Directed by Jon Favreau and drawing from both Rudyard Kipling’s timeless stories and Disney’s classic animated film, The Jungle Book is an all-new, live-action epic adventure about Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), a young boy who’s been raised by a family of wolves. When Mowgli learns that he is no longer welcome in the jungle, after fearsome tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) promises to eliminate what he sees as a threat, Mowgli leaves the only home he’s ever known to embark on a captivating journey of self-discovery, guided by panther-turned-stern mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and the free-spirited bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
Back on January 13th, Collider (along with a number of other outlets) was invited to the El Capitan in Hollywood to preview some scenes that showcase the stunning scenery, inhabited with photo-real talking animals and a young boy named Mowgli. To explain the process of making the film, Jon Favreau was joined by visual effects supervisor Rob Legato to talk about honoring the soul of the animated feature while also making a movie that appeals to everyone, using technology to create a world that transports audiences, when CG can work to your advantage, the difficulty of marrying live-action with animation, the casting process for Mowgli, shooting native 3D, and the role music will play. We’ve compiled a list of 20 things that you should know about The Jungle Book.
- Jon Favreau didn’t go into Disney asking to remake The Jungle Book. Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn had grown up with the books while Favreau had grown up with the movie, and they both connected to it in a slightly different way. But they knew that a film like this has to honor the emotional and perceived memory of people who grew up with the film, while also making a movie that appeals to the full audience.
- The 1967 film had a dreamlike, surreal quality to it and it was a high watermark for character animation. Although it wasn’t one of the big five Disney movies, it’s still considered a high watermark among Disney aficionados because of the character, the emotion and the music. Favreau wanted to be able to preserve all of that, while using technology to create a whole world that transports audiences.
- Favreau has always been resistant to CG. Zathura used motion controlled spaceships. Elf used stop-motion and forced perspective. Only with Iron Man, when they were using hard surfaces, did he believe that CG could enhance the experience. And then, films like Planet of the Apes, Life of Pi and some of the Marvel films with The Hulk showed him that it could be used to an advantage. So, he decided to marry a live-action kid with a virtual environment.
- The two biggest challenges of the film were getting the kid in the world and getting the animals to talk. When you have something animated next to something real, there’s a whole other level of scrutiny to it.
After looking at 2,000 kids for Mowgli, they found Neel Sethi in Manhattan, New York. Mowgli is a character with spunk and a little swagger, and Sethi brought that to the role. Because kids that age don’t have a body of experience, you have to see something in them that works, and Favreau thought Sethi’s physicality would match what they were looking for.
- The actors who do the voices for the animals were vitally important to bringing the characters to life. They brought the personality of the actors they cast to the photo-real animals in the story. Bill Murray is Baloo, Ben Kingsley is Bagheera, Idris Elba is Shere Khan, Christopher Walken is King Louie, Scarlett Johansson is Kaa and Lupita Nyong’o is Raksha, to name a few.
- There was only initial artwork of the animals, until the actors were cast in the roles. The actors informed the design of their characters, so that you could see the soul of the actor, but in a way that kept the reality of the movie.
- Because Walt Disney included animals in the animated feature that don’t live in the jungle, like the Orangutan, the artists and visual effects team had to research animals. They came up with a creature called the Gigantopithecus, which existed in that part of the world and it’s closest living relative is the Orangutan. It’s a gigantic Orangutan type of creature that’s like a Yeti from that part of the world.
The process for this film is so technical and so different from anything Favreau, or anyone else, has done before. In this time of social media, images, clips and trailers, people are often not really seeing the truth behind the vision. But the way this works is not unlike an animated film, where a team works throughout the entire film. It’s about constantly exploring and reinventing.
- They started the film off like it was an animated feature, with a story department similar to what Pixar does and what Walt Disney did. They had a head of story and they really stress-tested the story, as you would with animation, because you have to be very efficient.
- They then went into a process that looked a lot like they were making Avatar, with motion capture and actors playing the parts, on sets that were lined up to look like what the digital set looked like. The entire movie was camera-captured, so there’s a motion capture version of the film, along with an animatic version. And then, they took that and shot the kid, as though he were an element.
Favreau was inspired by the impressive effects in Gravity and wanted to figure out how they pulled it off. The magic trick was that they were always moving things around and they treated the whole shoot like an element shoot. They didn’t go off and shoot the movie, and then hand it off to visual effects. They let the visual effects dictate the lighting. For The Jungle Book, they took that to the extreme.
- The film was shot on two stages, where the production designer and art department could wheel in a set to shoot on, on one stage, and then prep another set, on the other stage. They were able to go back and forth, throughout the shoot, in a very efficient way.
- When Favreau had been talking to Disney about making Magic Kingdom, a film where the park comes to life, he reached out to visual effects supervisor Rob Legato about how they could make that work. So, even though that movie didn’t happen, they teamed up for The Jungle Book, and Legato was even a second unit director on The Jungle Book.
Legato was interested in being involved with this was because they wanted to do things that he’d been trying to experiment with, as far as giving a live-action sensibility to something that can only be done on a computer.
- There were two visual effects houses – Weta and MPC – that came together to make this project work, with a seamless unified vision. MPC was lead studio working on everything except for King Louis and the monkeys, which were worked on by Weta Digital.
- When it comes to the 3D, Favreau said it was Avatar that he had to live up to. He said, “If there was a giant we were standing on the shoulders of, it was Avatar. Avatar was the first time I got what this whole big screen 3D format was about. I got why you had to go to the movies to see that. It was a great experience, too. Since then, 3D has been a big piece of business for Hollywood, but I don’t know if anyone has ever outdone the 3D that was done there. So, we shot native 3D, using the system that Jim [Cameron] had been a part of developing, along with all of this technology that people haven’t really been using. I love film, but I think we have to push technology as far as we can because there are things that digital is better for. When it comes to putting all of these elements together, I want to see digital continue to grow. I don’t want to see anything eliminated. I wanted to see everything perfected, including film.”
- The Dolby x-tended dynamic range format is laser projection, and the 3D image is not compromised in that format. The format won’t be available in all theaters for all showings, but it will be in the bigger markets.
Although it is not a musical, there is music in the movie. They wanted to incorporate enough of the music that it felt satisfying, and Bill Murray does get to sing in it. Said Favreau, “I love New Orleans music and I love swing music. I don’t know what genre you’d even call ‘Bear Necessities.’ It has a Ragtime feel. When you realize that your whole baseline musical set of references comes from watching Bugs Bunny and Disney, you realize what you were being exposed to when you were young. The archetypes introduced to a young Jon Favreau also affected who I am. So, I didn’t want it to be distracting, but I definitely wanted to introduce some of the influences that I was introduced to, to the next generation.”
- To build out the story, Favreau went back to the structure of it and also looked at what Rudyard Kipling did, and then picked between the two. It’s not really one continuous story in the book. He tried to focus on the images, before going back to look at it again. It’s not necessarily what’s in the material that’s most important. It’s what you remember about it.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters on April 15th.