Though more ambitious than the first film, Peter Rabbit 2’s production schedule was shorter, with story to delivery taking only 18 months – an incredible achievement for the 460 artists at Animal Logic that brought this little rabbit tale to life. The brilliant cast returned with James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Elizabeth Debicki and Margot Robbie, with a few new stars including David Oyelowo, Lennie James and Damon Herriman. The film was produced by Animal Logic Entertainment and Olive Bridge Entertainment and Directed by Will Gluck.
“It had to be bigger, more daring, and a story that justified making a sequel,” Producer Zareh Nalbandian explains. “We wanted to take our beloved characters on new adventures, but also bring to life other compelling characters from Beatrix Potter’s world.” For Director Will Gluck, creating this sequel allowed the team to refine and develop better iterations of the animation and VFX, “It gives the whole team an opportunity to explore the limits of our creativity and vision.” Recognizing the importance of the enduring readership for these stories, the team again worked closely with the publishers at Penguin to maintain the nature of the stories in this adaptation.
In this film, Peter’s world gets a whole lot bigger as the story ventures beyond the garden. It’s in the streets of the city he realises that he might have to get a little lost to find himself. Everybody knows Peter as the mischievous rabbit – some might even call him a baddie baddie, but that’s not necessarily how Peter thinks of himself. “It’s who you are versus who people think you are,” Gluck explains. “Just because people see you in a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you are. Peter, Bea, and Thomas go through that journey in the movie.”
During the 9 weeks of principal photography in NSW Australia and 3 weeks in the UK, Animal Logic’s VFX supervisor, Matt Middleton, and Animation Director, Simon Pickard, worked with Gluck and the film’s VFX Supervisor Will Reichelt on set to ensure the footage and plates captured could be blended in seamlessly with the CG characters and environments back in the studio. The Animal Logic team had cheat-sheet cards with the speeds of all the animals, so they knew camera pans were accurate. Filming took on a whole new dimension when scenes had multiple animals all running together at once.
Peter Rabbit 2 introduced four new CG characters – Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers, Mittens and Barnabas – bringing the total number of unique characters up to 19. For inspiration the animators looked at references far beyond the genre to the likes of mob guys. This new motley crew were created in the same style as the existing characters but with an unruly, streetwise flair to indicate they are from a different world, the “underworld of the city of Gloucester,” Reichelt explains. The most complex of the new characters was Barnabas; Gluck wanted Barnabas to be tough and street wise, but not intimidating in his appearance. Tony Soprano was referenced as someone who was comfortable in their skin and had relaxed, natural posing. Barnabas needed to be easily distinguishable from Peter which guided the clothing and fur designs. Like the rest of his gang, Barnabas’ clothing needed to represent that he was living comfortably, so he’s reasonably well groomed and dressed.
Animal Logic artists created a 3D sculpt of Barnabas based on the 2D art approved by Gluck. They then took the 3D sculpt, which represented a furred Barnabas, and worked backwards to create a bald model. Fur was groomed onto the bald model using Animal Logic’s Alfro grooming tool which was updated to improve the nature of the way the fur clumped. The fur setup from the first Peter Rabbit already closely matched real rabbit fur with 3 layers of undercoat, guard, and guide fur. Subsequent rounds of 2D paint-overs and groom adjustments were done to further polish his appearance and refine his character. Clothing was created in Marvellous Designer by the assets team and automated using AnimCFX. The garments were tested to ensure it fitted properly when the characters moved. For more complicated or technical shots the Character Animation team worked closely with the Character Effects team to create custom per-shot adjustments to the cloth rigs.
In the first Peter Rabbit film the CG characters were framed in wider shots and placed further away from the lens, before Gluck realized he could zoom in closer and still maintain the desired level of believability. “And so, by the end of the first Peter film, he was pushing in on the plates, getting into the characters’ faces so you could feel the emotion,” says Animation Director, Simon Pickard. In Peter Rabbit 2, the camera was a lot closer throughout the film to make the micro-movements in the characters’ faces more visible. This resulted in more nuanced facial animation to achieve the subtle and complex expressions. To prepare for that, the assets team worked with animation to revise the facial rigs, adding extra fidelity particularly around the eyes, brows, and mouth to get a finer level of detail which far surpassed the first film.
