“The Jungle Book” is clearly the VFX Oscar frontrunner for its cutting edge integration of virtual environments and animated characters, with newcomer Neel Sethi as the only live-action component as Mowgli.
MPC created the bulk of the virtual work (54 species and 224 unique animals along with plants, trees, vines, rocks, rushing rivers, mudslides and grasses blowing in the wind), while Weta Digital did the bravura King Louie sequence (keyframing Christopher Walken’s iconic ape along with his minions that he whips up into a frenzy).
“The Jungle Book Reimagined, “the centerpiece of the Blu-ray bonus features, contains an informative roundtable recap between director Jon Favreau, producer Brigham Taylor and Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Rob Legato (“Hugo” and “Titanic”).
Favreau’s aha moment came when Disney chairman Alan Horn suggested that he didn’t have to be constrained by live-action integration — he could build whatever he wanted. That inspired Favreau to build the virtual world around Mowgli and make it look seamless. He teamed up with Legado, the master of hybrid moviemaking, and they studied Walt Disney’s method for making classic hand-drawn cel animation.
However, the initial treatment was too far afield from the animated classic — it was more like Rudyard Kipling’s book with violence and political overtones. So Favreau “pulled it back to find the sweet spot and tonal variety found in Disney films.” Inspired by both “Bambi” and “The Jungle Book,” they recreated the three-dimensional multiplane technique, first over the opening logo (which also replicated the three-strip Technicolor look using red, green and blue filters), and then for the establishing jungle shot.
The mantra for the predominantly virtual production was to keep it photoreal while conveying the real world physics of the part of India they drew inspiration from.
Since Favreau’s most comfortable with a live-action approach, he pre-made the movie using mocap stand-ins for the animals beside Sethi, and decided with his Legato how much virtual environments were needed. Then he pre-cut the movie using previs so he could better understand the spatial dynamics and the performances.
In terms of lighting, cinematographer Bill Pope established the look after studying the background environments, which Legato matched with virtual lighting. This allowed closeups of Sethi on a stage and crucial backlighting of Shere Khan (Idris Elba).
And to balance light and shadow, they used panels of LEDs with pre-animation of elephants casting shadows beside Mowgli.
Legato also rigged a 30-foot turntable that made it look like Mowgli walked on terrain for up to a mile.
Favreau’s final takeaway from “The Jungle Book” was that it was a window into another world, all inspired by Disney but with the kind of updated imagery that Walt himself found compelling.