‘Peter Rabbit 2’ shows how making a movie with digital rabbits can turn into a hare
On a sunny April morning, when director Will Gluck called out “Action!” in a scene from “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway”, the star of the film was nowhere to be found. The film’s production, which took place in Australia and England in the spring of 2019, was unique in that its main character, Peter Rabbit, was not added until after filming was completed. The process of making a movie without the tangible presence of its protagonists is a challenge, as Gluck knows from his experience directing the 2018 live-action hybrid. “Peter Rabbit.”
“This film was definitely a learning experience for me because I didn’t understand how it worked”, Gluck said to shoot a movie with CGI animated characters set in the real world. “I don’t know if I still know it, but now I have a better version.” The sequel, after quite a few jumps in the release schedule due to the pandemic, opens in the United States on Friday
Prior to filming, Gluck and Unit 2 Director Kelly Baigent scripted every shot in the film, which sees Peter teaming up with a gang of thieves after running away from his farm. The team then created what is known as an “animatic,” a hand-drawn scripted film with temporary voices and music to use as a shot for what they would need to capture on set. Gluck’s main unit filmed everything related to the human casting, which includes Rose Byrne as Bea McGregor, Domhnall Gleeson as Thomas McGregor and new addition David Oyelowo, who plays a devious editor hoping to profit from Bea’s stories about rabbits. Meanwhile, Baigent was tasked with filming any footage that would include Peter (James Corden) and his friends, including shots with human extras and stunts.
âOne thing that was really important to me was that Peter Rabbit was the star of the movie, we weren’t just taking stills and putting him in there,â says Baigent. âMy goal was to treat it as if it was a real movie and we were moving around the world with our characters across this world. It created a lot of technical challenges for us. It was a mix. interesting ultra high-tech, with rendering and lighting that came from a VFX point of view, and ultra low-tech, like people holding sticks with plastic rabbits. That meant we were able to achieve a truly immersive experience.
During the day on set two years ago, a scene where Nigel Basil-Jones of Bea, Thomas and Oyelowo marvels at a billboard alongside Peter and his bunny friends revealed how the cast have dealt with the lack of real co-stars. The scene was rehearsed and shot once with plastic bunnies on long sticks held by puppeteers who replace any CGI versions. Then the scene was shot again with a âghost passâ, where the actors don’t interact with anything. Sometimes they use weighted blue plush toys to have the feel of a bunny being held. But Gluck says that most of the time it’s the ghost pass that’s used in the movie.
âI have an emotional, complicated relationship with something that’s not there,â Byrne says. âIt was difficult on the first film. You have to have a sense of humor about it or else you will go crazy. You need to tap into your resources, like monologue lessons and drama lessons. It’s like doing a monologue where you try to engage with the audience, but there is no audience. You have to draw the imagination as best you can. And Will follows all of that and the technicality of what I do.
âIf I have a blue bunny-shaped thing in my hand, I still feel a little silly but I have something,â Oyelowo adds. âThe ghost pass, where you suddenly become a mime artist, is when he gets really hairy. You have a simulation of what it’s going to be, but overall you imagine what it feels like to be punched in the groin by a rabbit. And then you play it, confident that someone somewhere is going to work really hard on your groin shot and make it work. There is a lot of faith.
There are a lot of technically difficult moments in “Peter Rabbit 2”, but its opening streak, where Peter fantasizes about attacking Thomas during his marriage to Bea, has proven to be particularly tricky. Peter kicks Thomas squarely in the face, which was obviously impossible to do.
âThe only way we were able to do it – which was my favorite moment as a director – was if Domhnall had to put on a blue glove and hold a book wrapped in blue,â Gluck says. “And just slap yourself in the face over and over again.” When he slapped himself, we wanted a little saliva to come out, which meant egg whites. So this poor actor, on a hot Sydney day, must have held egg whites in his mouth and slapped himself in the mouth and done it over and over again. This is how Peter Rabbit kicks Domhnall.
âIt’s total choreography,â says Gleeson. âYou can always ad-lib and stuff like that, but for the physical fight scenes you really want to know what you’re doing. The last thing you want is grab something or look the wrong way and they can’t use the best grip. You don’t just act.
For scenes without the human actors, Baigent and VFX supervisor Will Reichelt had to think about many factors. For example, if the camera is supposed to follow Peter as he runs, how fast should it move? The speed at which Peter and his friends walk or run is based on the speed of real rabbits, although it has been reduced slightly for narrative timing purposes.
âWe started with cheat sheets,â explains Reichelt. âI have a deck of plastic cards that says things like ‘Peter Rabbit: quadruple walk speed, bipedal walk speed’. So if the [director of photography] said ‘I need to pan from there to there with Peter, how fast is he traveling?’ I can say, ‘Well, he walks three meters a second because he runs on all fours.’ Then we can trace that. And then after a while, it’s second nature.
When animals interact with real-world objects, like food or puddles, much of this is also done behind closed doors using special effects. Gluck jokes that the movie should be sponsored by a fishing company because the crew were constantly pulling props on the fishing line. âYou have this gigantic budget movie and it all depends on if someone can pull a fishing line and move the cupcake,â notes the director.
âTypically, if you can get it behind closed doors, you get it behind closed doors,â Baigent adds. âFor example, if something falls in water, water is a notoriously tricky thing to manage in computers. We were always trying to create a feeling with a very well placed stone. It may sound completely absurd.
Once the film was shot, an entire second film was to be made in post-production. Australian company Animal Logic, which designed the characters for the first film, worked with the VFX team to animate lifelike, furry rabbits that blend seamlessly into existing footage. They also designed and created several new animal characters. Much of the success of post-production relied on data and reference footage gathered during filming, including 360-degree shots of each scene used to show the location of the sun and lighting. It’s a process of getting it right the first time, which everyone has mastered better later.
âBeing a director, they always say, is the illusion of control,â laughs Gluck. âAnd this movie, you really must have this illusion. It was me and the team who found it together. But several times I would film it and say, “Is this going to work?” And it still works. The question is, how much work do you need to do in post-production to correct your production errors. The key to watching this movie is that in five minutes you will forget how it works. And I think we managed to do it. You want to feel like it’s seamless.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.