The Legacy of Peter Rabbit: An Interview with Brown Bag Films' David McCamley
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The children’s stories and characters of Beatrix Potter are some of the most beloved in the world. Her work has a sense of longevity and enduring appeal, which is brought to the fore this year as we celebrate her 150th birthday on July 28th. Born in 1866, Potter was not just master of her craft in creating children’s stories but also a woman with great foresight. With the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902 she immediately set about exploring the commercial potential of her character, designing and creating the first Peter Rabbit doll herself in 1903. She registered it at the patent office, making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed literary character. And yet in expanding the merchandise around her creations, Potter was passionate about the quality of all the products, and their faithfulness to the books.
This integrity continues today with her publishers Frederick Warne, who have been very protective of her work. This has meant that Potter’s creations have not seen many adaptations for screen. However in 2012 Frederick Warne, in partnership with Brown Bag Films and Silvergate Media saw the launch of Peter Rabbit, a 3D animated series. The show was an immediate success and went on to win numerous awards including six Emmys and three American Parent’s Choice Awards. Brown Bag’s animation is modern and refreshing while retaining the stories’ charm and timelessness. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the show’s Supervising Director David McCamley of Brown Bag Films to discuss the process of taking such a beloved set of literary characters to the screen.
With a project like this, you’re taking on a lot of expectations and fears around working with such a classic. Can you talk me through the process of developing Peter Rabbit for television?
It’s kind of a re-invention from Beatrix Potter to a modern age, which is a pretty monumental task. We were working on it for about six years, and we finished just mid-last-year. A big part of beginning the process was just to win over Frederick Warne. Potter may not still be alive but Frederick Warne are very much so, and they are rightly protecting her property. They had signed with Silvergate Media, who then approached us, but Frederick Warne hadn’t really been won over at this point. They were totally skeptical about how you could make Beatrix Potter in 3D without completely destroying her property. And yet said they wanted to make it modern to a new audience. So it had to be totally different, but still have the charm of the world of Beatrix Potter.
But eventually we won Frederick Warne over by showing them different versions of rabbits. I mean Peter Rabbit himself took about a year to get approved. That was interesting because we really wanted to get how the rabbit looked right for the world. We really pushed the boat out on having fur on them, which at that time wasn’t being done on TV production. But we all wanted to future-proof the show. The characters have been around for so long we wanted the show to be the same, to have it match up to the books. I think the one thing that everyone involved in the show wanted to do was to inspire people to go and read her books, and look at that world. That by seeing the series kids, and parents especially, will go and get the books.
In terms of what has changed for the show, the character of Lily was brought in, so that it’s not just a boy property. She was going to be a hedgehog originally but then seeing how they worked together like Harry Potter trio and using that as an frame for adventures, it made was clear she needed to be a rabbit. In designing Lily and her parents, they were brand new so we made it so they were townies coming into the countryside so she has a slightly different look. The clothes she wears were designed to fit in with a modern look, but more importantly to be timeless enough that they weren’t specifically period. It was a huge challenge for the show to not make it a specific period. We honoured the books so we never brought cars into it and we had to get around this with electricity and even lighting. Because there was a thought to kind of make the 50s or the 60s and bring in a car, a Morris Minor but we moved on from that thankfully because the world still has no date on it.
You created original stories for the series, how did you stay true to the essence of the stories?
We made it clear from the beginning that Potter’s stories were not stories that we were going to tell. The original stories are very dark, and with preschool nowadays it’s really pushing the limit. Of the era they were right, but there were certain things with modern day broadcasters that they were a lot of things they were uncomfortable with. But still there were a couple of things we talked around and got in there, we wanted to push how much jeopardy they would get into. That’s why we call the audience ‘higher-end preschool’ because we’re dealing with things that most of the other shows and networks would just say ‘No, we’re not going to take that.’
And the level of jeopardy comes out in who we actually use, in terms of characters. Mr. Tod came up and even for preschoolers, being allowed to use Mr Tod was a big deal because he’s a predator and he’s trying to eat them, even if he never succeeds. We even touch on some of the darker parts of the original stories. There’s a gorgeous episode, where Peter Rabbit gets to see his dad, and it’s one of my absolute favourites. He finds some film reel and that’s how we showed him. It had to be handled with a lot of care, but it’s come out lovely. There’s only one or two stories we decided to change. With Squirrel Nutkin we said he isn’t going to have his tail, so we did explain how he lost his tail but it was our version because in the book Old Brown rips his tail off for taunting him. So in our show he did taunt him, but it was more of an accident. So there were some parts that which got changed, but we pushed for some darkness and jeopardy.
Much of Potter’s work can be seen as a celebration of the natural world, influenced by her experience of living in the Lake District in the North of England. How did you incorporate the landscape of the Lake District into the show?
The landscape of the Lake District was very much to the front of what we were doing. I went over there with the art director and we took a ton of photographs. It was pure Lake District weather in that it poured rain for two days. It was only when we were about to leave that the sun burst through the clouds.
But when we were there we were saying, ‘Look at that tree, that could be where the burrow tree is.’ And we actually know where that tree is now, it’s a real place. We also took loads of pictures around Hilltop, one of the houses Beatrix Potter lived in. So we used that house as anchor for the landscape. We also put Jemima Puddleduck’s coop next to the house, so that you’ll see Hilltop in the show. We made sure that it was accurate down to the brick that was used in the area.
And it’s been fantastic how the Lake District have accepted the show. When we were beginning, there was a feeling of scepticism about the show from the people in the area, and rightly so. There was a fear that we wouldn’t have the respect or love for the characters. But there’s been some instances recently which have been a real thumbs up from them. For example, there is a shop in the village next to Hilltop which has a huge Beatrix Potter section, which I remember visiting when I first went to the Lake District. At the time I remember wondering, ‘Will they ever have our Peter Rabbit in there?’
Well, the art director Phil McDarby went back there last year and in the corner was a small section of our toys and books and DVDs. He asked the woman who ran the shop about it and she said, ‘You know what, I actually knew they were making the show and I kept an eye on it, I was very skeptical and wanted nothing to do with it. But I got so many enquiries about it and I saw the love and attention that went into the show, I said you know what, I’m going to give this a go and stock it, and now I can’t keep it in stock.’
For us, because we’re so passionate about it, it was a big nod to us, that even there they’ve accepted it.
Beatrix Potter’s stories are full of dire consequences for her characters actions. Were there any lessons in particular you wanted the show to be associated with?
Don’t steal from McGregor’s garden! But really, we wanted to inspire kids to get back into nature; to get back to a childhood where you got up and did stuff and not just sticking yourself in front of a tablet. That’s why they had the characters in treehouses and playing without technology. You can really see it in the Peter Rabbit comic that’s come out since, it’s really nature based and that’s where Lily steps up. She’s the one that has read all about nature.
She was very much the voice of Beatrix Potter within the world. That was the anchor that we had with her character and I think it comes through. So the main thing we wanted children to be inspired to do, was to go out and enjoy nature. A lot of what we do here [at Brown Bag] is very obviously educational, but with Peter Rabbit we let the stories, and the lessons evolve more naturally. We wanted the teaching to come naturally from the world and from the stories.