Rabbit on the Run
Issue: July-August-September 2021

Rabbit on the Run

Many children (and adults) are familiar with the tale of Peter Rabbit, born from the imagination of author Beatrix Potter, which follows the misadventures of the naughty bunny who sneaks into Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden to feast upon the inviting produce - only to lose his jacket and shoes in the ensuing chase. More adventures soon followed. And over 100 years later, many a child's bookshelf contains at least one of those titles.

In 2018, filmmakers brought the story of Peter to life in Sony/Columbia Pictures' Peter Rabbit, a live-action/animation hybrid production featuring a top-level cast of actors and amazing CG animals crafted by Animal Logic. In that story, Peter, his sisters, and cousin suddenly find they have free rein over the garden following Mr. McGregor's death. But a new obstacle emerged in the form of Thomas McGregor, who has inherited the house. A war emerges between him and the rabbits, though he hides his disdain around Bea, the nature-loving neighbor with whom he falls in love.

In Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, the filmmakers took the theme and ran with it once more, creating a sequel that again stars a colony of CG rabbits and a handful of other animals that act alongside a human cast in a mostly (sometimes digitally extended) live-action environment. As before, the artists took great care to stay true to the characters and world originally crafted by Potter more than a century before.

In this sequel, Peter cannot seem to stay out of trouble. He and his former nemesis have grown closer, as have now-married Thomas and Bea. When the two take a trip, Peter takes one, too, and hits the open road with a rabbit who knew Peter's father.

For Peter 2, the crew at Animal Logic in Sydney once again became the main animal wranglers, so to speak, crafting all of the creatures in the film with the exception of the roosters, created by Method Studios (Melbourne). Animal Logic 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; Method built the others, including the McGregor Toy Store, Farmer's Market, Tailor of Gloucester, rescue montage car chase, and the Butcher Shop exterior comps.

Will Gluck returned to direct, and joining him was Will Reichelt, overall visual effects supervisor. A good number of the supervisory team at Animal Logic returned as well, including Matt Middleton, Animal Logic's visual effects supervisor, and Simon Pickard, animation director.

Animal Logic completed nearly 1,300 VFX shots (1,160 involving animation). Method, led by Visual Effects Supervisor Josh Simmonds and Animation Supervisor Nicholas Tripodi, worked on 150 shots, 100 of which were shared with Animal Logic.

Work on the sequel began shortly after the original Peter Rabbit, with preproduction starting August 2018. Filming began in early 2019, first in Sydney and rural New South Wales, then in and around London and the Lake District in the UK. As with the original film, for Peter 2, VFX and animation representatives, including Reichelt and Pickard, were able to spend time on set advising the production to ensure the shots were optimized for the CGI that would be added later.

Even though production of Peter 2 followed closely after the original, a good deal of development work was done to the returning CG characters. "Between the first and second movies, Will Gluck came to us and said the way he was going to shoot the second film would be slightly different from how he had shot the first," says Pickard.

In the original, when we see the CG characters, the shots are framed wider and the characters are farther away from the lens. Gluck realized he could zoom in closer and still maintain the desired level of believability. "And 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," Pickard adds.

On Peter 2, the camera was a lot closer throughout the film, and the micromovements in the characters' faces were visible. 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.

The Furry Cast

The look of Peter and the rabbits retain the design spirit of Potter's story illustrations, but certain adjustments were made so they appeared more photorealistic to better fit into the live-action world. As a result, on the first film, the artists had studied real rabbits, referencing their physiology and movement (from hopping to eating), as well as properties of their fur and position of their eyes.

The characters in the books are nearly always upright on their hind legs, but the rabbits in the movie also have the added ability to hunch down on all fours to hop away. This helps to keep them looking natural and rabbit-like, rather than always walking on two legs like their human companions.

In fact, Animal Logic has a rich history with CG animals, from penguins to owls, dragons to rabbits, all with their unique challenges. In addition to these hurdles, the Peter Rabbit 2 team were also dealing with an entirely new USD-based pipeline. This involved integrating standard third-part applications, such as Pixologic's ZBrush (for sculpting), SideFX's Houdini (for simulation), Autodesk's Maya (for animation), and Marvelous Designer's software (for clothing).

