Jon Favreau wanted to perfect a photo-real Disneyfication of a contemporary “The Jungle Book,” and the results are impressive. So much so that the hybrid is not only being discussed as a definite VFX Oscar contender but also a potential animated feature). However, with Disney already touting three strong contenders (“Finding Dory,” “Zootopia” and “Moana”), it has no intention of qualifying “The Jungle Book,” which would be a tough sell as a hybrid to the old-school Academy.
Still, there’s plenty of VFX brilliance orchestrated by production VFX supervisor Rob Legato (“Hugo”) and executed by MPC and Weta Digital to blur the lines between live-action and animation with live-actor Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as the centerpiece.
“What we were trying to do is remind you that everything is real and to get lost in the performances and story,” Legato said. “The artistic choices that you make in a live environment are based on the instincts and experiences and filmmaking skills that you’ve honed.”
Rather than cinematographer Bill Pope shooting all of the actors on stage together with the young actor, they shot their voice work separately and used puppeteers as stand-ins with Sethi. This was a more traditional approach to accommodate Favreau’s comfort zone. “We had the analog freedom to just choose when we cut to the close-up,” said Legato,”and we picked it like we normally do in live action. That became the blueprint that we were going to bring to the blue screen stage to recreate specifically that shot. And we knew with great authority that it would fit into the whole because we’d already seen it edited together in previs.
Legato used Photon, “which makes the Motionbuilder game version of the scene a little closer to the way we wanted it and the textures are a little more realistic,” he said. “It’s still game engine quality but it gives the artist a better clue of what it’s ultimately going to look like.”
MPC, which did the bulk of the environments and character work under the supervision of Adam Valdez, created 54 species of animals and 224 unique animals with new computer programs to better simulate muscles, skin and fur. Additionally, the studio’s Bangalore facility did extensive research for the jungle before animating plants, trees, vines and rocks along with rushing rivers, mudslides and grasses blowing in the wind.
But the mainstay was the character animation of such beloved iconic characters as Bagheera the black panther (Ben Kingsley), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson) and Shere Khan the Bengal tiger (Idris Elba). “Animated hero characters are in every scene and required constant modifications,” said Valdez. “Scene by scene Jon wanted to avoid seeing the the mouth too much because it might strain credibility. We decided on subtle facial cues that don’t stray too much from an animal’s normal range.
“For instance, a bear can lift its nose and upper lip way off of its gums when snarling or roaring or sniffing. We add those muscles in [for Baloo] to give the full range of what the animal can do in real life. Ben Jones, our character supervisor, developed some new techniques in the way that muscles react under tension so that when Mowgli sits on him, the interaction is more realistic.”
Meanwhile, Weta did the standalone King Louie sequence voiced by Christopher Walken as a gigantopithecus that evokes an “Apocalypse Now” vibe in trying to be scarier than the animated original. “We treated him as a derivative of an orangutan and worked out the forms and volumes,” explained Weta VFX supervisor Keith Miller. “It was important for Jon to see Christopher Walken in the creature. So we took some of the distinctive Walken facial features— iconic lines, wrinkles and folds— and integrated them into the animated character.”
But it wasn’t a 1:1 performance capture like Andy Serkis doing Caesar from “Planet of the Apes.” Walken delivered the lines with grand arm movements while Favreau provided body reference, so it was totally artist-driven and keyframe dependent.
Integrating “I Wanna Be Like You” had its own iterative process as well. It was originally planned as a song and dance number in the end credits. However, Favreau decided to honor the original by including the song, but it no longer fit the darker tone so a new version was created (less big band), and Weta had to dial it down in post.
For Legato, “The Jungle Book” continues his quest to perfect an analog approach to virtual production, where the rules of on-set shooting still apply. “It’s exciting for me because it bodes well for the future to create anything and not just for movies that are larger than life about superheroes and destruction,” he said.