MPC VFX supervisor Bob Winter oversees the creation of CG environments, digital doubles, and a deadly jaguar attack for director Jake Kasdan’s ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.’
The tables are turned in Sony’s brand-new adventure, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as four teenagers are sucked into the world of the classic board game -- now reimagined as a video game console -- and thrust into the bodies of their avatars, played by Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan. What they discover in the new film, directed by Jake Kasdan, is that you don’t just play Jumanji -- Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.
Visual effects house MPC handled the final act of the action-comedy, overseen by VFX supervisor Bob Winter, who collaborated closely with production VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen. “The creative direction was try to make the video game world of Jumanji as realistic as our world,” says Winter. “There are a couple of shots of getting into the game where it’s the first person to try to allow the audience to bridge that transition from real world to the world of Jumanji. But then after that they play it straight in terms of the cinematography.”
“Most of it was shot in Hawaii as a backdrop,” Winter recounts. “For the most part, the creatures weren’t too numerous, and had specific behavior and roles in telling the story. We didn’t find a whole lot of situations where we were relying too heavily on crowds. The one exception was a big pit of black mambas that Martha’s character lands in towards the end. You can’t look at normal collision detection and say, ‘That guy is not going to run into that guy.’ Because they wrap around each other. We ended up doing a hybrid approach where we key-frame animated groups of snakes and assembled a lot of those together to get the numbers we needed.”
Realistic digital doubles of plants needed to be integrated into the plates with dynamics applied to them. “We found that a little could go a long way,” Winter remarks. “Our biggest environmental challenges were dealing with natural elements such as wind so to have our work sit in with the live-action photography. We didn’t get much bare land surfaces. Most of it is covered with vegetation, from trees down to bushes and grass.”
A natural landmark needed to be digitally inserted. “They had a location in Hawaii that we recreated digitally and added the jaguar statue,” Winter continues. “We did a nice job intercutting with the actors at the ground level talking and then cutting to the wide and establishing shots. They built the top of the head as a set piece about four or five meters high. In the vast majority of the shots it was a CG replacement for the statue. In the establishing shot of the jaguar statue we’re literally seeing millions of pieces of vegetation. We have some internal tools to generate cycles of plants deforming and swaying which is a nice way to assemble complex scenes.”
But as Winer observes, “ the one thing that they can’t shoot with the camera is real life jaguars attacking people,” he says. “There’s a great clip in Planet Earth II of a jaguar that director Jake Kasdan loved. We did a roto animation of that performance and were able to build off of that to get a sense of how fast their gait is, where they have follow through, show the weight and the different beats of their walk, and how they glare. They’re unpredictable and killers.”
Techniques employed for Disney’s CG/live-action hybrid feature The Jungle Book were further developed for Welcome to the Jungle. “We have a system for instancing geometry onto fur so you would get clumps of dirt at the ends of clumps of hair; we relied on that for the jaguars and pushed it into a more complex setup and execution than we had in the past.” It was hard to light the jaguars for the nighttime scenes. “All of the reference we were seeing was usually some kind motion sensor with a front flash or a hunting light pointing at a big cat. We found a nice balance in their golden fur to get a sense of back rim highlights, Fresnel highlights to outline their profile, and cornea reflections.”
In a flashback sequence, it is revealed that the antagonist Van Pelt placed a curse upon the world of Jumanji. “At one point, creatively, they were exploring whether these creatures look cursed,” Winter reveals. “Our art department did work on those concepts. We ended up taking that far even into our real movie assets. It became distracting because you weren’t sure why that elephant or jaguar had those attributes and that look. It wasn’t reinforcing the story enough. We pulled back and said, ‘Let’s make realistic animals as we know them.’”
Digital doubles were created for each of the main characters. “We didn’t need to go as far as doing a facial performance but we did a few face replacements.” Rendering was done using RenderMan RIS. “Getting another 300,000 plants into memory for a scene is what the rendering challenge becomes. Once they are deforming, it limits the amount of instancing that you can do, but we’ve got ways around that. It’s finding that balance of variation but still being able to create something you can actually render,” says Winter.
“The biggest challenge, and also the most rewarding, was trying to recreate realistic animals,” he remarks. “It’s definitely the thing that we focused on in our animation all the way through our look development through to our final integration.”
The daytime flashback scene is a proud moment as it involves completely synthetic and photo-realistic beauty shots. “From the get-go Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is clever and funny,” says Winter. “The five characters in the game are so dominant onscreen in their performances and personalities. Our work and creatures became fancy and elaborate props that allowed them to set up funny moments and certain dramatic beats. It was neat.”