Every film review of Disney’s The Jungle Book remake can’t help but gush about the film’s brilliant CGI. The jungle and animals are so real that it’s easy to forget that this isn’t really a live-action film - everything but Neel Sethi, who plays human boy Mowgli, is computer-generated.
Using cutting-edge technology developed just a few years ago, and gathering a team of experts that worked with movies like Life of Pi, Avatar, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy, the filmmakers combined animation, motion-capture and live-action techniques to achieve the photo-real look director Jon Favreau was looking for.
Favreau, who directed Iron Man and Iron Man 2, has plenty of experience simulating hard metal surfaces in a convincing way, but creating organic elements like skin and fur was a lot more difficult.
The artists visited zoos and consulted animal experts, but their main reference was footage of animals in the wild, in proper sunlight. More than 70 CGI animals were created from scratch for the film, using new programs to simulate muscles, skin and fur.
Despite going for an authentic look, certain modifications were made to enhance the atmosphere required by the story. “We realised we could make the animals a little bigger than life to help accentuate how vulnerable this little boy feels in the jungle,” says Favreau.
They then tweaked some of the renderings of the animals based on the voice actors’ performances, and different creatures’ characteristics. “Each animal has a unique emotional language,” Favreau explains. “A tiger expresses anger much differently than a wolf or a bear would.”
For King Louie, the giant ape king who captures Mowgli because he wants to know how to make fire, the filmmakers were able to include some of actor Christopher Walken’s facial details, because a primate’s face is similar to a human’s. Visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon and his team referenced footage taken while Walken was recording, as well as other films Walken had starred in.“He has certain peculiarities. He’ll lick his lips occasionally when he’s talking and there’s something specific about his lower lip,” says Lemmon. “King Louie is definitely a fun character.”
Most important of all, Neel had to be convincing when he interacted with the CGI animals – a difficult task for a child actor with little experience.
To help him, Favreau hired professional puppeteers who would go on set with Neel, syncing their actions to the vocal tracks. The puppeteers would change props from take to take to keep things fresh for the 12-year-old. Sometimes, they would have little eyeballs on their hands, while other times they’d use a huge life-size puppet.
“Sure, you could put a tennis ball on a stick, but it’s not the same,” says visual effects supervisor Robert Legato.
“There’s a palatable chemical reaction when you see somebody smile or change his expression when you say something. A tennis ball can’t trigger responses like a master puppeteer who is used to dealing with kids and eliciting emotions.”
The Jungle Book opens on May 26