The team also built upon a number of proprietary in-house solutions, like Beast (for rigging), Glimpse (for rendering), Weave (for cloth), Ash (for shading), Filament (for lighting), and ALFRO (for 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.

The surfacing team constructed the rabbit fur in a way that mimics the dense pelt of an actual bunny. "There are three types of fur - a base level of soft down, the main layer of guard hairs, and the sparser but longer guide hairs. Plus, each type of fur is colored to match that of a real rabbit," says Reichelt. "Matching the complexity of rabbit fur was essential to getting the level of detail needed to make them look as realistic as possible."

Peter Rabbit
Animal Logic used its ALFRO grooming tool to add millions of hairs to each character.

Big Leap Forward

Pickard points to two significant technological advancements in this film, both proprietary - one that resulted in much faster rigs, and the other, blazing-fast personalized rendering - as being total game changers for the production.

Nearly all the animals in the film, including the main CG characters, are covered in believable fur, a process the artists enhanced for this show. The studio's ALFRO grooming tool, which has been developed over a few different movies, was used to add millions of hairs to each character. For example, Peter has 4,330,497 hairs in his groom, each with 10 points (along with 12,113 guide hairs).

Of course, CG hair and fur are very compute-intensive. "This process was a big deal for us in animation; with fur covering the characters' entire bodies, you lose a lot of the information in the faces between the bald rabbit you see in the Maya viewport, compared to what you see rendered with fur," says Pickard.

Due to developments in Glimpse for faster, more efficient rendering and ALFRO for the grooming, the artists and animators were able to take advantage of a new system called Anim Custom Renders, which enabled individuals to kick off personalized renders via a tool from their own workstation and get them back in a mere 15 to 20 minutes, to see how their work was progressing, thus enabling them to iterate faster.

According to Pickard, they were able to isolate portions of a shot they were working on by defining which characters needed to be rendered and what frame range should be used. This was especially helpful, he says, when working on facial expression, as the bodies and faces of the animals were covered in fur.

On another level, these automated renders, known as Renderboys, also helped the director to confidently review shots. Although the results are not equivalent to final renders, the quality is quite high, as it is rendered with HDRI, motion blur, and fur. "It's a tremendous improvement over trying to use a grayscale OpenGL type of render to review complex emotional shots," Pickard adds.

Unlike real rabbits, the bunnies in Peter Rabbit are wearing clothing, such as jackets. The cloth was often highly automated using a system called AnimCFX. which Middleton and Miles Green's character effects team developed. Each item of clothing was designed and built in Marvelous Designer by the assets team. The garments were then tested by the character effects team using a moving character to ensure that they fit properly. The team would then build a Houdini-based cloth rig for each character, which could be fed into a Renderboy. Animators were able to check in a shot at night and by the following morning, could see the characters lit, with great quality fur, motion blur, and shadows, integrated into the plates with a cloth simulation over the top.

However, the automated cloth did not work for every shot. For more complicated or technical shots, character animation worked closely with the character effects team, which did custom per-shot adjustments so that when they ran a Renderboy, it would pick up the new custom shot settings. This was particularly useful in instances when story or edit would require an adjustment to animation, but would pick up a cloth rig without having to go back into character effects.

Peter Rabbit
Each clothing item was designed and built in Marvelous Designer, and the cloth highly automated using AnimCFX.

Hippity Hop

As Pickard points out, the resting behavior of Peter and his friends was just as important as the bigger movements - the way they breathe, twitch their ears, and so forth. Of course, rabbits are known for their twitchy noses, but animation tests during the first film found that these types of actions could be distracting, especially as these characters have some human aspects. "You want to believe that these characters can speak and emote. Having a constantly twitching nose in the center of the face was quite distracting," he notes.

