junglebook_mpc_d junglebook_mpc_d
DisneyFeature FilmVFX

Not Your Grandpa’s Talking Animals: How Animators Kept ‘The Jungle Book’ Real

Much has been made of the innovative virtual filmmaking techniques used to create Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. And while that aspect of the production was clearly a key part in helping a young actor, Neel Sethi (Mowgli), appear to interact with a range of cgi animals, the role of animators was also key in giving emotion to the jungle’s inhabitants by making them talk and at the same time making them completely believable.

Using the examples of Shere Khan the Bengal tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) and the wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) created by vfx house MPC, Cartoon Brew delves into the animation challenges of the film.

For all of the creatures it created—54 animal species in total—MPC began work on The Jungle Book with extensive referencing. The animation team gathered and organized a voluminous library of footage from nature documentaries and online videos. “When each shot was started,” outlined character animation supervisor Benjamin Jones, “the animators would search through the library and choose two or three clips that they thought matched the intention of the performance required. Often it would be one clip to get the body language and one clip for the face and head which looked like a real animal doing something close to the emotional performance that we were aiming for in the shot.”

MPC’s animators also crafted mood boards of images that represented individual components of the animals. “Narrowing down the reference to specific selects allowed our artists to have a more targeted approach to their work, as the sheer amount and variation in the reference could be intimidating or contradictory,” said Jones. “In the end we would have a pretty good set of go-to images for a character that showed the best reference for fur, model, texture, lighting, animation etc.”

Shere Khan was one of the many animals brought to life by MPC.
Shere Khan was one of the many animals brought to life by MPC.

What the artists would be animating started with accurate skeleton models. “On top of all that, we would simulate an accurate muscle system with automatic muscle flex detection based on movements of the joints, and a cloth-like simulation for the skin,” said Jones. “MPC’s pipeline allowed auto generation of all the character muscle and skin simulations for all active shots overnight when a rig update was made.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of the film, from an animation standpoint, came in the form of lip sync. The visual effects teams were tasked with not only creating photorealistic creatures but also making them talk—something that could easily have swayed things away from realism. MPC relied on both animal jaw reference and video of the voice actors performing the dialogue.

“As we wanted to keep the motion of the faces of the characters more animal than human, the face of the actor was used for timing reference of the mouth and eyes, and also a key part was to layer in some of the head motion from the voice actor on top of the animal reference. This subtle head motion really added a lot of personality from the individual actors into the animation.”

“Animals can be very expressive,” added Jones, “but not necessarily in the same way humans are. We tried to steer clear of as many human traits as possible and put a lot of the emotion into the body language such as ears and tail; the tail movement of animals can be a huge emotional cue. When it felt like the facial performance was getting too exaggerated or anthropomorphic we would back off on it and look at adding more cues to the body to get a more natural feel, but still keep the emotional core.”

Neel Sethi (Mowgli) performed on the bluescreen set with a puppeteered version of Raksha the wolf. MPC built a digital version of Raksha, as well as a completely synthetic environment. The final render made use of Pixar RenderMan’s new RIS raytracing technology to provide for photorealistic results.
Neel Sethi (Mowgli) performed on the bluescreen set with a puppeteered version of Raksha the wolf. MPC built a digital version of Raksha, as well as a completely synthetic environment. The final render made use of Pixar RenderMan’s new RIS raytracing technology to provide for photorealistic results.

Animals such as Shere Khan and Raksha would, of course, not come across as real without a convincing fur coat. MPC has years of experience in this area with its proprietary Furtility tool. Each wolf, for example, had in excess of 10 million hairs making the scenes very render-heavy.

“Our R&D team developed optimizations to the groom to reduce the level of detail as the characters get further from camera which allowed us to get the renders through,” noted Jones. “We utilized SideFX Software’s Houdini to simulate the fur, this allowed much more flexibility with what we could do with interaction in the fur. For the wolves in the rain, for example, we could simulate the effect of individual hairs of the fur getting hit by raindrops and springing back. The effects team would also use Houdini to simulate thousands of water particles in the fur that would drip off the tips of the fur, and run down the individual hairs.”

Neel Sethi rides a mechanical creature on set that served as a stand-in a for a cg water buffalo created by MPC.
Neel Sethi rides a mechanical creature on set that served as a stand-in a for a cg water buffalo created by MPC.

Sometimes the animals’ fur also had to interact with the environment or with Mowgli, such as a scene where the man-cub says goodbye to his pack and runs his hands through Raksha’s coat. The shot was filmed with a puppeteer (from The Jim Henson Company) controlling a practical puppet that Sethi interacted with on set. The puppet, specially manufactured from MPC’s digital character assets, was covered in a foam surface with 50% of the thickness of Raksha’s actual fur.

“This meant that when we replaced the puppet with our digital version,” continued Jones, “Neel’s hand would be just the right depth into the digital fur to get a good interaction and feeling of contact. We would track Neel’s hand and arm digitally and then use that to simulate collisions with the fur. To get the best lighting and shadow response possible for the hand that was buried in the fur we ended up blending to a digital hand.”

Placing their creatures in photoreal digital environments was another key step, and began with a significant real-world photographic texture shoot in India (by MPC’s Bangalore team). “This enabled our environments to be grounded in reality, and even more than that, allowed them to be directly influenced by actual environments in India,” said Jones. “Many of the rocks and trees were directly reconstructed using photogrammetry from these images. Our artists could then build the multiple massive environment sets by picking and choosing from a huge library of pre-existing rocks, plants, and trees.”

