The live action/animated hybrid film was conceived by Animal Logic Entertainment (ALE) in 2013 before partnering with Will Gluck’s Olive Bridge Entertainment and Sony/Columbia Pictures in 2014. The film features an all-star cast including James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley. Peter Rabbit tells the story of Peter and his family, a new addition to the countryside, Thomas McGregor, and their ongoing tussle over the ownership of a vegetable garden and affection for the loveable neighbour Bea. Ultimately though, the story is a tale about learning to embrace and accept each other’s differences.
Pre-production began in January 2016, with story reels, character and production design developed, created and refined at Animal Logic’s studio in Sydney. The main live action unit shoot ran from January to March of 2017 in various locations in NSW, including Centennial Park (where Mr McGregor’s mansion, his garden and Bea’s cottage were built), Camden, Bringelly, Mortuary Station and Thirlmere. January 2017 was the warmest month on RECORD in Sydney, with the on set crew sweltering through a majority of days above 35 degrees and some above 40 degrees (Sam Neill even had a refrigerated bodysuit to keep him cool between takes!).
With the majority of our 1700 cast and crew being from Australia, Peter Rabbit is a testament to the highly skilled filmmakers available in our creative industries. It took about 12 months to bring Peter Rabbit, his family and friends to life at Sydney’s Animal Logic Studios. The talented animation and VFX teams at Animal Logic worked their magic from January 2017 to January 2018, with additional VFX support provided by some of Australia’s most respected VFX houses included Rising Sun Pictures, Cutting Edge, Cumulus VFX and Slate VFX.
From March to April 2017, main unit shoot re-located to London to film at various iconic locations such as Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Harrods department store, which for the first time in its history, opened its doors to a film production. According to VFX supervisor, Will Reichelt, the store would close around 9pm and they would have the whole store to themselves until opening the following morning. Plate unit also traveled to the Lake District for extensive aerial photography and additional plates to recreate the world where many of Beatrix Potter’s stories take place – Windermere.
One of the biggest challenges of the film was staying true to the original characters and the world of “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Collaborating with Frederick Warne & Co., part of Penguin Random House UK, was integral in insuring the film stayed true to the original. “As custodians of Beatrix Potter’s brand and legacy, we are excited about the opportunity this production will bring to engage a whole new audience with the world of Beatrix Potter and one of her best-loved characters, the mischievous Peter Rabbit’, said Tom Weldon, CEO Penguin Random House UK.
Producer, Zareh Nalbandian was “very keen to make sure that we would honour the legacy and would keep the integrity of such a beloved property and create something that would honour the traditional story of Peter Rabbit.”
Interestingly, the team looked to the past to create a film for the 21st century. Original Beatrix Potter illustrations and stories were used extensively as reference material to guide the creative direction but also to keep the integrity and spirit of the original creations. Real rabbits were researched in detail – looking at their physiology and movement, and the behaviour of their fur and eye positioning. Animation Director, Rob Coleman, worked with his team to “try and find a balance for the young audiences of today who maybe didn’t grow up with the books. For the older people and the grandparents, the watercolour sequence pointed back to the beautiful work she had done in her books.”
One of the major departures from the illustrations was in the way the rabbits moved. In the original creations, the rabbits are mostly seen standing on their hind legs. In order to avoid making the characters too cartoonish, certain adjustments had to be made. According to Will Reichelt, “the rabbits’ anatomies were a unique blend of real rabbit with bespoke adjustments to limb and body proportions that would allow them to stand on two legs and walk, as well as go down on four legs and run.” Animation Director, Rob Coleman, remembers the initial brief from Director, Will Gluck, being “realistic rabbits that wear clothes, and they’ll only step up on their back feet to talk. This prompted a whole discussion about how cartoonish or realistic did the rabbits need to be, which needed to happen prior to shooting because we needed to be able to tell the director and director of photography how quickly the rabbits would move from here to there.”
In addition to refining the movements, the animators also had to focus on creating engaging performances – the rabbits needed to reflect the voice actors’ timing and performance. Animation Supervisor, Simon Pickard, explained how “the animators needed to loosen up the motion and make it as performance-driven as possible.” Talking was also a particular challenge as real rabbits are very twitchy and their noses never stop moving. After a few tests, this came across as being quite distracting. As the team received the actual lines from the script, they were able to find a good balance between realistic faces, with a touch of personality from the voice actors.
To round out the creation of these characters, the artists also needed to cover the rabbits from head to toe with believable fur. While the Animal Logic team had proprietary grooming tool ALFRO at their disposal, the 5-8 million hairs per character, plus the added complication of fur and cloth interaction, meant that a new suite of grooming tools within ALFRO had to be developed specifically for this project.
Having not previously worked on a film with such a high level of visual effects, it was a steep learning curve for director, Will Gluck. For every step of the process, Gluck had to imagine how the CG characters would interact, not only with the environment but with the real-life actors, such as Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne. To make sure these technical difficulties were kept to a minimum, VFX Supervisor Will Reichelt, worked on set throughout the shoot, advising the production and supervising the camera work if necessary. Animation Supervisor, Simon Pickard, would also work with Gluck to block out the action and timing.
One technique that was helpful according to Reichelt, was what they called ‘bunny troupe’, involving stand-ins and people holding foam board representatives of the rabbits on sticks who would manoeuvre them around to represent their staging and action. Stuffies which were weighted and designed to match the body of a real rabbit were also used. This proved very helpful, especially in scenes where there was a need for human and CG interaction. With a hybrid film, a strong and decisive relationship between the animation and visual effects teams was vital.
With one of the highest averages of characters per shot, Animation Supervisor Simon Pickard notes that Peter Rabbit was “pretty challenging in every shot,” and notes one of the most complicated sequences, both physically and technically, for the Animal Logic team being the fight with McGregor in the conservatory. Stuffies, performers in blue suits and practical FX were all used to give Domnhall’s character something to interact with.In addition to the use of props, a live playback system showing what the camera was shooting was also constantly relayed back to Pickard. This enabled the team to quickly communicate between themselves on what was feasibly possible from an animation and technical standpoint.
Peter Rabbit is now available on DVD, BluRay & 4K.
Interested to find out more about our work on the film? Check out these in depth interviews!