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Sony’s ‘Peter Rabbit’ Learns New Tricks for Feature Update

Animal Logic rolls with director Will Gluck’s live-action approach to create a convincing hybrid world for animal and human stars to share.

Animal Logic provided the animation for Sony’s ‘Peter Rabbit.’

Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit” stories and illustrations have been beloved for more than a century by generations of children and adults. One of them is filmmaker Will Gluck, co-writer, director and producer of a new feature film adaptation that updates the classic tale with a modern sensibility and a convincing mixture of CG animation and live-action moviemaking.

“I’ve always loved the Beatrix Potter books and the paintings -- it really stuck with me, this mischievous little character who was told not to go into the garden because his father did and his father was killed, and yet he still went in there,” says Gluck, whose feature directing credits include the 2014 version of Annie, and the comedies Friends with Benefits, Easy A and Fired Up! “I’ve never done a kids’ or a hybrid animated movie before, and I like to do different things, so I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Released by Sony and animated by Australia-based animation studio Animal Logic, the new Peter Rabbit stars Rose Byrne as a modern day version of Potter and Domhnall Gleeson as the young inheritor of Mr. McGregor’s farm. The farm animals are all CG animated to an all-star voice cast that includes James Corden as Peter Rabbit; Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley as Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail; Colin Moody as Benjamin Bunny; and singing sensation Sia as Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle.

The movie’s visuals were worked out by storyboarding multiple iterations, Gluck says, adding he intended to use previs more extensively, but he preferred to approach Peter Rabbit more like a live-action movie. “I change a lot, rewrite a lot,” he says. “So once we got on set and shot the live action portion of it, a lot of things changed.”

Then the storyboard artists went back put rough cartoon-like drawings of the characters into the live action plates as often as needed while the movie was being cut together. “Because the animators are awesome and amazing, they have their own ideas, so we changed it yet again with them,” Gluck says. “It took on a life of its own, and then the last four or five months was just purely the integration of the animation into the live-action plates.”

Animation was involved in the movie very early on, and had someone -- usually animation lead Simon Pickard -- on set for the entire shoot, which ensured the live action plates were usable and that shots were staged in ways the animators could work with. Helping meet those goals was Kelly Baigent, who was head of story on the movie as well as the second-unit director.

Byrne and Gleeson were given a chance to hold real rabbits so they could understand how to perform a shot holding a blue stuffy that would be replaced with a digital character. Visual effects supervisor Will Reichelt says there were multiple stuffys, some of which were like a weighted sandbag, while others had a rigid armature that could be articulated.

One of the highlights of the film is an early sequence in which the elder McGregor chases the animals through his garden, which becomes a maze of prized vegetables to steal and dangerous items turned into traps and obstacles for the hapless farmer.

“We really just wanted to do as much practically as quickly as we could,” says Reichelt. “We would rig different things we needed to have interactions, with like the rabbits brush past bunch of rakes and hoes and things, and they’re leaning up against the wheelbarrow, so we would rig those practically to fall over as the rabbits ran through it.”

The rest was done digitally, including creating digital grass, pebbles and dust that could interact with the characters as needed.

The process of creating the digital farm animals was constantly evolving throughout the production. Gluck says he asked Animal Logic production designer Simon Whiteley to make the animals very lifelike, which started with emulating their anatomy and articulation. “Nothing that these animals do, they can’t do in real life,” he says. “Can a rabbit walk on two feet? Yes, they can. For this long? Probably not. But nothing they do is not natural for them.”

Real rabbits were brought in to Animal Logic for the crew to look at and record video of in an attempt to understand the animals’ mannerisms. “We found that if we did if we did too much naturalistic, rabbity kind of behavior, it was actually quite confusing,” Pickard says. “When you look at a rabbit, it just constantly twitches its nose, and we had that on early tests and early shots, and it just got quite annoying quite early on.... It was very hard to layer a performance over the top of that.”

The first experiments were more realistic, with Pickard saying it was getting into the same territory as Disney’s hybrid version of The Jungle Book before the performances from the voice actors -- Corden in particular -- and the story itself pulled it back a bit.

“The original style that we were aiming for was obviously too restrained, so things started loosening up a little bit more, and we tied into a lot of what James was doing in his voice record sessions -- his timing and his tempo, especially, was very easy to relate to our world, the animation world,” says Pickard. “We did still have this challenge though of we wanted them to feel like they were still real creatures and not bipedal characters that always walk on two legs.”

Animating rigs that will have fur and feathers applied is always difficult for animators, Pickard says, and it was alleviated on Peter Rabbit by the speed with which Animal Logic was able to turnaround renders. “It wasn’t the final quality render, but it was still very, very impressive and it actually confused Will Gluck quite a few times,” says Pickard. In addition to fur, the render would have all the image-based lighting from the set, helping tremendously with nailing facial expressions in particular.

Pickard says the crew peaked at about 80 animators working as six core teams, each with a lead animator and a technical animator.

One of the more unusual aspects of the production was the back and forth between the voice actors and the animators in refining the characters’ performances. Gluck would show the animation over multiple recording sessions to the actors, who would incorporate what they saw into their performances. “We recorded the actors many times during the storyboard phase and before we started shooting,” he says.

“We would reanimate quite a lot in the early days to what they were doing,” says Pickard, who said it was helpful to have multiple iterations of lines to animate to. “I’d worked on films before where you get one shot at a recording session and that’s it, and it can be very hard then to get the performance that you want with the animation style you want.”

Gluck says he’s happy with his first animated feature. “I’d always heard from my friends that did these movies that I’m gonna have so much fun in the animation process, and they were right,” he says. “I was just blown away by the talent (at Animal Logic) and how and how much they can elevate the material.”

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.