Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated director Peter Peake is back with Take Rabbit, an animated short film based on the well-known riddle about transporting a fox, a rabbit and a cabbage across a river, one at a time, without leaving one in danger of being eaten by another while you go back for the last one.
I say well-known, though I hadn’t heard of it; had anyone left me in charge they’d have returned to find me tucking into rabbit stew and braised cabbage, a jaunty fluffy stole around my neck, while smugly reading a book of Aesop’s Fables to my children.
But even without knowing the riddle (though if you didn’t before, you do now) Take Rabbit is still a delight – beautifully drawn, with a witty and knowing script and a top-notch voice cast: Amelia Bullmore (Brass Eye, Scott And Bailey) as Rabbit; Matt Berry (Toast Of London, The IT Crowd) as Fox, Steve Pemberton (League Of Gentlemen, Beidorm) as Man, and Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, This Is England) as Cabbage.
Sarah: I’ve watched Take Rabbit three times now and love it; every time I find something else and wonder how I missed it before. It’s almost hypnotic to look at, but actually the dialogue is almost caustic and jolting. With a film like this do you start with the story you know you want to tell, or do you begin drawing and the characters take on their own lives?
Peter Peake: With this film it’s actually based on a riddle which I thought was really well known, but the more I’m showing it at festivals I’m kind of realising that actually not everyone knows this.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the one where the man has to take, in this particular case, a rabbit, a fox and a cabbage across a river but he can only take one at a time. He can’t leave the fox with the rabbit because the fox will eat the rabbit. And he can’t leave the cabbage with the rabbit because the rabbit will eat the cabbage…
Sarah: It sounds quite a lot like my parenting, I can’t leave the kids in the same room with the dog…
Peter: Exactly! Yeah it’s that sort of thing. There are lots of different variations. Before I made the film I was researching it and different countries have different takes on it. Another variation is that you’ve got a fox and a chicken and a bag of grain. But it’s basically three things that will eat each other if you leave them in the wrong order.
They use them in businesses for team building exercises and I thought it was much more well known than it actually is. I’ve been to a couple of festivals where I’ve done Q&As afterwards and the person interviewing me clearly didn’t know that riddle at all, but still enjoyed the film which I’m quite relieved about.
It’s kind of a strange film, what the motivations are, if you don’t know the riddle.
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Sarah: One of my questions was, are you the Man from Take Rabbit, though I guess if you’ve based it on a riddle maybe not? I’ve found as I’ve got older I’ve got more like him, with a bit of Cabbage.
Peter: You know what, I’m probably a bit of all of them apart from the Cabbage; I mean I think I act like I’m the Cabbage sometimes but I probably wouldn’t take my own advice. But definitely yes, as I get older I feel a little bit more like the Man.
But at certain times in relationships I’ve felt like the Fox and I’ve felt like the Rabbit as well, so it made it a lot easier to write the different characters as I felt they were all different aspects of me, or I’ve been in those positions before.
Sarah: I really liked that the ending is in many ways realistic; I think in real life we’re constantly encouraged to be open to others as if it’s always a good, but actually Fox and Rabbit’s relationships traumas come back to the fore and it’s too much for the Man. Do you think as you’ve got older the stories you’re telling are changing, as we tend to get more cynical as we age?
Peter: My films have always been cynical [laughs]. My first film I made at made at college, and then I got a job at Aardman and they asked me to remake it for them. It’s a little film called Pib And Pog. It’s based on these two little creatures. It’s a kids’ series, and starts off really playful, and then they just start sawing each other in half…
Sarah: …I saw some of them last night on your Vimeo channel, the dentist one!
Peter: Yes we made a little series based on the original short that I did back in the 1990s. They’re meant to be these cute little characters but because I’m very cynical it turns into this quite gruesome slapstick thing.
Sarah: I’m going to show them to my children later; they might not be cynical but they’re certainly bloodthirsty… [NOTE: 6 year old loved them especially the Kitchen episode where Pib’s giant tongue gets caught around a whisk]
Peter: …I’ve kind of justified it by saying I don’t think the violence is much worse than Tom And Jerry but it’s just mixing two very different types of kids programmes. One’s very Muffin The Mule, golden era kids’ TV, and the other is quite violent like Tom And Jerry. See what your kids make if it! A few of my friends say their kids love it but I don’t take any responsibility for it [laughs].
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Sarah: With voice actors, when you’re writing your films do you have particular people in mind?
Peter: I have them in mind when I’m writing it and we don’t always get them. But I was really lucky getting the voices that I got for this.
It’s a “no budget” film – I basically took a year out from making TV commercials, and pretty much made it on my own. Though one of the people who did help me out is Gareth Owen – he’s a producer, and approached agents with the script. I basically gave him a list of people I’d like to do the various roles. He was really good, and we were very lucky that we got people who were pretty far up my list.
So for instance, Matt as the Fox was a perfect fit for that character and brought something to it that would have been different from someone else we might have approached.
Sarah: He’s a very charming character.
Peter: Oh he is yes! I’ve heard his voice described as fruity before, I think it was Noel Fielding, and it really is. It just has that resonance to it.
He can randomly choose a word in the script and just enjoy it; at one point in the film he refers to the Man as a monster. I never really thought that line had any comedy value to it but he just read it and [Peake adopts a rich mock-horrified tone] “he’s a MONSTER”. It’s the way he says it, we were falling about laughing. He can take an innocent word and make it hilarious.
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Sarah: So when you have your voice actors come in, are you not too strict about how you want it done, because of what they’re going to bring to it? Or do you have to keep them quite hemmed in?
