Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
December 17, 2018

IN FOCUS

Launching this Christmas on BBC1 in the UK and worldwide on Netflix, the new version of Watership Down is touted as the first primetime animated drama. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss how the series originated and the challenges they faced along the way.

Watership Down is a beloved 1972 novel by Richard Adams that was first translated for the screen six years later as an iconic animated movie famed for the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes and with a reputation for terrifying younger viewers.

Now, 40 years after the film was first released, a new adaptation has gone back to Adams’ original text to retell the story for a new generation across four hours of television – one that promises to be much less scary.

Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they face the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stout-hearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a better society.

Stars such as James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Gemma Arterton (Clover) and Olivia Colman (Strawberry) have leant their voices to the project, which is written by Tom Bidwell, directed by Noam Murro and co-directed by Alan Short and Seamus Malone for BBC1 in the UK and Netflix worldwide. The producers are 42 and Biscuit Entertainment.

Watership Down was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Murro, Bidwell, executive producer Rory Aitken, former BBC commissioning editor Matthew Read and Larry Tanz, VP of global originals at Netflix, discussed the making of the series.

The new version of Watership Down takes its lead from the original book

In the beginning…

Noam Murro, director: I wasn’t one of those kids who read it when I was young. I grew up in Israel and got it fairly late in life. My friend suggested I read it, and I fell in love with it. That started a quest to get the rights for it, and at the start I thought of doing it as a feature. But bringing it to 42, we decided to do it as a four-part series, as the book can be served much better. The idea wasn’t to remake the film but reimagine the book. That’s really what this was all about.

Rory Aitken, executive producer, 42: It’s been a long process, it hasn’t been easy and we ended up pioneering something because it’s the first animated primetime hour-long drama series ever made, which we didn’t know at the time. It was the most extraordinary experience because of the sheer quality [of partners], the brand and the love for the book – and everybody said yes. We rang up Matthew [Read] at the BBC and said, ‘Watership Down.’ I think he just said one word, which was ‘yes.’ We talked about writers and our first choice was Tom [Bidwell]. He said it was one of his favourite books of all time and, further down the process, it was the same with the actors. Everybody just responded like that, which was extraordinary. If it wasn’t Watership Down, it might have been almost impossible to make.

Matthew Read, former BBC drama commissioning editor: When I was a kid, everyone was into Star Wars, but Watership Down was like Star Wars to me. I went to see it at the cinema 12 times and I was really obsessed with the film. I didn’t see it as a kids’ film, I saw it as an action movie. Years later, I read the book and realised there was a very different version of Watership Down. I love the film and still do, but the book is much more about nature and solidarity. Were the BBC sitting around waiting for a big animated show? Definitely not – but the idea was if you have something good enough, we’d figure out a way. I had a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and just tried to back them in whatever shape or form I could.

Larry Tanz, VP of global originals, Netflix: It was a bit of a leap for us as well. The project came to us in early 2015 and Noam had designs and storyboards and Rory came in with the script. But Netflix had just launched in Germany and France, and was not yet in Italy, Spain, India or the rest of Asia. It was a very different time in the company. We had never engaged in an animation project of this scope but we were thinking, ‘In a year from now, we hope to be global so what opportunities are there for global brands?’ This book is beloved not just in the UK but all over the world. I read it with my kids and, if you can execute it well, it has huge potential. The creative team, partnering with the BBC and knowing there probably would be no better place to see this show developed than at the BBC gave us confidence to go in on this multi-year journey so we have a show that will work for the service we hope to be when it comes out.

Tom Bidwell, writer: It’s one of my favourite books and favourite worlds. There’s a discrepancy between Watership Down the film and Watership Down the book, and my job is the book. It’s Richard Adams – one of the great world-builders along with JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. My work was focused on how to build the myth of this world and really embrace the story, the narrative and the characters. When they offered me the project and I knew who was attached, it was an honour to work on it. It really pushes and challenges you.

The voice cast includes Star Wars actor John Boyega

Adapting the novel…

Bidwell: The structures are already evident in the novel. It’s broken into four distinct chapters, so we used those as the basis of our four episodes [screened in two parts on the BBC on December 22 and 23]. We did make a few changes: we reduced the number of characters for clarity and added more female characters [Strawberry was changed from a buck to a doe]. If I added something to the script that wasn’t in the novels and people think they remember that from the book, that’s the win of adaptation for me.

