When New York-based Iconix Brand Group formed joint-venture Peanuts Worldwide in 2010 with the heirs of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, the company knew it had a responsibility to take the multi-generational property into the future in creative and innovative new ways.
Recognizing the rise in digital media and mobile device usage, it quickly set Snoopy up on social media (the beagle has 300,000 Twitter followers and more than seven million Facebook fans), launched apps, secured video partnerships with Vine and Instagram, and announced that the first-ever CG-animated Peanuts feature from Twentieth Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios would hit theaters on November 6, 2015.
But before Charlie Brown and the gang make their big-screen debut in 3D, Peanuts Worldwide is refreshing the brand for television.
On November 8, France 3 launched the first of 500 new Peanuts shorts from Normaal Animation and France Télévisions. And in December, Peanuts Worldwide will mark the property’s 50-years-on-TV milestone with Disney-owned US broadcaster ABC by launching perhaps its biggest, most ambitious project and event yet.
“When we first put our plans for Peanuts in place, it occurred to us that the 50th anniversary of the Christmas and Halloween specials was approaching,” says Leigh Anne Brodsky, MD of Peanuts Worldwide. “So we started to think about the idea of restoring the specials because they play such an important role in TV history.”
Kim Towner, SVP of media production and programming for Peanuts Worldwide, says the company immersed itself in understanding how to future-proof the specials, which have drawn consistently strong ratings on US primetime network television since A Charlie Brown Christmas made its ABC debut on December 9, 1965.
Ultimately, the company determined that a 4K restoration would be best because Ultra High-Definition TV (UHDTV) is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and is not expected to go the same route as the gimmicky 3D televisions that launched a few years back.
“4K is the future. We saw the trend coming, so we jumped on it,” says Towner.
While the format, which uses four times as many pixels as regular HD content, has yet to achieve mass-market appeal, most major manufacturers have 4K TVs available, prices are dropping (to about US$2,500 on average), screen sizes are shrinking, and demand is growing.
In August, Taiwan-based Digitimes Research predicted that global shipments of Ultra HD TV units will reach 68.2 million in 2017—up from 1.5 million units shipped worldwide last year, and more than doubling the expected shipment of 30 million units in 2015.
As for content, it’s been a slow progression with streaming services leading the way. In April 2014, Netflix was the first big provider to deliver 4K content to the home with House of Cards season two, and Amazon has stated it plans to shoot all of its 2014 original series in 4K.
Peanuts Worldwide, according to Towner, considers itself fortunate to be among the first to get in the 4K pipeline. It’s in the midst of converting its entire ABC Peanuts catalog—more than 60 specials and some documentaries—into 4K with new partner Technicolor, a company at the forefront of 4K innovation, mastering and restoration.
Technicolor’s M-GO video rental service with DreamWorks Animation recently launched a 4K streaming portal that debuted on Samsung Ultra HD TVs. The pay-as-you-go service now has content licensing deals with the likes of Sony Pictures, Warner Bros. and Disney.
Peanuts Worldwide found more reasons to believe in its 4K project from its recent consumer research with millennial moms. “We wanted to check in with consumers to see how they are feeling about 50-year-old programming,” says Brodsky. “We tested in multiple markets in the US and found that co-viewing is strong with the brand—young moms consider the Christmas and Halloween specials, in particular, as family time.”
A 2014 Peanuts study also revealed that the specials’ ratings with kids six to 11 in the US were up approximately 150% versus the previous year. “It’s clearly resonating with the next generation, which makes us feel good about investing in the restoration,” she says.
The nuts and bolts of restoration
After Peanuts Worldwide decided to take the plunge and hand over its historic film to Technicolor, one of the first things that surprised the company’s mastering and restoration account executive, Ron Smith, was the reaction of Technicolor’s staff. “Our color technicians—grown men and women—were fighting over the right to work on it. It’s wild because everyone seems to have this special relationship with the series. It goes to show how fondly it’s remembered,” says Smith.
According to Towner, it’s estimated that the restoration of the entire catalog will take about two years. “We prioritized the first 20 specials to restore by determining the most popular ones. The first to air will be A Charlie Brown Christmas in December,” she says. “We’ve also expedited the first 10 that will air on ABC in 2015.”
Interestingly, because 4K hasn’t become fully mainstream with consumers yet, ABC will be promoting the specials as “digitally remastered” this year. But according to Peanuts Worldwide, that messaging may change next year.
Back at Technicolor, Smith says a core group of five to six people are doing most of the restoration work, with about 20 people involved overall. He says the first step in launching a restoration project is research. “You want to know as much as you possibly can about every aspect of the IP and be true to the original,” he says.
The next step was to create a plan with Peanuts Worldwide and collect materials. Smith says his team has been very lucky so far because it’s received all of the original elements for each special. “It means we have the original film negatives and original 35mm magnetic film soundtracks to work with. A lot of restoration projects aren’t that fortunate.”
Smith was also amazed by how well the elements have been preserved. “They were in surprisingly good shape. I was really afraid of opening the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, for example, because magnetic sound film usually deteriorates faster than pictures. But it played back, wasn’t warped and didn’t smell. We were very fortunate.”
Smith and his team first check the negatives for splices and any obvious signs of wear-and-tear and then make repairs to ensure the film is ready for the 4K scanning process. “We put the film on the scanner and take a picture of each frame, which becomes a digital data file. While one camera takes a picture of the RGB image, a second camera simultaneously takes a picture of the dirt and defects on the negative. Then each picture needs to be color-corrected and cleaned,” says Smith.
As many of the film negatives are quite old, Technicolor is using an archival scanner that handles film very gently—it doesn’t have any teeth or sprockets to hold the holes in the film.
One of the more obvious challenges of restoring decades-old series is dealing with animation from different eras where many different groups of people are involved. “[Peanuts] tried to be consistent with color palettes, but every show is a little different. Even with the first special, we debated over what color Charlie Brown’s sweater was,” says Smith. “With HD and 4K, you can produce colors you haven’t seen before. It’s a completely different palette from when the series started being produced.”
Fortunately, some of the people who worked on the original specials, including Lee Mendelson, an executive producer on all of them, lent a helping hand. “They were able to bring in cells of the original animation which showed us what it was supposed to look like,” says Smith.
One of the not-so-obvious challenges of the project was coping with the inconsistencies in cataloging and naming that can occur with a long-running property that had changed hands.
“When you go to pull elements, or ship elements, you realize the importance of just being accurate like a librarian or a vault attendant,” says Smith. “I counted, and among all the shows, 55 of them contain the words Charlie Brown and 14 start with ‘It’s.’ A lot of people like to eliminate those things.”
While the restoration has gone smoothly so far, Smith says that when you’re dealing with original elements, certain problems can’t be fixed, no matter how much you want to remedy them. “In A Charlie Brown Christmas, we did encounter an audio problem that I never noticed before. I had that immediate sense of panic, but we knew it couldn’t be fixed. You just have to live with it.”
As Peanuts Worldwide ramps up for the 50th anniversary of the specials, Towner says the most welcome surprise for her is how much the restored versions have exceeded their expectations. “Peanuts in 4K is gorgeous, warm and textured. When you see the beauty of taking things back to their original color, it’s truly special.”
For viewers wondering how the specials will look on current HDTVs, Smith says they have a lot to look forward to. “Although no one really knows the true resolution of a film negative, 4K scanning and finishing comes closer to reproducing the original film element than ever before,” he says. “As for picture quality, the more pixels in a digital image, the better the downstream visuals. So even on current high-definition televisions, the picture will be better than ever. The soundtracks have also been cleaned, restored and optimized for modern broadcast and home theater.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Kidscreen.