MPC added to these photographic reconstructions with custom pieces, too. “To bring the whole environment together we had a procedural tool to create ‘scatter’ on the entire environment,” said Jones. “This used a particle system to distribute sand, leaves, stones, small plants, mud, moss, and debris over the entire terrain, dynamically collecting in cracks and crevices of the environment automatically.”

The final creature count for MPC, which also crafted other major characters like Baloo the bear and Bagheera the black panther, was a whopping 224 variations on 54 animal species. It was an effort that also resulted in MPC producing 1,984 terabytes of data and running 240,000,000 render farm hours. And behind that work: more than 800 visual effects artists at MPC making it possible.

  • Rodrigo Hernandez

    Are you sure 240,000,000 render farm hours is correct!?

  • The_Purple_People_Eater

    I need to get someone’s opinion, how is this film entertaining? Please, someone explain to me how expressionless, hyper realistic animals with really weak voice acting and motion capture body movement is fun to watch. Nothing about this film looks real, nothing about it feels real, nothing comes off charming, and nobody in it seems interesting.

    • movieNerd

      sound like it’s just not your kind of movie. plenty of other people like it so to each his/her own I guess.

      couple of points you might like to rethink though:

      There was no mo-cap used on any of the animals… all hand keys. every mouth shape and very muscle twitch and before you throw 800 professional artist under the bus ( me included ) that worked their ass off to create something that within the industry is regarded as a milestone, maybe you should lead with your qualification of what constitutes as “real’ in a movie. And ‘expressionless’ , where did that come from ? you want us to animate like hotel t in a realistic setting or what ?

      I’m not hurt by your opinion. everyone can have his/her. i had fun working on it, and have since moved on to other movies, like the rest of the crew. just thought i clear some things up for you as you asked for someones opinion.

      • Alan

        I think a lot of people just have a kneejerk reaction to realistic vfx. Yeah, it’s not to everybody’s liking, which is fine, but it doesn’t even sound like he watched it before judging it.

        I thought it was super inspiring. Great work.

      • The_Purple_People_Eater

        Pointing out how many artists worked on it is completely pointless, many animated films are deemed unwatchable despite all the labor put into them. Sorry for “throwing them under the bus” and hurting your feelings by being critical. Is the film not getting enough praise for you?

        How “real” the movie looked is not an insult to the artists, it’s a criticism of the director’s (or studio’s) intention to over use of CGI in movies. And no, that’s not me being a “purist” as the person bellow stated. Things tend to look really fake when 99% of what we’re looking at was produced by a computer. For example, all the leaves in the jungle are alive and all the animals are unscarred unless intentionally designed to be. Everything in this world (just like Avatar and other blue-screen films) was just birthed! It’s as if God individually designed every follicle on that wolf’s face. That’s why it looks fake.

        The animals themselves are as interesting to look at as one of those highly rendered pencil sketches of dog portraits. The same reason I wonder why anyone would want to hang one of those portraits on their wall is the same reason I wonder why anyone would want to watch The Jungle Book (2016.)

        As for the expressionless acting I was referring to, it’s true that the animators were limited when working with hyper-realistic animals that have to look relatively “real” with their performances. But that’s why I asked, who wants to see a film like that? The animals look like taxidermy with distracting, flapping mouths. But that’s the film’s style, I guess.

        Also, about the motion capture, Jon Favreau states in interviews that the film used motion capture all throughout. I didn’t work on the film but you said there was absolutely no mo-cap on any of the animals. Then what was it used on? Was it scrapped? Is it a misunderstanding of what Favreau was saying?

        • movieNerd

          no feelings hurt here my friend and if you would have explained your point a bit better in the first place, I would have partly agreed with you. also i don’t really care how much praise the movie gets, if anything its a bit over hyped if you ask me.

          So how would you have made this movie if you feel the CGI was overused ? would a version that looks like ‘babe’ be more to our liking. im not being confronting or try to convert you into liking the movie, (fat chance for that.) i just like to hear your plan.

          And you seam to ignore that tese animals a way to big to be realistic and the whole movie keeps pushing the notion that it is not realistic but stylized realism. so Semantics aside, they never tried to make it look as real as possible, its not a documentary.

          also it sound like jungle book : origins will be right up your alley then.
          word on the street is its super gritty, stylized and all the animals are scared like they came from a war. I’m not even joking.

          and to clear up the mo cap thing. as far as im aware of the kid was mocaped mostly for the previz and to get some stock anim for the 3d layout. In some shots that were full cg in the movie. like if you see him form behind running some where. lots of him was key framed as well. or we replaced parts of him like his whole lowers body and sometimes his arm in most shots when he floats down the river on baloo. so, i think JF is refering to the actuall filming where the use mo cap for the kid. there never was mocap data for any of the animals. i don’t think you could get bill murry or christopher walken in one of these suits.. but i wish they would have. would be amazing stuff im sure.

    • Have you seen the film????

  • Alan

    Great work on the film! I actually didn’t expect to enjoy it from the trailers, but the story, although straightforward, made sense, and the beautiful visual effects elevated it to another level. There was so much craftsmanship and care overall.

    • I will say I like what I see from the “Mowgli Leaves The Pack” clip. Mowgli knows he has to go and his mom gives him some parting words of encouragement. Contrast that with what Disney did almost 50 years ago and it’s quite interesting to see those differences. Rama doesn’t even get to say goodbye and Mowgli is whisked away before the crack of dawn. As a kid, I remember feeing cheated seeing this in ’84 thinking “They didn’t give those wolves much screentime at all.”, they were quite essential in the book, but just got pushed aside in the film. It seems the new film gives them some more time to shine at least.