A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend an early press day for Jon Favreau’s upcoming adaptation of The Jungle Book. Just to let you know up front where I was coming from in regards to this movie: I didn’t go to D23 last year, so up until this point I hadn’t seen any footage aside from what was in the first trailer — and to be frank, I wasn’t super impressed with that. I recently rewatched the 1967 Disney animated movie for the first time in probably 20 years, and even though I enjoyed it as a kid, I found it to be a lot less engaging than I remembered. So you can understand whey I went into this presentation with incredibly low expectations, and even thinking it might be a waste of time.
But what I saw blew me away.
Favreau came out on stage at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theater in Hollywood and showed us a couple of pieces of test footage that his visual effects vendors showed him before he started production that convinced him he could make the movie the way he wanted to make it, and it was as if we were watching a nature documentary. In one of them, a bird flies into the shot, lands on a branch in the jungle, looks around, and flies away. It looked 100% real, but every single thing in that shot was created in a computer.
He moved on to show us a few actual scenes from the movie that were still works in progress — the VFX team is going to be tweaking and finalizing footage all the way up until the movie’s release — but everything looked basically flawless to my eyes. There was a scene that involved a stampede of wildebeests that reminded me of The Lion King, as well as some shots that looked like they came straight out of the original animated movie. The footage is absolutely breathtaking, and the 3D — something I normally actively despise — was fantastic. This is going to be a movie worth paying extra to see in the best possible format, and while we’re on that note, we saw the footage on a laser projection with Dolby Extended Dynamic Range, and I can’t recommend that highly enough if you have the chance to seek it out. It’ll be playing that way in a handful of theaters in big cities across the country, and for the film nerds out there, it’s 100% worth looking into.
But enough about the format specifics. The main question I had coming in was, “Why would Jon Favreau make this movie?” The director addressed that head-on:
“The question was, why do it? I didn’t go into Disney and say, ‘I gotta make Jungle Book! You know what we need? Another Jungle Book now!’…Alan Horn, especially, was very passionate. He had grown up with the books, and I had grown up with the movie. We both connected to it in a slightly different way. The idea of going out to the jungle and shooting this, it wouldn’t have had the magic that the ’67 film had. There was a dreamlike quality to it, a surreal quality to it. It was a high water mark for character animation…
What Alan said was, ‘Look at the technology. Look at Life of Pi. Look at Avatar. Why not use the technology to create a whole world that transports you? Why be limited by going off and shooting plates? Let’s really embrace this new technology and see what we could do if we push it to its limit.’ Thankfully, because the Disney properties have translated well, especially going from animation to live action, there was a certain confidence the studio had to give me the resources that were required to do something like this. You only see this technology being used when things are blowing up. Big action spectacles are the only films that seem to make studios comfortable enough to use this level of artistry and technology in storytelling. So the unique opportunity I had is to use it for humor and emotion and showing nature and showing animals and getting into that real deep mythic imagery that always marries well with technology and always has.”
Favreau certainly didn’t do this himself — in fact, he gave huge props to his crew and constantly downplayed his involvement to make them look better. It looks like they deserve the credit they’re getting, too, because the visuals on this thing are just unbelievably good. Favreau hired Rob Legato to be the Visual Effects Supervisor, and he utilized some of the same tactics he used on Avatar to bring this movie to life. Legato was there as well, and he talked about how Avatar looked photo-real, but it was set on a world that doesn’t exist in real life. With The Jungle Book, he’s trying to make a photo-real world that the audience can actually recognize as what we know of a real jungle. Favreau was inspired by Gravity, so he took a similar tack and didn’t just shoot the movie and then hand it off to a visual effects team. He actively collaborated with the VFX people before, during, and after shooting, letting his relationship with the artists at effects houses MPC and Weta dictate the production. Favreau felt like nobody had outdone Avatar’s use of 3D, so they used the same technology to make this movie, shooting in native 3D with the same camera system in the hopes of one-upping it.
But for the director, it wasn’t just about making the movie look great. He wanted to make sure the story was solid, too. He praised Pixar and Disney Animation, saying that the reason they have such high batting averages creatively speaking compared with live-action features is because there’s a tremendous effort put into making sure the story is perfect before filming begins. Taking a page out of their playbook, he had a head of story for this movie, created animatics for the whole movie, filmed an entire motion-capture version of the film, and then took that and shot the one live-action thing that appears in the entire movie — the young Neel Sethi — and shot him as if he were an element. “If the kid is walking twelve feet in the cut of the movie that we had, we built twelve feet of jungle. And each set was built for a shot,” he explained. All of this happened in two soundstages that were side by side in downtown Los Angeles; while they were shooting on one, another was being prepped for the next shot, so they had an incredibly efficient methodology for filming.
