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PETER RABBIT

About The Production
DESIGN AND ANIMATION PROCESS

"I wanted the audiences to forget this was an animated film," says Will Gluck of his approach to the direction. "Hopefully, after the first few minutes of getting acclimated to the fact that animals are talking and wearing clothes, it just feels real to the audience."

The animation was overseen by producer Zareh Nalbandian and his company Animal Logic, which previously produced the animated hits The Lego Movie (and its sequel, The Lego Batman Movie) and Happy Feet. "For Will, all the animated characters in PETER RABBITtm exist just like the characters played by Rose and Domhnall," he says. "As we approached the animation, we had the same kinds of questions for him that the live-action actors might ask. 'How do you want Benjamin Bunny to feel? How do you want him to emote?' It's all about performance. We consider our characters as real characters, so our dialogue with Will was on that level. For our animators, that was fantastic because Will didn't put restrictions on anything, but it was also immensely challenging. This was probably the most complex film that we've made at Animal Logic."

The film features not just rabbits but pigs, badgers, sparrows, and more, each with different skin or fur or feathers, some clad in clothing that gets dirty, torn and wet. Costume designer Lizzy Gardiner not only oversaw the costuming of the live-action cast - she was also brought in early in the design phase to help determine what the animated animals would wear. "It was a challenge," says Gardiner, "because we were trying to stay true to Beatrix Potter's vision while also modernizing what she had done. As we got further into it, we realized that every single choice she made, she made for a good reason."

The production ran parallel animation and live action units during principal photography, with editors cutting scenes while the film was shooting, and storyboard artists drawing over cut scenes to represent where the animals might be.

With that, Gluck could get a sense of the film he had shot and the possibilities for animation. And with that, he discovered the great blessing and curse of animation: you can always change it. "You don't have that in live-action - you shoot the scene, and the scene's over. In animation, anyone can say, 'Here's an idea that could improve the scene.' And while the animators were sleeping, I was rewriting," he says - noting that the animators were ready for it. "There were over 400 people working on Peter Rabbit. They were all studying their small portion of the film and coming up with the most wonderful ideas. The 'what-ifs' were the fun part of this movie."

SPECIAL EFFECTS AND VISUAL EFFECTS

The PETER RABBITtm screenplay called for scenes of exploding fruit and vegetables, fireworks, electrocutions, and fierce human-rabbit battles.

Given that Will Gluck's vision was that these scenes should play out more like Saving Private Ryan than Bambi, the collaboration and understanding between the special effects department on set and the visual effects department in the animation studio would be vital.

Peter Stubbs was engaged as the film's Special Effects Supervisor, and Tom Wood and Will Reichelt were brought on as Visual Effects Supervisors.

Stubbs is usually asked to supervise the effects on action films like Ghost Rider and television series like "The Pacific," and was drawn to PETER RABBITtm by the chance to do something very different. "It was a sweet story and funny, a good change from what we normally would do," he says. "Will, Tom and I had many meetings about what should be real and what should be computer-generated, and what each unit needed to monitor to ensure the end results would marry well. Simple elements like dust or rain can make the visual effects job very hard. My unit needed to know where the rabbits and other animals would travel through the frame, what they might rub against, how they would move."

Realizing Gluck's vision for a battle with exploding fruit and vegetables required a lot of messy trial and error, Stubbs says. "We had to design little explosions that represented the firecrackers that Thomas throws at the rabbits. The rabbits retaliate by firing fruit, so we did lots of experiments exploding organic matter to the point where my workshop was literally covered with little bits of dried up fruit and vegetables. We built soft fruit, and made our own specialized guns to shoot the fruit exactly where we wanted it to go."

PETER RABBITtm was Tom Wood's first film that combines live-action with animation. "Looking at the script, I could see that every page had a challenge, but the joy is how you approach them on a day to day basis," he explains. "What excited me most was the chance to bring the character of Peter Rabbit to life in a way that hadn't been seen on film, in a photorealistic way. That was a fantastic challenge."

Wood and Reichelt mapped out the rules of this world with Gluck. They had many questions that might not ever be addressed in the film itself - How is it that the animals can talk? Is that something that's just accepted as part of the cinematic universe being created? Who makes their clothes? How do they wash their clothes? - but would determine how the visual effects department would approach the work in creating and animating the characters. "You have to ask all these kinds of questions," says Reichelt, "and then, eventually, you whittle it down to the characters themselves and their relationships to each other, and how they then relate to the human world."

The visual effects team was structured into a main unit and a plate unit. The main unit, headed by Reichelt, dealt with everything involving the live actors and interactions they have with the CG characters in scenes. The plate unit, managed by Wood and directed by Head of Story Kelly Baigent, dealt with shots and scenes featuring only CG characters. There were always two Animal Logic animation supervisors on set from these units to monitor and convey the necessary information to the live action crew.

