Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. ACS talks about his workon the 3D live-action, computer-animated ‘Peter Rabbit’

Peter Menzies Jr. ACS (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) recently worked as cinematographer on the 3D live-action, computer-animated Peter RabbitHere, he talks to us about his work on the visual effects abundant production.

By Peter Menzies Jr. ACS.

I’ve known Animal Logic founder, Zareh Nalbandian professionally and personally for over twenty years. He sent me the script and pitched me to Writer/Director Will Gluck. I loved the concept we had a Skype call while I was filming in Cincinnati. That call went well and we followed up with a personal meeting in Los Angeles a few weeks later.  

Gluck was looking for a cinematographer who had live-action as well as computer-generated character experience. I had worked on several projects which melded CG with live-action characters into one story, and we spoke of my experiences on The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Clash of the Titians (2010), as well as Gods of Egypt (2016). 

Gluck knew what he wanted to achieve from this ‘hybrid’ endeavour and our conversations were in-depth regarding the processes, complications and restrictions of working with live actors and computer-generated characters. We discussed the pre-visualisation process and the importance of my involvement in those early planning stages. 

I chose to shoot on ARRI Alexa Minis mainly due to their size and versatility in terms of attaching the cameras to several small motion rigs we had created. We required small mobile cameras to mount to a custom bike, scooter and remote control cars we used during filming. We had to shoot background plates for the rabbits from their reduced height perspective in their fast-paced world, which means we had a lot of action and movement ranging from a few inches to a couple of feet off the ground. The interactive coverage of these very active characters required the ability to take the camera in motion from their running height, to their standing height, to tracking them up into trees, over fences, chasing cars, and back home to their rabbit hole.  

I wanted to shoot spherical for the choice of wide-angle lenses, checking out every lens Panavison Australia could get for me. Ultimately, we went with the classic Panavision Primos. They are amazing lenses that still stand the test of time. 

When I came on board, Production Designer Roger Ford and his team were well into drawings for the MacGregor house and Beatrix Potter’s cottage. The Animal Logic team had been working for some time on the pre-visualisation and character developments. We all used references of Beatrix Potter’s paintings for this film. 

This film was unique in terms of pre-production, which well exceeded the shooting schedule. I had a period of what we called ‘pre-pre-production’ where I worked consulting with Animal Logic  and the pre-visualisation team from the United States. It was great at this initial stage to collaborate with the designers and have input in terms of character movement, camera motion and lens choices in the storytelling. 

Following pre-preproduction I had full-time preparation in Australia and scouting around the United Kingdom for the ten weeks leading up to the shoot. The key to success of a film like this really is in the advance planning and collaboration between the live action and visual effects teams.  

Peter Rabbit shot in Sydney, and I’m a Sydney boy, so it was amazing coming home and working with friends and colleagues I had long established relationships with. Through years of working together a certain ‘trust’ develops and an operational short hand develops that makes everyone’s jobs easier and the shoot run smoother. 

Gluck had never shot overseas, and was accustomed to his usual crew, so he was understandably nervous working on the other side of the planet with a completely new crew. I know well the world-class work ethic and ingenuity of Australian film technicians and they did not disappoint. Our Director loved his experience with the Aussies.

A scene from the film 'Peter Rabbit' - DOP Peter Menzies Jr. ACS
A scene from the film ‘Peter Rabbit’ – DOP Peter Menzies Jr. ACS

All the crew deserves a mention and my thanks, but in particular it was amazing to have David Elmes (First Assistant Camera) looking after the camera department, who I’ve worked with for over fifteen years. I have known Michael Adcock (Gaffer) personally and professionally for over forty years, we grew up together as film kids in the industry. 

Simon Harding was our A-Camera and Steadicam Operator and his contribution to telling this story is extraordinary. David Burr ACS was the Second Unit Cinematographer, another friend for many, many years.  

I first worked with Key Grip Adam Kuiper on The Great Raid (2005). On Peter Rabbit we were faced with taking on Mother Nature herself and transforming the blazing summer sun and high winds of Sydney’s Centennial Park into the charming, temperate and soft-lit English village of Beatrix Potter.

When I challenged Kuiper, Adcock and their teams to come up with a solution, they designed and built a one of a kind moveable scrim, sized 100’ by 100’, that blocked the sun while also creating a soft, beautiful light. It was easily raised up and down, or moved across the set swiftly and safely, turning hours of usual ‘rigging’ time into precious ‘filming’ time. It was a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to the crew’s ingenuity. 

It was a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to the crew’s ingenuity. 

Work flow between myself, the CG animators and Editors Christian Gazal and Jonathan Tappin was enhanced by the fact that we were all walking distance from each other on the Fox Studios backlot in Sydney. Production offices, Animal Logic VFX, editorial, stages were all in one complex and we were also just a stones through from the Centennial Park set. 

Work flow was seamless and we were constantly given updated and cut pre-visualised sequences form the Editors to work with. The Fox Studios backlot really is an amazing facility and the only place in the world where you can film a movie and listen to the cricket at the same time.

My favourite sequence in Peter Rabbit would be the fight sequence between Young MacGregor and Peter Rabbit which takes place in Beatrix Potter’s atrium. It’s a full on fight between Domhnall Gleeson and CG Peter with extensive choreography and interactive props. Rose Byrne is also in the scene. It was very complicated to shoot.

A scene from the film ‘Peter Rabbit’ – DOP Peter Menzies Jr. ACS

Numerous elements had to be coordinated, including fight choreography, camera movement, special effects, visual effects, and live as well as imagined performances. It all comes together and plays out seamlessly on screen with extraordinary comic delivery. It was a team effort, but one that would never have worked without Domhnall’s physical comedic talents and suburb acting collaboration with his imaginary co-star. 

The job of the cinematographer has evolved as technology has changed. This is a conundrum of sorts. There are inherent differences in films shot on ‘film’ versus ‘digital/virtual’ cinematography or films heavy in visual effects and those without any. One commonality is that all finished projects are in a digital format, and that they all require the talents of a cinematographer as a storyteller.

I think the cinematographer’s role is the same despite the originating format. Whether I’m shooting on an iPhone or on a motion picture camera, my job is still to tell a story through lighting, camera movement and collaboration with the director and other film technicians. 

In terms of cinematography recognition, I believe in a single category regardless of format. We have navigated a multitude of technological changes over the years with more to come. The tools we use may change, but our job remains the same.    

The tools we use may change, but our job remains the same.

I’m extremely happy with the outcome and proud to have done homage to both Beatrix Potter’s original characters and the re-imagination of the story by Will Gluck. We shot primarily in Sydney’s Centennial Park in the hot Australian summer sun and transformed it into the temperate English world of Beatrix Potter with magical computer-generated characters interacting with actors, and filling the screen with emotions and a heartwarming story both real and digitised. That’s what movie magic is all about. 

Peter Menzies Jr. has finished another film for Sony just prior to Christmas, ‘A Dog’s Way Home’, in Vancouver for Director Charles Martin Smith. Currently, he is back in Vancouver shooting Rob Lowe’s directorial debut; a remake of the 1956 thriller ‘The Bad Seed’.

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