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Staying in Focus: Rob Legato Talks ‘The Jungle Book’

Oscar-winning VFX supervisor breaks down his work designing and filming Jon Favreau and Disney’s hit action-adventure feature.

‘The Jungle Book.’ All images © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Massive world building within the digital realm is nothing new for Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (Hugo), who has collaborated in the past with the likes of James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Martin Scorsese, and now, with Jon Favreau on Disney’s action-adventure hit, The Jungle Book. His experience and expertise were critical in helping Favreau design, shoot and ultimately integrate the right mix of live-action and digital elements into a film filled with realistic looking talking animals that audience would find believable.

Legato’s role, as always, was to focus his efforts on helping bring the director’s vision to the screen. He explains, “Ultimately, Jon makes the decision. But he’s not sitting there telling you, ‘I want the camera to start here, end there, and this is the way I want to choreograph and block it out.’ Jon will make a suggestion like, ‘I want to make it feel like this or that.’  Kind of the way he would talk to an actor.” 

“Either Bill Pope [the film’s cinematographer] or I were operating the camera dictating what the shot was, how long it was, is it a close-up or a wide shot, and that is no different from a live-action film,” Legato continues. “The animator puts the acting portion in but we’re framing and interpreting the story in a cinematic way.  I’m also a director and cameraman so part of my duties, besides designing the working methodology of the movie, was to make sure that the photography was analogue as possible. The animators essentially worked for us in terms of blocking out the scene. ‘I want the tiger here.  I want this thing over here.  He is going to move and stop over here. These are the types of moments we are going to create.  Then you guys go in and perfect it.’  About 90 percent was photographed in that manner and about 10 per cent the CG artists did some of the cameras.”

Rob Legato.

Notes Legato, “In our particular case, you [the audience] are incredibly familiar with what the world looks like, so the fidelity of matching or creating the sensation that you’re looking at the real thing is greater than in Avatar. Avatar is photo-realistic but not photo-real because the creatures and landscape aren’t real.  Now, it’s rooted in photography as if it was real and the planet does exist and looks like that. This is Jim’s interpretation of what it would look like, but the audience has to go along for the ride because they have nothing to compare it to.  In Jungle Book you do have a tremendous sense of memory of any park you’ve visited, or your backyard.  You know what trees and leaves look like even if they’re indigenous to India. Everybody has seen every one of these animals and can be an expert in deciphering if it’s a real or fake image.”

“Because computers have gotten faster, the ray tracer capabilities in the new RenderMan RIS enable you to simulate exactly what light does,” Legato explains.  “I could not stress enough how different that makes certain things. You have to work with a discipline that is counter to CG, which is you light with the illusion of one light source and in CG all of sudden there are 15 lights.  If I can’t have one I’m going to have three aimed in the same direction and at the same amount of energy.  Whenever the light bounces off of an object and onto another all of a sudden it starts to fill in the blanks.”

Legato adds, “I insisted that we didn’t match light from shot-to-shot specifically because the discipline of filmmaking is it takes you all day to shoot a scene and the sun is different in every take.  Some shots need to be lit differently to even feel the same because you’re at a different angle or the camera is aiming at a different thing.  Base the time of day you’re shooting on how beautiful the light looks or how much a storytelling element that light is. Those little details and disciplines of mimicking real life remind you that it must be something you remember.  Then you start to believe the story and the image you’re watching.”

“Adam and I came up with the thought that we’re going to base everything on the ALEXA curve,” remarks Legato, referencing his creative partnership with MPC VFX supervisor Adam Valdez, who was responsible for producing 1200 shots. “The ALEXA mimics film well and has beautiful colour mapping.  Adam went off and implemented that technically into his pipeline so it would look as if we shot it.  The colour gamut of the ALEXA was going to be the colour gamut of the jungle.  The digital camera work imitated what we could do with a real camera.”

Nuanced camera movements based on anticipated animal movements were integral to the filming. “The moment that the animal moves is not the frame you would move [the camera] because you need a moment to see it, understand what is happening, react to it and then follow it.  That’s how camera operating is and it’s same thing with focus pulling.  If you don’t see an action/reaction you know that something is wrong.  All sudden it has the panache of artificiality,” Legato explains.

“There’s a shot that I put in specifically when Shere Khan is chasing Mowgli for the first time and he gets knocked by the buffalo stampede,” Legato reveals.  “I had him slide right up to and bump the imaginary camera that was there. He not only bumped the imaginary camera but also kicked up dirt into the imaginary lens because that’s what would have happen if I put a camera there and was lucky enough to get that shot.  We buy it as an audience because we’ve seen it a million times in films.”

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) had a theory that audience members need at least three things to believe in when watching a scene, whether it be the actor, clothes, set, camera or light. For Legato, looking at jungle-based action is a bit different. He notes, “It’s probably more than three when you’re dealing with the jungle. If you just see the wind pickup, a tree limb move, a leaf in the foreground, and the kid’s hair change, then you go, ‘I’m buying the moment.’  Everything is telling me that he is interactive with his environment and hence it must be real.”

