First springing from the mind of Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit is a creature that has captured the imagination of children for more than a century. Yet that doesn’t make adapting it for the big screen any easier: in many ways, it makes it harder. The character is beloved, with millions of people having an idea of how Peter should look and feel in a feature film. Australian company Animal Logic were willing to take on that weight of expectation, however, and the many challenges that followed to create Peter Rabbit (2018).
Shot on location in Sydney, Australia the film was a combination of live action and animation. It’s something that when done right, can be exceptional – Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – and when done wrong, well … the margin for error is significant. Yet there are few companies better suited to taking on the task than Animal Logic, who are internationally recognised for their work on the several Lego movies, Captain Marvel (2019), both Avengers films, The Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), Alien: Covenant (2017), 300 (2006), Happy Feet (2006) and many more.
“Peter Rabbit needed a lot of great invention to figure out how to best make a live action hybrid film versus a straight animation,” said Zareh Nalbandian, CEO of Animal Logic and producer on the film. In an interview with Screen Australia, he acknowledged the challenge of merging the two different mediums. “It’s very different because in animation you can keep making changes until the last week, whereas live action you have to lock and load: you have to commit to what you shoot on set and then you have to make the animation work to it.”
To bring the very specific aesthetic of Beatrix Potter’s world to life, physical sets were built in Sydney at the picturesque Centennial Parklands, including the most pivotal one: Mr McGregor’s cottage. A long-time foil of Peter and his furry family for their constant raiding of his garden, in the story Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson appeared as Thomas McGregor, Mr. McGregor's great nephew. A critically acclaimed performer known for his work in films such as Ex Machina (2014) and The Revenant (2015), rather than acting against a green screen Gleeson performed scenes alongside tangible sets and props. Everything was real except the title character of the film.
During the scenes where Gleeson and other actors would have to physically interact with the animated ones, Animal Logic had prop rabbits – or Prop Peters, if you will – who were used instead. In post-production, the Prop Peters were digitally removed and replaced with their animated counterparts, which sounds simple enough in theory but in execution required a lot of moving parts. “Computer generated animation doesn’t make a hybrid movie easier, in fact, computer generated visual effects and animation get more and more complex year after year,” said Nalbandian. “But it’s also far more complex and interesting and emotional for a storyteller.”
Will Reichelt, VFX Supervisor on Peter Rabbit, was the person tasked with overseeing the action on set, so both the actors and the animators had what they needed at various points. “The visual effects supervisor’s role is to work directly with the director and understand what they want creatively and to make sure that’s communicated correctly back to the team at the studio,” Reichelt told Screen Australia. “It’s also their responsibility to attend the shoot to make sure that we’re collecting all the information that we need to collect to do the work and then present the final creative work back to the director for their approval.”
The “biggest challenge” on Peter Rabbit according to Reichelt was making sure both interactions were equally as believable: the physical one and the digital. “It’s very hard to kind of reconcile what’s actually happening from a physical point-of-view on set to what the animation is going to be later,” he said. “So part of my role was to make sure the actors knew what their characters were meant to be doing at any given time and to make sure they had something physical there to interact with. The other aspect of my role is to communicate with the DOP (director of photography) and the camera operator to make sure they also know what Peter and the other characters are supposed to be doing in the shots so the camerawork then ties into the characters actions ... For instance, Peter might be running at a certain speed down the garden path, the camera might need to pan at a certain speed, then take two seconds to pan from right to left. The camera operator has to know that in order to do it at the right speed, so we have the information there to put Peter in at the correct speed later on.”
It also required the invention of “bespoke technology” said Nalbandian, a skill the company has developed inhouse thanks to their work on industry firsts like the various Lego movies. In order to more than just replace Prop Peters with the animated versions, each character needed to be as expressive as their human counterparts, with their facial features and also their body. This character technology joined what they had already created for fur and cloth as well, providing texture and depth to the deferent materials.
“We are now able to achieve a much higher level of quality on fur, for instance with a combination of the kind of rendering technology we implemented on the Lego movies,” said Reichelt. “So everything we do feeds into itself and it’s all in the service of pushing forward to create a better result.” It’s clearly something that worked, with director Will Gluck commenting during a screening of the final cut that it was easy to forget you were watching animated creations. “They’re just characters in the film,” said Reichelt. “And that’s exactly what we wanted.”
– Maria Lewis