety, their joy, a little bit of all of us.”

Schmitz has also authored “The Art of Shrek Forever After” and “Surf’s Up: The Art and Making of a True Story” by Cody Maverick. For eight years, he managed the creative direction of the of the Jurassic Park franchise.

How they met

Dayton Daily News readers will get a kick out of the way Martino and Schmitz first met.

“Jerry came to Blue Sky, and he had figured out we went to school together at Alter,” recalls Martino. “I didn’t know then that he was going to write ‘The Making of the Peanuts’ movie and when he arrived I was going to pitch him him the movie and tell him the story.”

But before Martino could get started, Schmitz revealed that they shared a similar background. “I was totally dumbfounded,” Martino remembers. “It fell on a day when we were celebrating reaching 50 percent milestone in making the movie, and we were having a little party after work.” He invited Schmitz, who showed up wearing a University of Dayton hat.

“My parents are both UD grads, and we spent the entire evening talking about where our parents went to school and our shared teachers. The best part is that two days after we finished our work, a big package arrived and it was a giant box of Esther Price chocolate! Only he would know how important that was to me,” Martino said. “Now everybody at Blue Sky knows how wonderful Esther Prize candy is!”

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