The entire film shoot was centred around Neel Sethi, who portrays Mowgli, interacting with characters that did not physically exist. “We had props and puppeteers,” explains Legato. “Since we knew, because we had the previs, exactly where those things were in space, we were able to recreate the touch points of the illusion.  Let’s look at when he’s holding the mother’s head in the rain and his fingers are going through its fur.  We had an object there for him to do it with.  Then we removed his hands and put CG hands where the wrists are and mimicked what he was doing. Those hands were actually rubbing the computer generated hair so it’s simulating what it would really do.  Because of the fidelity and the skill of Adam’s group at MPC, you can’t see the seam where the CG hand meets the real one.  It is all lit the same.  You forget it and watch the emotion of the scene because it looks real.”

Additionally, the crew built a device they called “The Favreator” to assist filming Mowgli as he interacted with one of the film’s main digital animal characters, the big bear Baloo. According to Legato, “The idea is that we would animate the bear moving, all of its haunches and muscles. If you were to sit on it you would have to react to the shoulder popping up and down, and with the stride.  What we did was build this five or six piston rig that sat on top of a traditional motion base.  It looks like the kid is reacting with the G-force from the way the animal is moving, as opposed to doing a generic buck and putting CG legs on it.”

One particular lighting issue Legato encountered required some practical innovation. He details, “It’s hard on-stage to light a long walk. The middle of the stage is the sweet spot so that’s where you can put the fill lights. But when you get to the other side of the stage you don’t have a lot of the sky and ambient light to do that with. We built this giant rotating platform which was 40 or 50 feet in diameter that we could make silent.  It was on ball bearings, wheels and pneumatic tires.  Neel would be on the outer edge and we made what he was walking on lumpy so that it looks like he is on terrain.  We also used a projector as a key light. For the trees and leaves that blocked the sun and Mowgli, we created a black and white foreground element and placed it in the projector.  Now we had this perfect animation of what would happen that was mathematically correct.”

Despite the film’s extensive previs, one third of The Jungle Book had not been pre-planned, which meant the shoot ended up taking longer than anticipated. “We brought a previs unit called Short Cage, which is a small virtual camera setup, on-stage so that when we were finished shooting Neel, who had an early day because of his age, we would shoot these other scenes and then back figure them out,” says Legato. “When we liked the cut, we said, ‘That’s now the techvis of the show, which is a shot that shows the schematic of the stage and where the light is going to be so we can plan the shoot day.’ If we had finished the movie entirely, did all the techvis before we showed up on-stage and had an exact plan for every shot, we could probably have done it in 60 days. That was reasonable. But the reason it took 90 days was because we had to do some stuff on the day.  We would literally take 20 minutes to decide on the shot and build the set pieces around that [new decision] to maintain [a pace of] over 10 to 15 additional shots a day.  That adds up to days [of additional shooting].  The more you talk about it the less you shoot. That just becomes another shoot day.”

Legato also shot the film in stereoscopic 3-D. “It’s real native stereo,” he remarks. “There’s no magic formula.  You’re judging or interpolating the stereo as it is going to be for the entire shot.  That’s a blessing and a curse in that you’re married to that and have to match it.  The matching takes some time but the rewards are great in that it feels more natural. People have responded quite well to the 3D. I kept it straightforward and didn’t go too nuts with it because you need contrast.”

“The danger of shooting on a blue screen stage is that you don’t have an f11 to shoot with,” Legato continues. “You have an f2.8 and a depth-of-field built into that.  So you have a forced depth-of-field which is inherently unnatural.  We would make choices where we would shoot less set so we didn’t have to worry about the depth-of-field showing up because the leaves behind him [Neel] are so soft; those became CG versions.  Mowgli is in focus and a certain distance behind him is in focus which makes the shot more believable.”

According to Legato, the whole choice of the opening scene was an homage to and desire to elicit a feeling that this is the Disney of old. “We went back and studied Bambi.  In Bambi one of the big innovations was the multiplane camera. I had my son Michael shoot a bunch of animation cells that we had Disney animators paint.  We multiplane them so you would see the foreground move against the background.  We set it up and Joe Farrell imitated what the multiplane camera would have done and then we had the artwork photographed. Michael photographed it in Technicolor where one frame was a red filter, one frame was a green filter and one frame was a blue filter.  Then you put these three colour layers together - that’s what they did back in the day.  The hand-animated fireworks feel like Disney of old. We transition to our version of the Bambi forest which is photo-reality and then the movie starts.”

“Some of the film’s action beats are different because they are more reminiscent of a visual effects movie than not,” notes Legato. “The subtle scenes are the ones I like the most. On one of my favourites I shot, when you look at the plates, the infant Mowgli is reacting and smiling at an iPhone. But then you look at the scene and put Bagheera where the iPhone is and now it looks like Mowgli is fascinated by Bagheera. I also like the fire scene at the end. I like the look of it.  It was fun to see on the big screen.”

Unlike many, Legato does not view The Jungle Book as an animated movie. “It looks and feels like live-action. If you tell me it’s animated I conjure up something that is not real or larger than life.”  Concludes Legato, “We used the same devices and same techniques that would create an animated movie, but instead made a live-action movie.  We thought you’d appreciate what you’re watching more if you see it that way, and for people to respond to The Jungle Book and tend to agree, is heartening.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.