Peter Rabbit 2 had considerably more interactions between the CG animals and actors compared to the first film. “When you have humans interacting with CG characters, it’s really important to get the physicality of what you’re shooting with the actors correct” says Reichelt. To tackle this, the actors were given blue stuffed animals (stuffies) to get a sense of the weight and how to hold the digital characters. The stuffies worked well to lock the actors’ hands to where the CG characters would be added, and helped the final shot look convincing. These were some of the most challenging shots and required a lot of work across all departments. This included complex work painting out the stuffies, tracking them in 3D to layout and then to animation, simulating the CG fur and cloth interaction with the actor’s hands and lighting and comping them to integrate with the plate. The most complex scene involved the young actors for Amelia and Liam playing with Peter and Barnabas. The animators needed to get a good performance from the rabbits, whilst balancing this with the performance of the actors.
The Surfacing Department refined existing assets of returning characters, “We had the opportunity to revisit and improve some of the assets from the first film, as well as add a few new animals into the mix.” recalled surfacing artist, Camela Cheng. The fur was constructed using Animal Logic’s Alfro grooming tool which generated millions of hairs to each character, with Peter’s groom made of a staggering 4,330, 497 hairs! Surfacing was also responsible for integrating the CG props with live action plates, using photo references taken on set, “Good photo references were key to the process and allowed us to match the CG version of props the characters interacted with, and match it to the real-world props used in live action,” said Cheng.
Peter Rabbit 2 had a wide variety of complex environments to integrate CG characters into. Along with the standard day exterior and overcast weather, there were also some fun interiors like Nigel’s office with its overhead fluorescent light and window daylight combo, Barnabas’s dark basement hideout with overhead tungsten lamps, and even the dark ambient interiors of a recycle bin and post box. To assist with integration the crew used something they called “kebabs” which were sticks with balls on them; a ball might be covered in either a piece of fur or a piece of fabric that represented the fur or clothing of the rabbits. The kebabs would be put in front of the camera alongside other traditional VFX references and the call at the end of every setup would be, “balls and charts and stuffie and kebabs!”
The lighting team would then match the lights and shadows to seamlessly integrate the CG characters into the real world, then would add subtle shaping and beauty lighting to bring out the facial expressions. Lighting Artist, Chana Corna said that it was challenging to find the correct balance of light, “matching the sun direction and shadows to the characters so they would fit in with everything else, while pushing it a little bit so they looked stylized and more appealing.” The total number of CPU hours spent rendering for lighting alone came to 5,677 years!
The Rotoscoping department worked their magic to not only remove unwanted elements but also contributed to blending the CG and live action footage. Paint work was done to remove elements such as wires, rigs, markers, and even the blue stuffies. The roto team would also “create mattes from the footage so the bunnies could be placed behind it, giving the illusion that they were there all along” explains Rotoscoping artist, Juliana Penteado, “for most scenes where you see the bunnies closely interacting with people or going behind a tree or wall, there was roto work done.” Juliana worked on over 100 shots on Peter Rabbit 2 and always found opening a shot for the first time quite exciting.
Technical Director, Jessica D’Ali, and her team supported the artists to solve any technical issues they had by fixing and creating new tools. As this was her first hybrid film, she was challenged with learning how to work with plates from the live-action shoot, “getting that real world into the 3D world and having them marry perfectly was just new territory to me.” Communication amongst the TD department was imperative to ensure that the team were across all the technical issues.
Another technical challenge for the entire crew in this sequel was moving over to an entirely new USD-based pipeline which involved integrating standard 3rd party applications like Z-Brush (sculpting), Houdini (simulation), Maya (animation), and Marvellous Designer (clothing). The team also built upon several proprietary in-house solutions like Beast (rigging), Glimpse (rendering), Weave (cloth), Ash (shading), Filament (lighting) and Alfro (fur). These tools were all joined to form a highly automated pipeline that could provide fully furred, simulated, lit, and rendered reviews for all departments dailies.
Animal Logic completed nearly 1,300 VFX shots, with 1,160 of these shots involving animation and an average of 3.2 CG characters in each shot and up to 25 characters – an incredible achievement for everyone! The Sydney studio also created set extensions for the aerial vistas and south and north views of the manor surroundings, plus Amelia’s house exteriors and some set extensions of the manor interiors.
After 3 tonnes of carrots chomped on by Animal Logic crew during production, and (thankfully) 0 servings of rabbit pie, a few delays due to the pandemic, Peter Rabbit 2 was released into the wild on 25 March, 2021! The film couldn’t have been made without the talented live-action crew, teams at Method Studios (Melbourne), Clear Angle Studios, WYSIWYG 3D and Soundfirm!
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