The Disney veteran talks hybrid live-action / animation production challenges on Jon Favreau’s hit action adventure, now available on Blu-ray DVD and digital download.
With the recent release of Jon Favreau’s hit adventure, The Jungle Book, on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and On-Demand, AWN had an opportunity to speak with Brigham Taylor, the film’s producer and long-time Disney development executive, to discuss his perspective on making this challenging, hybrid live-action / animated re-imagining of the beloved 1967 Disney animated classic.
Dan Sarto: What were your main responsibilities on this film? When did you come onto the production?
Brigham Taylor: I was the movie’s producer. Prior to becoming the producer, I worked in my previous job as a development executive at the studio, where I had been for a couple decades. I was very happily involved with Justin Marks, the writer, in early development on this title, which had fascinated me for years. I was really happy, sort of by coincidence, when Alan Horn [Walt Disney Studio chairman] came over and immediately started talking about this title and really galvanized it back into a priority. Most of my early phase [on the project] was sitting with Justin, who I'd worked with previously. Once we knew the film became a priority, we wanted to get involved with a filmmaker sooner than later.
Around that time, as I was transitioning from an executive deal into a new producing deal for Disney, we sat down with Jon [Favreau, the film’s director] who I had worked with before in development. I’m a huge fan of his and felt like he was truly uniquely suited to tackle this material, which we wanted to be high adventure but also very emotional, charming and funny. Jon just speaks to all those elements. My first producerial step was to meet with him and paint a rosy picture that would be inviting.
It didn’t take much, because I think he understood the vision of it very early on, got excited and signed on within the week of our meeting. That's where our fortunes really shifted. You get the right filmmaker, the job of producing becomes much easier. Then of course, my role throughout is to continue to counsel with him creatively and help oversee physical production, the numbers and all that good stuff.
DS: All the fun stuff.
DS: How early was the decision made to make a completely digital film with only a single actor filmed in live-action?
BT: There wasn't much shifting [from the decision], because it was always understood almost from that first meeting that you need a young actor who was never going to be a digital creation. Then once you started considering, not just the nature of the animals but the level of performance and interactivity you needed from each animal character, you knew those would always be photo-real digital creations.
You had seen very impressive work out there from Avatar to Life of Pi to the Planet of the Apes reboot, so you knew you could get there. It was just a matter of the will and the time and the talent. Once you realized that every other key character outside of Mowgli was going to be photo-real animation, then the notion of the environment largely becoming digital certainly made the most sense. I think we landed on that conceptually pretty early, right at the beginning, and it never really wavered. Figuring it out was another question, but the concept of it was pretty consistent.
DS: Even though you’d seen other films successfully handle photo-real animal characters, you still needed certain assurances your unique virtual production plan was viable. What convinced you, "Okay, I'm confident enough, the studio is confident enough…this can be done for the budget we have, in the time we have and with the production plan we have?"
BT: Listen, with any picture, you're always putting your finger in the wind a little bit and taking a leap of faith. But that’s what you do. You make as informed a guess as possible. For us, after we had a meeting with the minds creatively, we got our team together and for us, that involved such folks as Rob Legato, who became our visual effects supervisor. He's kind of seen it all from Harry Potter to Titanic to Avatar and is just one of the brighter minds in regards to what can be done and how it can be done, whether we've done it before or not.
We also sat down very early on with Adam Valdez at MPC. It was really in counsel with those two collaborators, talking about what the vision of this movie needed to be as well as the feasibility. Hearing back from these kinds of experts, "We can do that," especially given the time we figured we had, to me, that's what gave us the confidence. Of course, it's still based on nothing but talk, until we finally got our first test pieces.
We commissioned tests right away with MPC just to see if we could get the level of photo-realism and naturalism that we wanted. I remember very distinctly those first shots...they're not in the movie, these were just test shots. First one we saw involved this blue jay and then shortly thereafter the first chief character we saw in a real render was Bagheera, the panther. They were just stunning work. That's when you really felt like, "Okay, we could probably pull this off."
DS: Did those tests prove to you not just that you could produce the needed photo-realism, but photorealistic animal characters that could talk in a believable way, that the audiences would believe, that wouldn't seem hokey or silly or take them out of the moment. Was that part of what you originally tested?