Peter: Unfortunately with animation you have to be a bit hemmed in unless you’ve got all the actors in the room at the same time, which we didn’t have the luxury of doing.
There was easily six months in between recording Amelia Bullmore [Rabbit], who was the first voice that we got, and Steven Graham [Cabbage], who was the last one that we got; so yes you have this huge separation not only geographically but timewise between the actors in animation a lot of the time.
I know some of the actors that we work with are great at improvisation, but if they then go off on a tangent that you hadn’t expected, and it doesn’t tie up with the other other person who’s doing the scene with them, then you can’t use it which is a real shame.
It is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and everyone does have to be working towards the same point of the scene. If someone goes off on a tangent then you might not necessarily have the bits that fit around it from the other actors to make sense of it.
So the short answer is yes, I have to keep a tab on the improvisation a bit and stick to the script because everyone has to follow the same thing.
I think the bit in the film where we did have a bit of fun with the improvisation is where the Fox and the Rabbit are having an argument at the end, and I could say to Matt, and separately say to Amelia, “just imagine you’re having a blazing row with your partner and just go for it”. We just let the session record and they came up with some brilliant insults.
It was quite easy to fit those two bits together, because when you’re arguing you’re both just doing your own thing anyway: shouting, not listening to the other person. So we did a bit of that there, but the main bulk of it was very much based on the script.
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Sarah: You’re going round the festivals with Take Rabbit now; where have you been?
Peter: Yes a couple of weekends ago went to Krakow, and it premiered in the Netherlands at Go Short. It’s also been shown in Nashville and at a couple of other festivals. I’m going to Edinburgh at the end of the month with it, and then Brazil the month after.
Sarah: You might find someone who knows the riddle – I feel bad I didn’t know it!
Peter: No! Don’t worry about that, I’m just really relieved that people who don’t know the riddle – and there are quite a lot of them – seem to really like the film anyway. If they didn’t I’d be alienating a huge section of my audience!
Sarah: What really got me in Take Rabbit is the twitching nose on Rabbit. I didn’t notice at first as it’s almost imperceptable. You said you took a year off to make the film. Did you ever have to rein in your ideas because you’re self-funding and doing it all on your own?
Peter: Absolutely right – because I was making this as a solo project, with the animation I had to be really careful not to be too ambitious, because I’d still be making it now really.
But the things like the twitching nose and the Fox’s tail, they kind of loop, so once you’ve animated it once you can just keep it going – you don’t have to keep doing it.
So there are little tricks like that which keep the characters looking like they’re alive, but you don’t have to do so much clever movement to them. The Fox’s tail keeps going on a loop and it looks like he’s alive, then you throw in a couple of blinks, that kind of thing.
And with the Rabbit that trembling nose is incredibly easy to animate. It’s really simple and once you’ve got that going you can set it running, you know, on autopilot. Little tricks like that save you from having to do too much subtle stuff.
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Sarah: Once you’ve done the festivals do you find it reasonably easy to say “okay we’ll put this to bed now”, your characters, so you can move on to your next project? And do you know what you’re doing next?
Peter: I haven’t even thought about it! I’m too busy basking in the glory! [laughs]
It just takes so long. The year I took out to make this film was a couple of years ago now, and it’s been trying to get the music done, trying to get the sound done – for that I worked with other people who were extremely talented but really busy. And it’s finding time where they can fit it in as well.
So I think because it’s been such a long process to get to the finished film I just want to enjoy it for a little while before I start going through that nightmare again.
Sometimes it’s a curse, having an idea you want to make into an animation, because it’s not easy to do. It’s not like you can get a bunch of friends together and shoot it in an afternoon. I’m enjoying not having any ideas at the moment! Having a completely empty head.
Sarah: I actually found Humdrum last night [Peake’s hilarious 1999 short about two Scottish shadow puppets who decide to relieve their boredom by playing shadow puppets]; I loved it, it really took me back to the late 90s when that sort of self-referential irony got so big. Do you ever think about revisiting older films or was it just of the time and of its place?
Peter: Well Pib And Pog, the film I did before that, my first short, we then did some commercials for Dairylea Dunkers using them. Then Atom Films approached us, and we made a series of six even shorter episodes (of which The Dentist is one). So that had a bit of a life after the short film which I really enjoyed.
With Humdrum I think it was a self-contained little thing. I mean, if anyone had approached me to make a mini series based on it I would have jumped at the chance – but it’s not something I actively pursued myself.
There was a sense with Humdrum that that was a nice little six minute film; it was self-contained and nice to leave it at that.
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Sarah: That was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA wasn’t it?
Peter: It was – Pib And Pog was nominated for a BAFTA too, but Humdrum was my most successful really.
Sarah: And did you get to enjoy the madness of the whole Oscar circus?
Peter: Oh absolutely! For the month leading up to the Oscars I pretty much did an interview every day. I got to go on The Big Breakfast as an Oscar nominee, and go the ceremony. That month of my life was ridiculous – a sort of crazy build-up and you just find yourself in situations that you just never thought you would, particularly the red carpet and the ceremony.
But then when you don’t win it ends so quickly! You’ve got this month build-up to it when your starting to believe your own hype and then if you don’t win you’re kind of back on the plane and back to England and it’s like, did that really happen?
Thank you Peter for answering absolutely everything I came up with. Take Rabbit is screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF): the film is up for the McLaren Award, a prize for new British animation, and Peter is also doing a Q&A. Find out more and book tickets here. EIFF runs 20 June – 1 July 2018.
Watch the Take Rabbit trailer below and read my 4-star review: