What makes a work of art a winner when the competition is a selection of brilliantly-executed masterpieces? The Oscar nominations for Best VFX included the surreal Doctor Strange, Kubo and the Two Strings, the immortal classic The Jungle Book, a stop-motion with a heart, the gripping Deepwater Horizon, and from the revolutionary sci-fi series, Rogue One – A Star Wars Story. Here’s why The Jungle Book took the cake.
The magic that Disney’s The Jungle Book created, quite literally, with the most unusual approach towards the visual journey, won the Best VFX award. Rob Legato, Adam Valdez, Andy Jones and Dan Lemmon gracefully accepted the golden statuette much like they accepted the challenge of creating a photorealistic world with talking animals engaging in a gripping adventure with young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli.
Director Jon Favreau teamed up with a multinational studio as the lead VFX company for this film. The live-action-esque reimagination of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic story won the VES Award and the BAFTA 2017, before sweeping the Oscars, possibly for one main reason – the fictional fantasy looks, feels, and lingers in our minds as magic we believe in.
The seamless collaboration between Favreau, VFX supervisors Rob Legato (think Titanic, Apollo 13), Dan Lemmon (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King), and Adam Valdez (remember Maleficent?) and VFX artist Andrew R. Jones (think Avatar) seems to have pushed the virtual limitations of technology.
Shot entirely against a blue screen, young Neel was composited in later, completing the enchanting relationship between orphaned man-cub Mowgli and the rest of the jungle. The preparation and accuracy that the shoot demanded was fulfilled by a cocktail of techniques including motion capture and realtime blue screen compositing.
The team studied footage of several different species of wild animals to understand their anatomy better. The artists then analyzed the best way to show emotion through facial features and movement of the characters without losing the ‘real’ feel.
For instance, the wolves, like dogs, expressed through eyebrow movement while Baloo, the bear, used both his eyebrows and lips to show expression.
More than 200 unique animals were created for the film. MPC’s proprietary tool, Furtility, handled the complexities of the hair and fur of the animals. The varying movement of fur against wind, or in reaction to other elements like water and ground, has been tediously worked upon with case-specific solutions. The scenes where the animals are in physical contact with Mowgli may have been the trickiest. Some scenes had Sethi playing out the sequence with puppets that were the same color and size as the character sketches.
The puppets were then tracked and replaced with the digital models of the character. At times, parts of Sethi that were in contact with the digital characters were replaced with digital parts. This helped with the consistency in visuals, especially the realism of the fur and hair. The child actor’s arm has been replaced with a digital arm in the scene with Mowgli and Raksha (his wolf mother).
Creating Baloo’s posed a different set of problems – nothing that the fine team of artists couldn’t work out, though! His pale brown colour, long strands of fur, and large composition made it tricky for the character to blend in with the scenes. With great efforts at terrific lighting, the artists presented Baloo’s expressive face with attention to details like the wrinkles on his skin.
With several hundred strategies executed thoughtfully in the creation of the characters, the one philosophy that made the foundation was the director’s conviction in flawlessly executing an onscreen magic trick.
Here is a video that explains how the characters evolved.
The voice cast that brings this tech wonder to life includes Sir Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, and Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, and Scarlett Johansson.
Here’s a fun fact that sheds light on the grandeur of a digitally-constructed jungle. An average of 19 hours was required to render a single frame! Yes, let’s take a moment to let that sink in. The enormous landscapes and water bodies were designed after rigorous study of over 40 sites in India. Thousands of photographs were carefully assorted to understand texture, natural movement, and the varying effect of light. The photographs functioned as storyboard references for matte paintings or complete sculpted sets. It was vital to ensure that all elements in a single frame would light up together. The evolution of the environment demanded not just multiple technologies, but several different approaches which, only when layered together, perfectly created a photorealistic yet emotionally stimulated jungle.
The tremendous effort from the entire team of Disney’s The Jungle Book, and their faith in Walt Disney’s philosophy of storytelling, the much-deserved Oscar is only strengthening the studio’s adventures with live-action and visual effects!
(We wouldn’t want you to leave without reminding you of this brilliant still from the movie.)