BT: The first tests did not. The first tests were truly visual in nature because you had non-speaking...we had a bird, we had a tortoise. Even the first shot we all looked at together of Bagheera was an image of him breathing, looking and changing his eye line. Very quick shot, but it didn't have any talking. That was round two. We felt like, "Okay, the look can be achieved. The realism can be achieved." All these new simulations that MPC had developed were stunning.
You're right. The biggest magic trick there afterwards was like, "Well, once they open their mouths, what it's going to look like and feel like?" The next shot was also Bagheera – it was about actually putting words in his mouth. We had a piece of audio from Ben Kingsley. There was a lot of interesting back and forth, about on what level and on what scale of exaggeration these mouth forms were going to get. It took a little bit of interesting back and forth to figure out what the best look for that was.
That was probably where we applied the greatest sensitivity, so the spell was not broken. We really worked hard for a shot to get it to a point where we pulled in our studio partners and said, "This is what we think it is." That first talking shot. That was round two and took a lot of discussion and a few iterations.
DS: As a hybrid live action / virtually produced animated project, in what way was it different for you making this film than other films, from a production standpoint?
BT: It was fundamentally different for me. Even in my old job as an executive, you work very closely with your producing partners and you have a pretty good visibility on the production pipeline. Even on very visual effects heavy films like a Pirates movie, there's still this traditional way where you put together your art department, you hone the scripts, you have a table-read, you go up and shoot, and you have your visual effects supervisors there giving their perspective on how to best capture the image so that they can put their magic touches on it later.
It flows in that direction. This was truly a hybrid film with an animated technique where we had to build several iterations of the movie -- complete versions of the movie -- before we ever shot it. We had to understand with such precision, how Neela, our actor, was going to fit into this world which almost entirely did not exist.
If you're entirely animated, it's one thing because you stay in the virtual world. You go from pencil drawings to layout, to animation, to final renders. But here we had to start in the same place, where we created a full animatic with the story department, with pencil drawings. We then created the full layout with both motion capture and some animation techniques. We used that to study very carefully what we were going to actually shoot, then prepped for that.
A year into it, you're finally shooting your actor with stuff you're going to have to live with. The props and the light and the performance that you're going to have to have. Then you backfill for the world around it. I've never worked on anything to that degree before. It was really just a true hybrid live-action / animation technique.
DS: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges that you faced on this film?
BT: There's many here.
DS: I'm sure.
BT: Think of the fact that we had to have a practical art department and a virtual art department sync up with the script in the story and build up this world entirely. We had to bring our DP and certain production heads on well in advance to build this movie virtually before we ever shot anything practically.
Figuring all those things in advance, without standing on a set and blocking it and figuring it was a unique challenge. If you hadn't figured it all out, you would have really been stuck with compromised shots up and down. We spent all that time and effort wracking our brains and figuring every little detail out -- every little detail in each animal all the way to every leaf and tree -- so that we would know exactly what we were doing beforehand.
That to me was a huge challenge, but it was actually exhilarating and allowed you to see your movie like animators get to see their movie, in complete versions multiple times. It actually has this wonderful effect on the creative decisions you make because you get to make mistakes and make course corrections before it gets prohibitive. That we were able to do that to some degree I think was a huge creative benefit to the story that we told.
DS: What can we look forward to on the DVD?
BT: I'm super proud of the material that was produced by the Disney home entertainment team including a nice overview piece called Jungle Book Reimagined, which walks you through almost the whole process and gets a lot of insight from Jon and others through lots of great behind the scenes looks at the movie. At first blush you might not fully understand the techniques that were being used. Amazing insight to the process, but also into some of the creative thinking and inspirations that wouldn't be completely obvious and that go beyond the 1967 movie itself. To me, that's a really wonderful piece. There's a lot of great smaller pieces beyond that, but that's the one that I was very impressed with.
I’m happy for the fact I feel like we created something that never sought to replace [the 1967 animated film]. We all have as much fondness for the animated film as you or probably anyone else. There was never a notion or desire to replace that film – we wanted to create a companion piece that in many ways would get us looking back as much as looking forward to how wonderful it was.
Hopefully they can live creatively side by side and have wonderful differences and contrast. If you appreciate one or the other, it will lead you to the companion piece. That's important to us, because of the animation history here at Disney, and just to me as a fan. I hope as much as anything that this film shines a spotlight on the genius that was Walt’s version.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.