Aitken: We were making television drama and also making animation. They’re two completely distinct worlds and being television drama, there was a huge focus on getting the script absolutely right before we started anything. On an animated movie, you’d have the beginnings of the script and then you’d start on the visuals. Although we talk about how long it’s taken, including two-and-a-half years in production, people in animation would be amazed how quick that is. We’re looking at it through the prism of TV drama and there’s a completely different prism to look at it through, which is animation. They can’t believe how quickly and cheaply we did it, but in TV, everyone’s like, ‘That took a long time and was expensive.’ We sat on the divide but it served us well.

Read: I don’t know if it’s a general trend in drama or television that if you find something specific and brilliant, an audience really wants that. Ten years ago, everyone was trying to think about what the audience wants and give them something for everyone. Now, because of the way we can reach audiences, if you give people a specific version of something, they’ll come to that. We all felt we had to make the best possible version and that people would respond to that. That’s good for the book and hopefully good for the audience.

The show took two-and-a-half years to make

Pioneering ‘animated drama’…

Murro: None of us approached it, oddly, as animation. That’s the most important part. Yes, there’s a huge difference in the process but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of entertainment. Part of watching the series is you forget these are bunnies very quickly and it becomes like any other movie. You sit on the edge of your seat or you cry.

Aitken: Having made films and now TV, it’s basically the opposite way round. You edit first and shoot later. It’s so expensive – any second you have of animation on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. So we’ve delivered four 50-minute episodes and there’s not one second on the floor. Every tiny thing has to be created from scratch, so there’s a vast amount of work initially to decide on the universe you’re building – what is the tone, the fear, the look – and hundreds of people then have to build that in all different ways, from production design to lighting. Essentially, you get to the point where you’re two years in and you can’t see the show but you feel the drama’s working and you say ‘go’ on the animation. Then every week you get two more scenes and you probably get to change one or two things in each of them.

Murro: Part of what made this possible is we had an unbelievable cast. We had arguably the greatest of English actors, and it makes life a lot easier when you have that talent. If it wasn’t at that level, I don’t think we’d have got this far or this deep.

Much thought went into how the rabbits would be differentiated

Creating the world – and the rabbits…

Murro: We felt there’s a huge canvas that’s been untouched between Pixar and DreamWorks and the [Japanese director Hayao] Miyazaki and the Watership Down film itself. There were two things: one was to block it as if I was shooting in live action – the lenses and camera were very specific – but the overall look is like a diorama. You have an animal that is 3D and real in the front but, as it goes back, it becomes more painted. That, for me, was a clear direction. I don’t remember seeing it done that way.

Aitken: Animation costs are coming down and TV budgets are going up, so we caught ourselves on the nexus of the two. But we realised we couldn’t create a Pixar world because we didn’t have the money. So all of the deep backgrounds are paintings. That worked really well because we’re set in the British countryside, so a painted sky and backdrop works really well for it. We have about seven rabbits; normally in animation, you make one pink and blue and viewers know which one is which. If you want to make it realistic, the danger is you don’t know which one is which. Noam and the team did a great job because it’s just on the line. They’re such strong characters, the voices are different and they’re sufficiently different visually that you just pick them up without having to resort to making them different colours. Also, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, and if you bring them too far to the front, they start to look like dogs or weird animals. In drama, you find emotion in characters mostly through the eyes, but rabbits’ real eyes are completely black. They don’t have pupils, so in almost any animation with animals, you get human eyes because that’s how we understand eye line and emotion.

Gemma Arterton voices Clover

The music of Watership Down…

Murro: It’s huge, it’s everything. Federico Jusid, who wrote the music for this, is a genius. [He completed the music] with very little time, about three months. This is a 1,000-page score! It really is a supportive emotional base and I feel incredibly fortunate to have him and this music. What we tried to do with this series is make it timeless.

Tanz: It’s also an important through line for us because a lot of people will watch the show in different languages – probably 10 different dubbed languages. One of the fun things for me on the project was localising the title and the artwork for all these different places. It’s a reminder that we have this incredible cast and a lot of people will watch that show with that cast, but a lot of people will watch in Italian or Spanish. The score is the spine that is consistent throughout that. The score is the audio layer everybody will experience around the world.

The  show sparking a new trend for animated drama…

Aitken: I genuinely think it could be. Animation costs are coming down, TV budgets have gone up. I feel like we maybe accidentally pioneered something and now we’ve made all the mistakes, it would be nice to do it where we know what we’re doing!

Tanz: I would love to do more projects like this. For us, it fits in the category of it’s not a kids’ show, it’s about families watching it together and having truly a global property that already has fans around the world. The storytelling will allow millions of people to access it for the first time.

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