By Ian Failes
It’s a good bet most people know how to sing, or hum, ’The Bare Necessities’. The song hails from Disney’s 1967 animated THE JUNGLE BOOK while the man-cub Mowgli floats down a jungle river atop the lazy bear Baloo. So when Disney and director Jon Favreau were translating the animated film to this year’s live action adventure, that scene in particular was one they had to get right. A combination of innovative virtual production techniques, inspired puppetry and advanced CGI from visual effects studio MPC made the re-creation a reality.
(Watch part of the Bare Necessities sequence.)
Embracing Virtual Production
A film is often said to be made at least three times; once during writing, once during filming and then again during editing. But the newest incarnation of THE JUNGLE BOOK was probably made many, many more, since the filmmakers adopted a multi-staged virtual production approach. This was because all of the live action photography of actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli would be filmed against bluescreen in a downtown Los Angeles studio and all of the creatures of the jungle, and the jungle itself, would be realized with computer graphics.
With so much of the final scenes to be created digitally; for example in the case of the river ride – the river, Baloo and the surrounding jungle – it therefore became crucial to know where to place the camera while shooting Sethi, where the actor should be looking in certain shots, and how he might be interacting with Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
The virtual production techniques were many-fold. Director of photography Bill Pope and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato began by actually filming motion capture of Sethi and stand-ins for the animals to help with rough blocking and to establish camera moves – similar to how James Cameron shot Avatar (a film that Legato helped devise the shooting methodology for). At the recent VFX and animation conference FMX, Legato commented that the virtual tools he employs often contain regular cinematography concepts, such as pan and tilt and dolly moves and tools to mimic real-world lighting. “We create these devices to allow an analog person to communicate in a digital way,” Legato says.
Critical steps in the virtual production pipleine also involved previs and further detailed techvis, where exact measurements of the sets, the animals and even Mowgli would be worked out, again to help during the bluescreen filming. “You have to make the movie before you show up on the stage,” Legato noted at FMX.
Into the Blue Void
When the live action could finally be acquired on the bluescreen sets, all of that earlier work to plan the scenes out then came into play thanks to a ‘simulcam’. With the aid of motion capture cameras and equipment on the set that tracked where the film camera was, the previs could be plugged directly into monitors and ‘live composited’ with the bluescreen plate of Sethi. It meant everyone could get a preview of what the final shot would look like – far better than acting completely against a blue void.
In the case of Bare Necessities, the river ride was actually filmed in an outdoor pool at the studio surrounded by blue. A practical fur covered barrel rig or buck was built to represent Baloo for Sethi to interact with and could be controlled by an operator to get a basic side-to-side rotation motion. Various incarnations of these bucks were made for other parts of the film, too, such as when Mowgli actually rides on the back of Baloo. The bucks were far more advanced than the kind typically used to stand in for CG characters, since they were built to replicate all the kinds of movement and motion that Baloo would have so that Sethi moved realistically in time with the bear musculature. The buck was even given a name in honor of the director – the Favreator.
(Watch a tech breakdown of The Jungle Book’s virtual production methodologies.)
During filming, Sethi would act against the buck and sometimes against Favreau, who even jumped in the water to be at Baloo’s eye level. For acting in other scenes, the filmmakers made use of master puppeteers from The Jim Henson Company (the behind the scenes footage of these bluescreened performers manipulating various puppets with googly eyes is something to behold). All the while, the virtual production techniques helped with both staging the action and providing a template for the final shots.
A Believable Bear and Boy
With the live action now captured, work could begin on crafting Baloo’s performance. This came down to the visual effects artists at MPC, who, under visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez, began their bear effects by looking at as much reference as possible. “Our animators found reference of polar bears swimming on their back,” says MPC character animation supervisor Benjamin Jones. “That served as the main motion reference of the swim. Baloo was then animated to feel as realistically buoyant as possible including subtly raising him as he takes a breath or dropping him as he exhales or sings. Then the live action plate element was animated to sit on Baloo’s belly. We would then adjust the motion of the belly and the element until they felt locked and realistic.”
Occasionally, parts of Mowgli’s body had to be re-created digitally to help him interact with Baloo. “For example,” explains Jones, “we would blend to digital legs in certain areas which allowed us to get proper interaction and refraction in the water and with the fur on Baloo. The Mowgli digi-double was built using a high res texture shoot, multiple body scans, a Light Stage capture for the face and body, and a Disney Research Medusa capture session for facial expressions.”
It’s a Jungle out There
For the jungle river, MPC relied on the 3D effects software Houdini to simulate the water, also adding extra elements of foam, spray and splashes on top. “In addition,” says Jones, “we simulated petals, dust, and debris particulates that sit on the water surface to give it extra complexity. We would replace the live action water from the bluescreen shoot with a full CG version, and reflect and refract the roto-animated digital Mowgli so that any reflections were actually of the digital asset.”
Then there was the vast swathe of trees and plants on each side of the river. For that, MPC’s Bangalore team was involved in substantial photographic reference gathering in several locations around India. From here, MPC modeled all the vegetation in CG. “There was a huge amount of different individual species and variations of plants built which allowed the scenes to be constructed from a large set of individual plant assets,” adds Jones.
The Bare Necessities is just one of MPC’s many sequences in The Jungle Book. The studio had to create 54 animal species in total (with 224 variations), all with realistic muscle, skin and fur simulations, taking advantage of new ray tracing techniques in rendering, and very often incorporating a mix of humanistic and animalistic lip sync. All of MPC’s work, too, was subject to refinement and revision throughout the whole process of making The Jungle Book, which of course it could be in CG. In fact, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato noted that on this film the filmmakers had “blurred the line between pre-production, production and post. You never stop directing this movie.”