The new iteration of ‘The Jungle Book’ is a lavish motion-capture/CGI/live-action hybrid that must be seen to be believed. Central character Mowgli is played by a real boy, newcomer Neel Sethi, but his animal co-stars (voiced by the likes of Bill Murray as Baloo and Idris Elba as Shere Khan) are created digitally.
A technologically awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking, it also makes your fondly remember the 1967 Disney animated classic.
‘Iron Man’ and ‘Elf’ director Jon Favreau was the man who bought the film to life, shooting the action in a small studio in downtown LA that somehow became the jungles of India on the big screen.
Bringing ‘The Jungle Book’ back presented huge problems for the crew, as Favreau told Yahoo when we spoke in London. He outlined the trickiest sequence for his CGI team, as well as some of the other challenges facing the film.
Mowgli stroking an animal
One of the most complicated things about ‘The Jungle Book’ were the scenes where the human actor playing Mowgli has to directly interact with a digital critter. Apparently these are the toughest CGI shots to get right. “The hardest shot was one that flies by,” says Favreau. “It’s when Mowgli says goodbye to Raksha the wolf. It’s raining, he’s running his fingers through her fur and they touch foreheads (see above).
“That’s something that you really shy away from, even the people who worked on ‘Avatar’ said these were shots they hadn’t done before. A real boy running his fingers through digital fur is very hard. It’s very easy to get wrong and draw attention to itself and that’s a scene where they’re saying goodbye - its supposed to feel very emotional and the last thing you should be thinking about is the effects. We had to make it look like we didn’t do anything.”
Watch the scene below.
Do you ever notice how in many films, when computer generated creatures walk or run they don’t look quite right? Apparently it’s due to how the muscles are animated, according to Favreau. “We would run sims on how the skin would run over the muscle,” he said. “And that would determine how the fur moves. Muscles were reacting differently to whether they were relaxed or tensed up. When a character is walking you would see legs lighten, quadriceps tighten, other muscles loosen up. You’d get that weird rhythm that you see in real animals. We had to build new tools for this.”
Spending all that time making photo-realistic animals could’ve all been undone when they started talking. It was something Favreau was keenly aware off. He said: “Animals talking - we were very nervous about that. We watched who did it well, and usually the best versions were using real animals where they did slight bit of animation to make the mouth move. Like ‘Babe’. When I watched Babe I never thought “oh my god that pig’s talking, I’m leaving”. George Miller came to the premiere of this and he was amazed by how far the technology had come since both that film and ‘Happy Feet’. Pushing the animals further than you should gets weird for me. I don’t like it when the animals are too human. I like it when you’re emulating natural behavior.”
Lighting an eight year-old boy to look like he’s in the jungle, when he’s actually on an LA soundstage, was a challenge for Favreau, so he borrowed from the CGI film that he felt did this best; ‘Gravity’, another seamless blend of CGI and live-action. “‘Gravity’ was very inspiring because those visual effects really sold,” said Favreau. “Even as someone who is an expert on visual effects, I had a very tough time figuring out what they were doing. They used these bot and dolly camera rigs where they would have these robots basically manipulating lighting panels. They built animated LCD panels with pre-animated backgrounds that emulated what the CGI background would be. This meant the real light on the subject [i.e. Mowgli] would be perfectly 1-1 with what’s going to be on the visual effect. Usually you fake things like that. We used all those approaches on this film. It required a lot of planning and it’s slow-going.”
Getting the songs in
“We didn’t want to have too many songs in it because it turns into a musical pretty quickly,” said Favreau. “Disney were very comfortable not having any music. As a matter of fact I was the one pushing them towards the music because I felt that if you had the movie without the songs, especially ‘Bear Necessities’, you’d feel cheated. I think as a filmmaker you get caught up in what you should and shouldn’t do and you forget that people going here want to recapture the experience of seeing ‘The Jungle Book’. Because we’ve deviated from the original in so many ways you want to reconnect with those moments and those characters that people still remember. If you go in expecting an experience of seeing a version of the old one, you’ll be satisfied. That’s why I included the King Louie character (below) who is not in the Kipling one and I restructured it to fit the plot as it unfolds, which is a lot more similar to animated film.”
Dark vs. nostalgia
Establishing a tone that’s darker and closer to Kipling’s original book, while also servicing an audience who wants to get nostalgic over the classic 1967 Disney cartoon was really tricky, according to Favreau. “We definitely keep to the Disney tone where the tension is there and there are some scary moments, but the violence is all off camera in the tradition of Disney movies like ‘Tarzan’ and ‘The Lion King’. Those films have their funny songs and goofy moments, but they also have a sense that characters can die in this world and there’s definitely scares. The ’67 film was a little too young for this technique for this filmmaking.”
‘The Jungle Book’ is out now.