Gluck didn't want it to feel like there was a miniature world for the animals and a larger world for the human characters, but rather a continuous world with no seams. "The cliché choice would be to shoot all the rabbit ground level footage as miniature, with a super shallow depth of field, to give a sense that everything feels large to them, but Will wanted a very different feel," says Wood. "We shot it as if the rabbits are just slightly smaller people. All the conversations work in the same way that conversations work between humans."

In animating the characters, the animators once again looked to Beatrix Potter's original illustrations for inspiration: though the character walks on two legs and wears his signature blue jacket, Potter drew a rabbit that was otherwise realistic. "Peter stands up, he wears a jacket, he has James Corden's voice, but he's also a real rabbit, so we had to incorporate rabbit-like twitches of ears and nose into a complex, nuanced, anthropomorphic performance," says Wood. "We had to make sure that we were visually supporting what James was conveying with his vocal performance, creating subtle eyebrow raises to convey sarcasm, for example. There was a delicate balance to be struck."

For the main unit shots, as the actors performed scenes that would feature the animated characters, it was important to allow the actors to hold something in frame (rather than pantomime) for two reasons. First, it was the best way to get a good physical performance from the actors, and second, the visual effects team could use the photography as reference for the way light in the scene would fall on the CG animals. "We had a very high quality stuffy of Peter made that was held out in front of the camera, and twisted and turned and so we could see him from all angles. We also had traditional VFX silver and grey balls, which captured the reflected light and gave us a check for lighting and color," says Wood. The effects team also created VFX balls with different fur and cloth finishes, representing each of the different characters, to show how light and wind would affect each one differently.

The dramatic scene in which the burrow is exploded and the tree falls into Bea's conservatory was the most detailed interaction between special and visual effects, achieved with a practical, live explosion and a combination of practical and digital breakage on the cottage to get the final effect. The tree had to be made and installed by the special effects team in the location, with a hinge so that it could fall over and be raised against for successive takes. The tree was then digitally extended by the visual effects team during post production.

Despite such complex choreography, the scenes of dramatic action weren't the most complex for visuals effects team, which were instead those moments involving close interaction between human actors and the CG characters. "You have to do a lot of fine, detailed work to make it feel like the characters are actually touching each other," explains Reichelt. "The physics of how they move, the way that Peter's fur needs to respond if McGregor's fingers are digging into it and pushing it back away from the grain, the way that they shadow or reflect onto each other - all of that requires a lot of painstaking, frame-by-frame work to get it to perfectly mesh together."

THE LIVE ACTION SHOOT

The film's location and studio shoots took place in London, in the Lake District, and in Sydney, Australia.

The Australian part of the shoot was scheduled for the early months of the year, during the Australia's summer season. Sydney offered a particularly beautiful, verdant location - Centennial Park, one of the oldest planted spaces in Australia, laid out by English gardeners and containing English trees - in which to construct the McGregor manor and Bea's cottage.

"We built a world that we hope looks exactly like it did in Beatrix Potter's books," says Gluck. "We took every little detail, reverse engineered what it would look like in the context of the real world, then built it."

Roger Ford, who had helped craft the visual worlds of the Babe films, the Narnia films, and P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan, was engaged as the film's production designer. His first major task was the design and construction of the manor house and the cottage.

"Several of us went to the Lake District on a research trip," says Ford. "The manor house we built is very typical of the construction techniques of the region, and Bea's cottage mimics Beatrix Potter's Yew Tree Farm cottage, a white stucco building with a slate roof."

On set, both buildings were built from timber and plywood and covered in burlap, with the stonework and roofing made of plaster. For Bea's cottage, however, Gluck and Ford decided to construct a building with a complete interior - unusual for a feature film. Though it's usually most efficient to build a shell exterior and shoot the interior scenes on a soundstage, the unique requirements of Bea's cottage turned that on its head.

"A lot of the action takes place in Bea's glass-roofed conservatory," notes Ford, explaining that every scene shot in the conservatory would have to look out, through the glass, onto the McGregor manor and the vegetable garden. "It seemed to me that trying to do the interiors on a soundstage and convincingly back all that glass would be problematic. It would be much easier if we created the interiors inside the exterior, so that the camera could look out of Bea's conservatory and onto the manor house."

Because of its practical interiors, the cottage had to be weatherproof inside and out. During the shoot, it could be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit under a baking sun one moment, and torrential rain the next.

The scale of the animal characters affected certain elements of the set that normally wouldn't need finishing. "You normally don't need to dress under the axle of a utility truck - but on Peter Rabbit, every little component down there had to be perfect because the characters and therefore the camera were going to be right down there. We had to examine everything in minute detail."

Ford found an artist who could create Bea's rabbit paintings, mimicking Potter's style, scaled up. "Potter's paintings are tiny - there is a museum in the Lake District housing some of the originals, and they're very small," he says. "We've gone bigger so you can see them onscreen the movie, but they're very similar in style to the Beatrix Potter originals."

The other key location, of course, is McGregor's garden. "The garden is the rabbits' nirvana," says Gluck. "It contains everything the rabbits could possibly want. Once they've tasted its bounties, and it's taken away from them, they can't un-taste it."

