Walt Disney Co.’s “The Jungle Book,” to be released April 15, might take place in a lush area of India, but it was largely shot in the concrete jungle of downtown Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Center Studios provided the production base for the film, and when the script called for key scenes set on a river, moviemakers solved the problem by building a large water tank in the parking lot there.
“We had the idea to build a huge tank from scratch with gigantic jets and pumps to create a current,” said Christopher Glass, the film’s production designer.
Glass, 42, spent two years working on the picture, designing sets for the film, which mixes live action with computer-generated imagery and motion-capture technologies.
Some of the technical work was done in Bangalore, India, though the vast majority was done in Los Angeles, continuing a recent trend of movie production returning to its Hollywood roots. Whether it marks a revival of the local visual effects industry, which has been hard hit in recent years, is another question.
For “Jungle Book,” the team at Motion Picture Co., led by Adam Valdez, said a unit of artists from MPC London were in Los Angeles for preproduction design work and for filming some scenes. Some graphics were designed in London, with a large team assisting with final digital work done by the company’s Bangalore facility.
“Of course, the director and nerve center was in L.A.,” said Valdez.
Directed by Jon Favreau, the film stars newcomer Neel Sethi as young hero Mowgli, a human boy raised by wolves, and features the voices of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, and Scarlett Johansson.
While Disney has not disclosed the budget for the film, Glass said what he had to work with was lower than other movies of similar scale. He added that the bare necessities of the situation inspired moviemakers to find creative solutions so audiences would not notice any reduction in spectacle.
Glass described sitting with Favreau in the Playa Vista offices of Digital Domain while taking a virtual tour of potential set locations in India, an industry first and indication of how future location scouting might be done, said Gary Roberts, virtual production supervisor.
“It’s amazing stepping into a set and changing it in real time,” said Roberts. His team at Digital Domain provided the previsualization and lighting technology required to help Favreau, cinematographer Bill Pope, and Glass’ team prepare for shooting Sethi, their only live human actor, against green screens. The team created a hand-drawn moving story board and a “radio play” of the voice actors’ track, then used advanced motion-capture programs to visualize the boy’s movements down to each footprint. This process, while still in its early days, could produce huge cost savings in the future.
Glass said that while the budget for the set build was low for the size of the movie, he noted that Favreau and Pope worked with Glass’ team to use the smaller scale to their artistic advantage.
“The irony of any filmmaking is that no amount of money is ever enough,” he said. “But limiting your choices can actually be liberating.”
The L.A. nerve center for “Jungle Book” marks a departure from the recent trend of shipping CGI work overseas, a shift that has profound impacts locally. Much of the computer graphics work for film and TV has been shipped to India and Asia in recent years as subsidies from foreign governments made it tough for domestic companies to compete.
That led to nearly two dozen visual effects companies closing or filing for bankruptcy between 2003 and 2013, with several being acquired by foreign companies. Digital Domain, started in 1993 by “Avatar” director James Cameron, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, and is now owned by a Hong Kong-based firm. Visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, based in El Segundo, won an Academy Award for “Life of Pi” just weeks after filing for bankruptcy protection in 2013. It’s now owned by Prana Studios of Mumbai, India.
In 2014, Sony Pictures Imageworks moved a significant amount of its staff and its Culver City headquarters to Vancouver.
Return to roots
For Disney, “Jungle Book,” a remake of its 1967 animated musical version of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale, is the latest attempt to capitalize on a live-action revival of a trademark property. Previous attempts “Cinderella” and “Maleficent” brought in huge numbers the past two years. Both movies opened at about $69 million and went on to make close to $200 million domestically, closing with $543 million in global box office receipts for “Cinderella” and $759 million for “Maleficent.”
“It’s a clever strategy,” said Mark Young, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business who studies the entertainment industry. “Expectations are very high for this film. It would be easy to ride on the success of ‘Star Wars,’ but it’s true what they say: You’re only as good as your last movie.”
“Jungle Book” is projected to bring in $62 million in its opening weekend and $190 million total domestically, according to Daniel Loria, a senior analyst in New York for North Hollywood’s BoxOffice Media.
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