EXCLUSIVE: The Jungle Book VFX Supervisor Reveals Visual Wizardry

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(Photo: Walt Disney)

When you sit down in a movie theater and Disney's castle-intro fades into the background, the jungle starts to come alive. If you're watching in 3D - or better still, a Dolby Cinema theater, you start to feel like the jungle is growing around you. Disney's The Jungle Book is much more than just a "remake of a classic," it's an incredible showcase of brand-new visual effects.

At the start of my conversation with VFX Supervisor Robert Legato, I asked him a simple question: Just what kind of wizard are you?

"A tired one," he said with a laugh. He deflected, though, and made sure from the get-go to point out the "incredibly bright, talented people" around him that made this film possible. Most of his answers went first to others - whether it's the actual visual effects teams at MPC and WETA digital, or Supervising Art Director Andy Jones, or Director Jon Favreau, or even the Disney executives that were not just willing, but encouraging Legato and his team "to do things that had never been done before, blaze the trail," with his new effects techniques (not to mention, he pointed out, "and to fund it!").

The techniques used to create a jungle in the heart of downtown Los Angeles - yes, every scene, ever shot was filmed in LA sound studios, and the jungle, the rivers, and of course all of the animals, were all digitally created - were brand new.

"It was something I've wanted to do for a long time, to use the tools this way instead of the way they're normally used," Legato said. Those tools of computer animation are frequently used to create other-worldly environments, like he did himself for Avatar, where rules don't quite line up with reality, or are used to supplement real-world and practical effects like in Titanic, another film Legato guided the visual effects on. Creating a digital world that also followed real-world rules, however, was brand new.

"Everybody was on the same page and had the same desire," he said, speaking of Disney and Favreau. When they started to see some of their creations come to life, though, "even I was blown away!" he exclaimed. Legato admitted to some colorful excitement, which turned into a bit of nerves as he "hoped the audience sees it the same way."

The way the animals move is a particular achievement, especially when it came to following real-world rules. It was a goal for the team at the start, to "limit them to what they can actually accomplish: how far can they jump, what kind of muscles does it use to do it?" Legato explained that their work in creating realistic animal movement, complete with muscular and gravitational boundaries, actually helped them make their digital doubles of young actor Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli (the only human - and real - character for the vast majority of the film) more realistic.

"The digital doubles are for the most part unidentifiable, because they only do things a kid can actually do. It has the same gravity as a real person, it moves the way a person can move. It's so delicate to observe and copy that, a lot of [film makers] just don't do it. Sometimes you see very identifiable digital doubles in movies, because it looks sort of graphic, or the gravity takes you out of it," Legato said.

Director Jon Favreau was the first to insist that every shot of an animal have footage to compare before the animation was created.

"Show me reference of what it would really do became the dictate," Legato said of Favreau. They watched hours of video of real animals, and if one, like Shere Khan the tiger was meant to get up and saunter across, then lie back down, Favreau wanted to see an actual video of a live tiger doing it first. "That becomes part of the animals' performance. It’s just the observance of how animals move in real life, and the skills of our animators who rig the animals to not make it do something it can’t do. We sat in harsh judgment every time we looked at it, of “he’s twitching too much” or ‘he’s twitching too little.’ The things that get me are the little ear flicks or the eye blinks, those little things – nothing happens automatically, everything has to be added in manually, and they observed the nuance, and put in the little things to continually remind you that it must be real."

This level of photo-realism, Legato said, if he had seen it three years ago, he "would say that's impossible." The technology for "animators to get so sophisticated that they could fool my eye that is very discerning and critical; that I would not be able to tell the difference, I would’ve said when I started [a couple decades ago] that would never happen." He spoke often of the way that "technology is catching up with desire," and it's easy to see that it "will change the business."

The other important factor of the film is its use of 3D, something they did from the movie's inception. They used special 3D native cameras for the film, including special analog and virtual cameras that Legato had a hand in inventing for Avatar. He said it was important for 3D in the movie to "not be a gimmick, or a trick," but rather "to be a storytelling device."

"You don’t want to do it as a gimmick, you want to do it as something that’s immersive. Part of what’s immersive is all the flies and dust that are out and look like they’re out in the theater, that you’re not really paying attention to, but make you feel like you’re in that environment. It’s a very subconscious thing," Legato explained. "For most converted movies, the reason I don’t like them, is every shot is a science project for sixty people, and the art of directing your eye is randomly done by those people who are not necessarily filmmakers; it’s a gimmick you add to the end instead of making it an integral part of the storytelling."

Working with Favreau, they framed the 3D shots to help add to characters' individual personality.

"I want the close-up of Shere Khan to be the shot that looks like it’s in your lap so you feel intimidated and invaded by it," he said. "It's all storytelling. It's all art as opposed to science."

That art, creating the "illusion" of a real, living world is what he's "most proud of with the movie." While it was all admittedly difficult, once they hit a high level, they didn't want to stop trying to reach or beat that with every other shot. Ultimately, it came down to the team, and their desire to innovate.

"I worked with a lot of incredibly bright, talented people, who made the job of doing something like this not just doable, but actually enjoyable. You work with A-players, what you can achieve is really quite something," Legato said.

So what kind of wizard is he?

"A very fortunate wizard, I would say."

Disney's The Jungle Book is in theaters now. Read our full review here.