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How ‘Jungle Book’ Seamlessly Blended CGI and Live Action

The Jungle Book” demanded verisimilitude in its effects, but employed no real animals in photography, unlike “Life of Pi,” which employed its fantasy elements to dramatize the visual effects and a real tiger to cut alongside the digital.

VFX supervisor Rob Legato says despite the minimalistic sets (a small hill or a short walkway), the film was made as — and meant to look like — a live-action film. It was filmed over two years, after six months of prep; “The Jungle Book” team took the success of movies like “Life of Pi” and “Gravity” as proof that the dream was possible.

Technology, improved over half a decade, now better simulates — rather than imitates — real life. “The real weight of things, the turbulence of water — all that is not just animated from scratch,” Legato says. “There’s some mechanics involved. If you move one thing, it affects other things.”

The simulations are really what drive believability; Legato, Moving Picture Co. and Weta employed the power of physics to determine motion and light. Pixar’s RenderMan was used for ray tracing (simulating how light actually reflects off and onto other objects) and the two vfx studios built proprietary technology to simulate actual movements — the way a wolf’s fur would compress with pressure from a human hand, the shift of muscles under skin when a tiger rises from a reclining position or a fire consuming a tree, with pieces falling off and to the ground.

“When a character blinks, it’s not just the eyelid going in, the sockets also scrunch and it causes a furrow in the brow,” Legato says. “The scene is animated, someone figuring out you should blink at this moment, but the secondary effects of that is all done by these proprietary pieces of software and rigs.”

Though many of these details were added in later, the mainframe visuals were created in previz. Legato could walk onto a blank stage with a handheld camera which communicates its position to the computer, and then, through the eyepiece, he sees a virtual environment affected by how he moved. “You’re seeing a video representation of what real life is,” Legato says, calling this another kind of simulation. Cinematographers are then able to shoot a movie organically as they would any other. This is where the live-action magic happens.

They also needed to integrate the real into the virtual, so to light and shoot young Mowgli in the small space they had, Legato and co. built a 45-foot-wide turntable, which incorporated small hills and valleys for actor Neel Sethi to walk around. As the scenes were prevized and 3D space created, a camera dolly could be placed in the very same scenic environment that Mowgli would be incorporated into later. The movement of the turntable activated the synchronized dolly in the computer program, following parallel to the path Mowgli took. The camera on the dolly picked up the obstacles between the camera and the actor, and converted it into a black-and-white composite, which is then projected on the actor. When combined, the shadows that would fall on him in the virtual jungle fell on him in the studio as well. Further, the same shadows that fell on Baloo and other animals, and fell on the ground around them, matched the shadows on the human actor.

Last, Andy R. Jones, the animation supervisor, built a rig dubbed the “Faverator” for the director. The machine, piston driven, had elements from every part of an animal’s physiology that move when the animal moves.Think scapulae and shoulders, hindquarters and round stomachs. The machine was synchronized with the animated buffalo and animated Baloo, so when Sethi rode the rig, he was made to move as he would a real animal, but according to the creature’s animated motion. When they combined the footage with the animation, Sethi’s body movements corresponded precisely with the virtual animal’s and it seemed as if he was really sitting on a giant bear, wading down a lazy jungle river.

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