"We needed to convey the garden from Peter's point of view - rich, lush, full of pleasure," adds Nalbandian. "Peter can't but help himself to go into it yet again and get into trouble yet again."

The garden was an ongoing development between Roger Ford's art department and Jack Elliott, the film's Head Greensman, who would take charge of growing 22 different vegetable and fruit varieties.

Before a single seed was sown, the filmmakers ensured that the garden would fit all of their needs. "Will was focused on the size of the garden - was it big enough?" says Ford. "We mapped out an area of the same size on the floor of the studio. Will wanted to see how high things were, both for the logistics of certain shots as well as for the impact of scale, so we set up structures to mimic the plant heights. Peter Menzies, Jr., the Director of Photography, was then concerned it wasn't broad enough for the chase scenes, so we enlarged those dimensions. It eventually reached the scale where we all thought, 'That's it, it's perfect.'"

Every plant in the garden had to be a variety that would grow in the Lake District. Beyond that, the world was open to them. The script had a few specific gags that referenced a particular fruit or vegetable; others were chosen for color.

From there, Elliott worked out how to create a garden in a static condition - the action in the film takes place over a week or two, but the film shoot took eight weeks. "We staged the vegetables," says Elliott. "Everything was in a pot so we could change them out easily. We used liquid fertilizing to try to get them ready in time, and watched the weather carefully."

For some plants, Elliott would create oversized amalgams. Eight tomato plants were stacked to create one. A late call for sunflowers resulted in artificial plants being slowly replaced out with real sunflowers as they grew in.

Roger Ford was greatly impressed with the construction and the greens teams. "The questions keeping me up at night were, 'How are we going to create slate roofs, which are so tricky to do?' 'How are we going to grow this incredible garden in time?' The plastering team, the construction team, the paint department and the greens team were all brilliant. Despite the high temperatures, leaks, winds and rain, everyone contributed to achieve amazing results."

"It was unbelievable to go from sitting in our office in Los Angeles looking at drawings and references of British manors and gardens, to go to location and to be able to see and touch them," says Hildebrand. "It was the most gorgeous set - everything we imagined - and it made me sad to think that it wasn't going to be permanent."

FILMING IN HARRODS

PETER RABBITtm is one of the very few films for which the world's most famous department store, Harrods, allowed filming inside their Knightsbridge, London store.

Harrods is exceptionally busy, welcoming thousands of visitors every day, so hosting a film of the scale of PETER RABBITtm inside the historic building was no easy feat.

The store has over 7,500 employees working on the shop floor, and has been selling toys based on characters from Beatrix Potter's books since at least 1910. Potter was a local Knightsbridge resident, and there are references to Harrods in the personal diary she kept as a 17-year-old girl.

"Thomas McGregor works at a place that is symbolic of a bustling city - just the opposite of where Peter Rabbit lives," says Hildebrand. "Harrods is an iconic place with a long, intimate connection to Beatrix Potter and her world - it was a perfect fit for us, and we were ecstatic that they were very excited to have us - they went above and beyond to host the shoot. We shot exteriors during the day, and interiors at night, outside of the store hours. They were late, long nights, but it was an incredible place in which to film."

Security was tight - from 9:00pm until 9:00am, the doors were locked while filming took place. Staff from various departments - from the Toy Department to the store's engineers to the cafeteria staff, who donated their restaurant space for the 100-person crew to eat in - were personally involved in making the shoot possible.

STUNT WORK

While the choreography of the rabbit stunt work could be meticulously and digitally controlled by the animation team at Animal Logic, the human stunt work in PETER RABBITtm rested primarily on the shoulders of one actor - Domhnall Gleeson, playing Thomas McGregor.

Lawrence Woodward, Stunt Coordinator, and Ben Smith-Petersen, Gleeson's stunt double, had a two-week rehearsal period with Gleeson. Each day, the actor worked through and mapped out the hand-to-hand combat with Peter Rabbit. Given that during the shoot, Peter would be an unseen enemy, it was like choreographing a dance sequence in which Gleeson was required to remember precisely his steps as well as those of his partner.

"Domhnall always came prepared," says Woodward. "No matter how small each piece of new movement was, he went away and did the work, which made our job a lot easier."

Gleeson performed his own stunts and physical work whenever possible. "We developed a lot of devices to use on set," recalls Woodward. "We had little blue sticks that we would poke him with, and guys in blue suits that could actually touch him. Occasionally, we'd throw a blue rabbit at him so he could have something to react to."

"I'm not a stunt man, so trying to figure out the beats to the scene and getting attacked by an invisible rabbit was not the easiest way to spend a day, but it was great fun," says Gleeson. "The stunt team, led by Lawrence and Ben, were brilliant. Will likes to change things up at the last minute, so there was a lot of thinking on our feet, but I think that led to a funnier version of what we'd mapped out, and that's all I was interested in achieving."

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