Virtual Production for 'Jungle Book' Detailed During HPA Tech Retreat

The global managing director of film at VFX giant MPC discussed work on Disney’s upcoming The Jungle Book as part of a panel that examined "virtual production." 

The panel, held Tuesday at the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) Technology Retreat at the Hyatt Indian Wells in Palm Springs, looked at how virtual production is being used for features and TV, as well as projecting how it might begin to converge with virtual-reality technology. (Editor's note: THR's Carolyn Giardina moderated the panel.)

Opening April 15, The Jungle Book is already generating plenty of interest for its innovative use of virtual production techniques. MPC’s Christian Roberton emphasized that a decision to use such tools should start with the story. “The question should be: Can you do it for real?,” he said. “[In the case of The Jungle Book], a jungle like that doesn’t exist anymore in real life, in the quantities you would want to shoot.”

A team from MPC, which is Jungle Book's lead VFX house, was on-set for the actors' live-action greenscreen shoot in Los Angeles. “And MPC has a VFX facility in India, so we had a photographic team that went out to remote [jungle] sites and photographed what was there. Then we brought the photographic references back to MPC in London [to create the CG environments and combine it with the live action in VFX and postproduction],” said Roberton.

Also speaking during the session were Chris Edwards, founder and CEO of previs firm The Third Floor (Gravity, The Walk) and David Morin, who chairs a virtual production study committee whose participants include the American Society of Cinematographers, Art Directors Guild, Producers Guild of America and Visual Effects Society.

All three speakers projected that virtual production capabilities are heading toward the mainstream.

Morin related that since Avatar, virtual production capabilities have been expanding — he counted 17 such features currently in production — and he envisions a time when the virtual camera and the actual camera on a production merge into a single tool.

Morin also cited Robert ZemeckisThe Walk — a virtual production led by VFX house Atomic Fiction that involved the CG creation of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan, for a total production budget of roughly $35 million — saying that the use of developing technology including cloud computing is making virtual production possible not just for high-end features, but for projects with a wider range of budgets.

Edwards added that he has seeing growing interest from the TV production community. His company has already worked on series such as Game of Thrones and Black Sails, but he said other productions might be looking to tap into virtual capabilities even for a single shot.

Turning to virtual reality, Edwards said: “Virtual production and virtual reality are converging around the use of a game engine — technology that the gaming industry has been nurturing for many years. And now with head-mounted VR displays, it’s becoming an interesting way to do a kind of preproduction [location] scout and virtual production, so that you can feel the scale of the environments.”

Currently, producers of movies that are planning a VR component are starting to ask about this during preproduction.

Edwards — whose Third Floor sister company, The Virtual Reality Company (VRC), co-produced Fox's The Martian VR Experience -— urged filmmakers to start planning early if they expect to also create a VR experience, as some of the same assets can be used. MPC — the lead VFX house on the VFX Oscar-nominated The Martian — in fact provided plates for the VR project. Roberton noted that early planning also enables the VFX team to create additional plates during production, if they know that they will be later needed for VR.

Summing up, Morin predicted, “At some point, ‘virtual’ will be dropped, and this will just be considered production.”