Yet, they are rabbits, after all. So, in a shot where the characters are observing or in the background, animators added more of a twitching. But when the animals were talking to each other, for example, the motion was toned down. "When they are moving from point A to B, you can see little ear twitches and things, which adds to the sense of realism that Will Gluck was aiming for. We were treading this line between actual rabbit behavior and anthropomorphic human performance. Sometimes they are viewed one way and other times the other way; it just depended on what they were doing or who they were interacting with, and how they were meant to be emoting in the shot - and we modulated accordingly," says Pickard.

Key to having the rabbits feel like actual animals but also like talking, thinking characters was in the way they walked - at times upright and other times on all fours. For instance, if they moved more than a couple of steps, the animators would drop them down into quadruped mode. When they would talk amongst themselves or interact with something, they became bipeds. "Those were the rules in the first film, and we perfected them a bit more on the second one. They worked in helping us find the balance we were looking for," says Pickard. "Within the first few minutes of watching the first film, you accepted these rules and just went along for the ride. You never see the characters running on two legs. We found that gets too cartoony and blows you out of the world a little bit."

There were other rules as well: The rabbits did not fold their arms or point with individual "fingers." Rather, they had to perform tasks with their whole paw. "Will Gluck felt things like that would tip it over the line of being too human," Reichelt explains.

Although the animators experimented with using two different rigs for the rabbits, it became very difficult to blend them together since the animals were shifting between bipedal and quadrupedal positioning so often. Furthermore, the deadline for Peter 2 was tighter and the complexity was much higher than the first film, so the rigs had to be very, very fast - real time, in fact. And the best way to proceed, Pickard says, was to have a single rig that was optimized for both positionings.

"We spent a good deal of time making sure the characters would work primarily in biped mode because that's where we spend most of our time with the characters. But they also had to work as quadrupeds. And the way to do that was making sure all the bones were in the correct places based off the skeletons," Pickard explains. "We then had to offset all of those major components in the rig so we could lay the quadruped motion on top of the biped rig."

Peter Rabbit
Artists built a number of set extensions and added CG characters.

Human Interaction

The same cast of original characters returns in Peter 2: Peter, cousin Benjamin, and Peter's three sisters: Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail. This in addition to 10 or so supporting CG animal characters, plus four newcomers, in all adding up to 19 base characters, not including digital doubles, background animal extras, and unique characters in one-off scenes, such as Little Pig Robinson or Squirrel Nutkin. There is also the cast of human actors with whom the CG animals interact - not an easy thing to accomplish, especially when so many shots were a hybrid mix of the two types.

To aid with the film shoot, stand-ins were used for the digital characters in the form of foam-board representations of the bunnies on sticks. Also, "stuffies" - stuffed fabric weighted and designed to match the body of a real rabbit - were employed. These props proved essential, especially in scenes where there was a need for the actors to interact with the digital bunnies.

"We had the same situations on this movie that we had on the first, and more, because this movie is much larger in scope. For example, in the first five minutes of this movie, we have every kind of big challenge that we faced on the first, but all wrapped up into this one sequence," Reichelt points out. "And it only gets more complex from there with the interactions. The real key to pulling it off was getting a good performance from the actor in-camera during the take."

Thus, his and the animation team's presence on set became invaluable to achieving this. The visual effects work here was also very involved - a digital version of the actor needed to be built and rigged so that the rotomation team could do an accurate 3D track of the movements. Animators then had to create a performance with the digital characters that balanced with the in-camera performance from the actors, who were holding a static prop. Character effects dealt with the interaction of the fur and cloth with the actor, before compositing brought everything together.

Additionally, there is a great deal of interaction between the CG characters and props. When a digital character interacts with a practical prop, that item needed to become CG as well. There were also occasional instances when a prop needed to be both practical and CG in the same shot, wherein the prop needed to transfer between the actors and the CG characters.


While Animal Logic solved many of the initial challenges that popped up while creating the first Peter Rabbit, on Peter 2, it became more about optimization. "All the things we were trying to achieve were similar but amplified because of the increased level of complexity and the increased number of instances of them in the film," says Reichelt. "We generally used the same approaches, but we were refining the processes and trying to be more efficient in order to tackle the increased amount of work."

So, I guess you could say that with this film, Animal Logic made new tracks while hopping down this familiar but more complicated bunny trail.