How Charlie Brown became a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon again
There is a Santa's workshop and it's in the heart of New Jersey.
Housed in a relatively understated, three-story brick building, Macy's Studio is not filled with toys, but, instead, wondrous holiday creations that boggle the mind. Year-round, a team of designers, builders and artists craft the floats and giant balloons that populate the annual holiday season extravaganza known as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I was there one early Monday morning for an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at one of their newest creations: a brand-new Charlie Brown parade balloon designed to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Peanuts' musical You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. The Peanuts franchise also recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I'm greeted at the door by John Piper, the gregarious Macy's Studio VP who quickly offers me coffee and then launches into an abbreviated history of the Studio. This is actually a relatively new location — it was built in 2011 — but it has a distinctive lived-in and somewhat magical look. All around me are colorful artifacts from the parade's 93-year history (this year will mark the 90th parade — they cancelled it during World War II). A piece of a castle is nestled just above the entrance, giant, smiling salt and pepper shakers adorn the kitchen and the Golden Gate Bridge is just opposite the reception desk. I could stare at these things all day long, but that's not why I commuted nearly two hours to get here.
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Piper leads me into a large room where I spot dozens of miniature replicas of parade balloons from what appears to be almost the entire recent history of the parade. I spy a skating Ronald McDonald, Shrek, Pikachu, Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine. Most are perfect, colorful replicas, others are white with faint grid lines drawn on them.
In the center of it all is my quarry: Charlie Brown. He's in a familiar pose, running, full-tilt with his red kite and its length of string frustratingly wrapped around him. The inspiration for this classic moment comes straight from the popular play. In one scene, Charlie Brown finally gets the kite off the ground, only to have that insane kite-eating tree snatch it out of the sky and devour it. It's a perfect and memorable Peanuts tableau.
Granted, the maquette hanging over the workbench is, at roughly three feet long, a fraction of the size of the final 53-foot long by 46-foot tall by 31-foot wide balloon scheduled to join the parade in November.
A team of 40, not counting partners like Peanuts LLC and some of the Macy's staff outside the studios, works on each balloon for up to eight weeks. This Charlie Brown is no different.
Making a 53-foot-long helium-filled balloon is, it turns out, equal parts art, technology and intuition.
Piper walked me through the whole process, which naturally starts with a drawing.
"We start with a sketch, take the character and pose it in a position so it can be a balloon in flight," he said. Getting Charlie Brown from a sketch on the page to a balloon, though, meant converting a 2D character into three dimensions. As the animators who created last year's The Peanuts Movie discovered, it's not easy to build a three-dimensional object out of something usually only presented in two.
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Eventually the Studio team settled on a pose and look, which was then approved by Peanuts.
The next step is a pair of scale drawings that look at the front and side of the balloon. The page I saw also included a bunch of colored lines, which were actually guidance for the model makers, so they know where to put the armature that will support the heavy, reddish model clay. This design phase is also where the team starts to do the math to figure out aerodynamics and volume coefficients to know just how much helium and heavier air ballasts they'll need to float a giant, 450-pound Charlie Brown and his 30-foot kite.
Getting to some of that detail, however, turns out to be more art than pure science. Making these balloons flight-worthy and manageable for a team of roughly 50 wranglers is done "intuitively in sketch stage because we have so many years' experience," said Piper.
Sculpting the balloon is a critical phase, because it will ultimately define exactly how the real balloon looks.
"It lets us rotate it and tilt it and show it in flight position," said Piper. "It gives us minute control over design."
Before they can move onto the next phase, though, Pam Drucker, senior 3D artist for Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, is brought in to make sure the balloon actually looks like the loveable comic strip character. Drucker was there for my tour, but chose to step back and smile approvingly as Piper explained her contribution.
"She knows the character and fine-tunes," he said. Which means ensuring that the hands, eyes, nose, ears and even the familiar black stripe on Charlie's shirt are on point.
Pour it on
Macy's Studio creates a pair of maquettes from the initial sculpt. On the table I saw the used mold, which retains a negative of Charlie Brown in a think, pink rubber shell. Long-time studio painter Beth Lucas paints one maquette in exquisite detail and they even wrap it in ribbon to approximate the kite line. A second maquette remains white and unpainted. It gets covered in grid lines that represents fabric seams, inflation and deflation points, the internal structure of the balloon and the placement of tag lines for the balloon handlers.
At this point, the balloon design process goes digital. Piper told me they scan the white model into a computer and then double check all the calculations.
We walked down the hall to a smaller corner office where we found Jerry Ospa. Hanging above his head was a replica of the Bugs Bunny balloon from the 1989 parade. Ospa, a 28-year Studio vet, told me that was the first parade balloon he ever worked on.
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On Ospa's computer screen was a gray, CAD version of Charlie Brown and his kite. Ospa could rotate the model, scroll around and highlight any fabric panel. The pattern gets sent to a computer-guided machine, which cuts out each of the roughly 100 panels to the exact shape and size. While many of the panels are on the exterior, some are on the inside, to separate the chambers. Charlie Browns has 16 separate chambers. "We have lift chambers at top and ballast chambers at bottom," explained Ospa. More than 250 yards of fabric goes into the creation of the new Charlie Brown parade balloon. No one would share, by the way, how much it costs to build one of these balloons.
Some of the team's computer work involved ensuring that the balloon can work on the streets of The Big Apple.
"We try to make it fit into a profile to work in Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York," added Piper. Fortunately, New York City features unusually wide avenues and a lot of overhead space to accommodate these balloons. Even so, high winds have, in the past, been a problem. In 1997, a rather towering Cat in the Hat balloon blew into a light pole, which fell and injured a spectator on the ground. Since then Macy's representatives told me they "have evolved both the size and design, flight management/handling and weather monitoring techniques over time, but specifically since the late 1990s."
Macy's Studio would not show me the completed balloon. There are still some test flights to take and, even then, it won't make its public debut until a few weeks before the parade. In the meantime, Macy's Studio's designers are blowing up Charlie Brown with air, climbing inside and looking for leaks, a task that's not simple with modern-day balloons.
The original balloons, Piper told me, were made of dark, neoprene-covered fabric. "We used to go in the balloons and it was black inside." Eventually, though, their eyes would adjust just enough to clearly spot "China stars of lights," which indicated tiny leaks that needed patching. The new polyurethane-covered nylon fabric is lighter and more translucent, but the designers still climb inside looking for those tiny, brighter points of light.
Charlie rises again
Each year the parade promises 16 to 17 eye-popping balloons, only a handful of which are new. So Charlie Brown's appearance in this rarefied and slow-changing collection is notable.
Peanuts, however, is actually Macy's longest executive parade partner, which is probably why there have been seven different Snoopy balloons. This is only the second Charlie Brown parade balloon, which, considering how Charlie Brown is almost always ignored by his own pet and sometimes his peers, seems appropriate.
When Charlie is ready to go, it will get folded up in a compact-car-sized bin and marked with the letters "PR" for "Parade Ready." After that, it, along with a caravan of deconstructed floats and other balloons will be driven to the start of the parade route where they'll be inflated and prepped. And on Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown will rise for yet another fruitless effort to get his kite aloft. If only he knew he was already flying.
Before I left, Piper took me to the cavernous, warehouse-like spaces where they build all of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats. It is the closest thing I've ever seen to Santa's workshop. It is also super-secret, which means, like most magical things in our world, I can't tell you a thing about it.