Last year, the Academy rewarded George Miller’s Best-Picture contender “Mad Max: Fury Road” with 10 Oscar nominations and six wins. Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” belongs in the same cinematic groundbreaker category, but partly because Disney marketing wasn’t able to pull the movie out of its family movie ghetto, only the Visual Effects branch of the Academy nominated this wondrous achievement that wowed global moviegoers to the tune of $964 million worldwide.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks took Rudyard Kipling’s classic tales of Mowgli and his brothers and, with help from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese’s go-to VFX master Rob Legato (“Titanic,” “Aviator,” “Hugo”), created a seamlessly natural digital world with many vibrant animal characters — and one live boy (Neel Sethi).
Finally, “The Jungle Book” will win an Oscar for its only nomination, Best Visual Effects, as well it should. Favreau and Legato did such an amazing job with the naturalistic, immersive jungle environment and animated characters that many people take the accomplishment for granted.
Favreau and Legato recognized the pitfalls of trying to believably place one human boy in an entirely digital, naturalistic environment. This isn’t fantasy-world “Avatar.” This is digital India. Favreau calls up fond memories of Disney’s 1967 animated musical, weaving in a couple of songs and creating a grand set piece led by Christopher Walken as a giant ancient orangutan (gigantopithecus, to be exact). To pull off this feat, he and Legato had to orchestrate a massive team of creative artists with one common goal: create a cohesive, entertaining, populist narrative.
Legato met Favreau when they sat at the same table at an awards ceremony honoring Scorsese for “Hugo.” Favreau peppered Legato with questions; the VFX master invited him to his house for a show-and-tell on how “to shoot a movie virtually and use all live-action methodology,” he told me on the phone, “as if you are picking the camera up and aiming at something and making blocking choices in a consistent way that emulates Connie Hall or Bill Pope or Bob Richardson. He was fascinated by the fact that a lot of ‘Hugo’ was virtually done but didn’t seem like it. Any time anybody embraces the technology and is not repelled by it, good things can happen.”
Favreau was sold. Here’s how they did it.
Make an animated movie look real.
Legato has learned step-by-step, tagging between Cameron and Scorsese, how to integrate live environments with digital figures, from creating algorithms to move the first digital people on the deck of the “Titanic” to creating the “Aviator” crash scene with a camera pan and tilt in real time inside the computer. “We shoot as if it’s real,” he said. “On ‘Avatar,’ Jim would add motion capture to it and take advantage of CG.”
By creating a digital jungle that is almost impossible to travel to in the real world, Legato’s VFX team immersed audiences in an exotic imagined environment much as “Avatar” did with Pandora — but they did it for the entire movie. Legato built on and advanced effects techniques from “Avatar” and “Gravity.” “The movie is a bit of a Frankenstein,” Favreau told me. “It worked.”
Disney agreed to go whole hog with realism, said Legato. “Everybody was on board making the same realistically rendered movie,” he explained. “We went through to design the shots — so you can hear a tiger shake an imaginary camera on the ground and kick dirt into the lens, like you’d put into an action movie as a cool piece of footage. We made it up and put it in on purpose just to remind the audience, we’d purposely screw up the shot to let everyone know the camera was there, a piece of glass hit with mud.”
Legato would make “subtle reminders of live action movies that people have seen before, by putting something out of focus, instead of nailing it on a computer so everything is perfect,” he said. “We were using the computer like a camera, rather than enter into an idealized Photoshop, we’d literally grab the camera in the jungle.”
This naturalism extended to how animal mouths moved around human words. “We don’t make them human,” said Legato. “They don’t enunciate every word. The voice that comes out of a parrot doesn’t do anything a parrot can’t do.”
Because of the accretion of all these minute details, he said, “people forgot about the natural movie artifice and started watching the story and engaging with the kid and the music and the visually interesting jungle, with dust and flies and wet areas on the ground.”
Amuse a child actor on an empty set.
Working with Sethi on the motion capture stage, Legato and his VFX team did the same things Cameron did while shooting “Avatar. ” They engaged Jim Henson puppeteers wearing blue suits on a big gymnasium set to engage Sethi’s eye-lines and ad lib and do stunts with foam tubes and mats while showing a cut of the film on the other side of the curtain, so Sethi could see how he fit in the full shot. “It was an intensive film training experience too,” said Favreau, “as he was watching shots while we were filming, which we cut in immediately with motion capture.”
“Sethi had never acted before,” said Legato. “He had to go through motions and understand in his head what it’s going to be like. It was better when he fully realized there was a tiger there, and the emotion he’d need to convey…Some of the natural reactions you get are him responding to something he didn’t expect.”
Sethi was also replaced by digital doubles in about 100 scenes — when the movie really was 100% animated. It’s one of the most difficult things to pull off, because the human eye is good at catching anything fake, “something odd, but you don’t know what it is,” said Legato. “The stand-in has to give complete physicality that Sethi doesn’t have as individual actor. We literally photographed or motion-captured on screen the CG double crawling up to the tree and looking at the man village, or being held by the snake.” His team cut one half of the performance together with the digital double and morphed them into one. “We had a lot of doubles of kids running and jumping that he couldn’t do himself,” Legato explained. “One specialized in running, one leaping — at the last confrontation with the tiger, from one side of the tree to the other. We shot him doing it, then made the CG version, mimicking exactly what a real human can do. No one could tell.”
Animate big characters.
With the King Louie sequence, Favreau saw an opportunity to add over-scale Kaiju action to the original; they recast him as the long-extinct gigantopithecus, modeled after Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” a daunting figure emerging from the shadows.
The hardest thing to do, said Legato, “was not the physicality of it. Once you do things the virtual way, it’s not such a huge leap. With the most VFX-looking scene, you try to make it feel like the rest of the movie, keep it more naturalistic, with a less superheroish quality. How do you keep bringing it to life and not have it look less like a VFX extravaganza and more like an entertaining scene in a movie? It’s the one we sweated over the most, using naturalistic lighting and help from Weta, we worked hard to make sure it was under the top and not over the top.”