In addition to dominating the box office these days, animation is found in nearly every live-action feature now, most often in the form of visual effects but sometimes in more obvious ways. Take The Weinstein Co.’s Miss Potter, a biographical look at the life of famed children’s author Beatrix Potter. Directed by Chris Noonan, whose credits include Babe and the upcoming adaptation of the comic book The Watchmen, the film stars Ren’e Zellweger as the British wordsmith who gave us such classic yarns as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, we’ll be watching for the brief but charming animated segments that allow Potter’s imagination to leap off the page for moviegoers.
The animation shots were overseen by animation director Alyson Hamilton, who began her career at London-based studio Richard Williams Animation and went on to animate for the Oscar-winning Disney feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit, working alongside director and lead animator Russell Hall on the Jessica Rabbit character. She joined Passion Pictures in 1993 to direct commercial work and has been nominated for an Emmy award for a title sequence for the BBC program The Promised Land. She later won a BBA (British Animation Award) in 2002 for Best Craft in a Commercial. It’s also here that she would get the opportunity to work with some of the enchanting characters she grew up reading about.
Animation Magazine Online: When did you get involved with Miss Potter?
Alyson Hamilton: I work as a freelance director for Passion Pictures, one of the few remaining animation studios here in London that still work in both 2D and CG animation. I was first contacted there three years ago about this project, sent a script to read and was asked to think about how I/we might approach the animation sequences. It was a challenge especially as most people know or think they know her style of work. We knew it was going to be a special project, one of those that rarely come along but it wasn’t until two years later that we actually got to pitch for the project. There was fierce competition with several studios competing. We had previously thought it might never happen or, worse still, lose the pitch after waiting so long. So when we heard we had won the contract we were all so excited to be involved. Word quickly spread throughout the industry and there were many people wanting to work with us. It was great to have so many people excited about the project. We knew it was special.
AMO: What was your biggest challenge going in?
AH: We all wanted to be faithful to Beatrix Potter’s illustrations and paintings. That was the whole point, being realistic and convincing and this was very important for me. I was born and grew up in the Lake District. I read her stories and collected her books as a child, so I wanted to bring these exquisite illustrations to life and do them justice. Our biggest challenge was [figuring out] how to reproduce the watercolor look of her paintings and illustrations they had to look real and totally convincing. I knew we had the best animation team from storyboarding to animating to visual effects and compositing, so I knew we could do it.
AMO: What type of animation was used in this project?
AH: Traditional, hand-drawn animation’pencil on paper! It was the only way to keep her style and to give it charm. All the visual effects were also hand-drawn in order to achieve the watercolor washes, using computers only for the visual compositing of the layers of drawings that made up these watercolor effects. This was an incredibly important final process that took time for us to develop. We hadn’t done anything like this before, so it wasn’t clear to us at the beginning how to achieve what we wanted to do. We slowly worked through it in stages until we got something we liked and then pushed it a little further until we felt convinced it would work on a big screen.
AMO: What type of budget did you have to work with?
AH: I prefer not to get involved with budgets! I do know it was extremely tight and complex. Time wasn’t a luxury either. Except for time with the director, Chris Noonan. He was fantastic. He gave us so much of his precious time whenever and as much as we needed. We had the same goal to do the best we possibly could and it was a great honor and experience working with him.
AMO: How long did it take to deliver the animation?
AH: We had two weeks to work on the pitch last December to be extact. We wanted to show Noonan a test sequence to prove we could do it, and show him how we might approach the animation and how we might achieve a convincing watercolor technique. We started the animation storyboarding in late January into February and worked on the animation sequences in stages with the final work being completed mid-August, which is quite a while but we had a small team which meant we could keep the quality of work at a high standard.
AMO: How did you incorporate the actual illustrations that were used in the Beatrix Potter classics?
AH: We surrounded ourselves in her books and worked constantly analyzing her techniques and methods. We didn’t rule anything out. We saw the original animated tales and visited exhibitions of her work. I also studied the work of Beatrix Potter and sketched and copied her ink drawings. I wanted to be as faithful as we possible could be.
AMO: You referred to some of the previous popular animated series based on her works?
AH: We studied everything there was to study about Beatrix and her work. We were very kindly given access to her actual Warner Bros. archives at the V and A Museum. The staff was very friendly and helpful, telling us even more about her life and work. We carefully studied her sketch-books, watercolor landscapes and ink-and-pencil studies of nature. She was so prolific in her work and so talented even at an early age’it was very inspiring. She studied from life constantly, drawing animals over and over until she really understood their anatomy and thir personalities. We saw lots of rabbits and ducks!
AMO: How does the animation work with the live-action portion of the movie?
AH: There isn’t a lot of animation in the movie but it has a good balance, I think just the right amount. The animated characters are in Miss Potter’s imagination and only she can see and talk to them. They exist in their own world.
AMO: What were you most pleased with?
AH: As a team, we are all proud of what we achieved. We were constantly up against time and money but we never wanted to compromise our work. It was a great project to have been involved with and a great crew. It was good to be given a chance to work with traditional animation since there is sadly so little of it these days. I’m most happy with Jemima Puddle Duck and the Christmas scene. We tried to remain faithful to Beatrix Potter’s work and we were given a chance to bring it to life. I hope she approves!
Miss Potter opens in limited release in North America on Jan. 5 before rolling out nationwide on Jan. 12. The animation can be glimpsed in the trailer, which is available at www.misspotter-themovie.com.
Hamilton wishes to acknowledge these Passion Pictures crewmembers:
Holly Stone – Animation Producer
Jennifer Coatsworth – Animation Production Manager
Nelson Yokota de Paul Lima – Lead Animator
Simon Swayles – Lead SFX Animator
Sharon Smith – Animator and Storyboard
Jerry Forder – Animator
Anna Saunders – Animator
Monica Brufton – Lead Animation Assistant
Brent Odell – Animation Assistant
Alan Henry – Animation Assistant
David Lea – Animation Compositor
Niamh Lines – Animation Compositor
Lee Gingold – Animation Compositor
Phil Holder – Digital Ink and Paint
Tim King – Digital Ink and Paint
Megs White Dore – Digital Ink and Paint
Tony Clark – Animation Technician
Barney Russell – SFX Animator
Barry Goff – SFX Animator
Sky Bone – SFX Animation Assistant
Chris Knott – SFX