“Could we do something that took it to the level where you were watching something that was either photo-real or pleasantly beautiful and elegant and hypnotic, even if we couldn’t achieve that level. Could we avoid an uncanny valley? I thought by not doing the kid, and setting the kid as a live action element…[he was] a live action kid in an illustrated environment.”
In his speech to us, the director often referred to Walt Disney and the way he pushed his team from Snow White to Bambi to make the animals look more realistic. Favreau spoke about how different animals are expressive in different ways in real life, and how they tried to use those aspects to make the talking seem natural here. They looked at movies and TV shows like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Dog With a Blog to find out what NOT to do when trying to create convincing talking animals, and Legato praised the bear scene in The Revenant as a high bar for them to try to meet when it comes to realism.
They wanted everything to seem as realistic as possible — even to the point of the specific creatures in the jungle. When Walt made the original animated movie, he didn’t care that orangutans didn’t belong in the jungles of India where the film is set. Walt just liked the idea of King Louie being an orangutan; it didn’t matter that it wasn’t realistic. But for Favreau’s movie, they even managed to find a way around that: during the research phase, someone on his team stumbled across a creature called the gigantopithecus, a extinct species of ape that grew to nearly 10-foot-tall that existed in that part of the world. So now they had their “realistic” King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken). “We tried to inform it enough so you could see the soul of the actor, but not enough that it took you out of the reality of the movie,” Favreau explained when talking about incorporating the actors’ personalities into the designs of the characters. (Bill Murray looks great as Baloo — you get the sense that’s exactly what he’d be like if he were a talking bear.)
Favreau talked about finding the right actor to take on the role of Mowgli:
“We were a little scared because we looked at 2000 kids and he was number 2000. I was getting a little worried because to me, casting is everything. When somebody — especially a kid — is on screen for that much of the movie, you don’t want somebody that you grow tired of, or might be good for a couple of scenes or to play the kid on a TV show. You need somebody who’s going to hold the screen and is going to be interesting to watch…you have to be able to see something you can work with. My style of working is very real. He didn’t have bad habits. He had a physicality and the way he moved his body around reminded me of Mowgli from the movie. There’s some footage when they’re walking past the waterfall, and it just looks like something that could have been out of the old cartoon. With the other actors, it was also difficult because Bill Murray’s not the easiest guy to get a hold of, you may have heard. So it takes a tremendous amount of persistence and resilience and passion. I don’t like getting my second choice. Like when I cast Robert in Iron Man, I knew my job was going to be taken care of. So sometimes fighting it out through all of the obstacles of getting your cast together makes your life easier down the road because half your job as the director is done. You have to breathe life into this thing, otherwise it is just an exercise in technology, and that’s not entertainment. It needs to have a beating heart in there. That’s what a cast brings you.”
To wrap up, I asked him in a Q&A session about the length of the film. The ’67 movie is very short —only 78 minutes (“We’re longer than that,” he cracked) — and I wondered what he and his team did to build out the story a little bit. Here’s what he said:
“We went back to the structure of the story, and also looked at what Rudyard Kipling did, because he offers up lots of different — it’s not really one continuous story in the hundred year old version of it. But if you see, like, the way we treated the elephants here. Different than the ’67, more like what Kipling did. [They’re] these elevated, god-like figures that created the jungle. So we kind of picked between the two. But for story structure, the ’67 has a lot to offer and I tried to stick with it as much as you could.
What I really tried to do was focus on the images that I remembered from it before going back to look at it again, which is interesting. It was a trick I learned on Iron Man. It’s not necessarily what’s in the material that’s the most important, it’s what you remember. And I find that everybody has a collective memory that’s very similar. And there are images that I remembered very clearly that I listed off, and those are the things that were top priority. And as you go back and you start to break story and figure it out, you start to see that Walt and his team came up with a lot of the same conclusions and a lot of the same story points, so there’s a certain familiarity there. But just the nature of building things out, it’s not a musical, so the whole structure feels different anyway. But we tried to incorporate enough of the music so that it ticked the boxes of, ‘This is what I remember. If I went to see this movie and didn’t see that, I wouldn’t feel satisfied.’ That was the balancing act.”
Special thanks to the folks at Disney for inviting me out. I think this article is exactly what they were hoping for — someone who wasn’t excited about the movie becoming a convert after seeing the footage — and I’m playing right into their hands in that regard, but it’s because I was truly knocked out by how great the film looks. When you go see this, know that every single aspect of the movie aside from Neel is created in a computer, and prepare for your mind to explode.
The Jungle Book hits theaters on April 15th.