Why 'Jungle Book' Skipped Location Shoots in Favor of "Virtual Production"

The Visual Effects Society Awards' top winner demonstrates new, digitally driven filmmaking techniques.
Glen Wilson/Disney
Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, performed for cinematographer Bill Pope on the L.A. soundstage where The Jungle Book was filmed.

At the Visual Effects Society's 15th annual Visual Effects Awards on Feb. 7, Disney's The Jungle Book defeated formidable challengers like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to take home five trophies, including the top category: outstanding VFX in a photo-real feature (and on Feb. 12 won a BAFTA). But Jon Favreau's film not only has earned admirers in the VFX community and proved a hit among moviegoers — the $175 million feature has grossed $966.6 million worldwide — it also points toward the future of "virtual production."

The Jungle Book's VFX supervisor, Rob Legato, had experimented with earlier incarnations of the process, used in the plane crash in The Aviator and to allow James Cameron's imagination to roam free with Avatar. So when Favreau decided that shooting in an actual jungle would be impractical, Legato helped put a virtual production workflow in place. Filming entirely on a bluescreen stage in Los Angeles, Favreau was able to direct the film as if it were traditional live action, though the only human actor in front of the camera was young Neel Sethi, playing Mowgli.

For all the impressive CG animals and jungle settings created digitally by lead VFX house MPC and VFX house Weta, Legato says the movie's real accomplishment was embracing the naturalism of live-action work. "You sense the person photographing it with a handheld camera," he says.

Sethi was shown the digital environment on a display. But Legato is looking ahead to virtual- or augmented-reality goggles worn by an actor, placing him in the virtual world (like at the edge of a cliff) to help him react to the environment. "It's amazing how your brain fills in the details," says Legato, who might take that further step when he reteams with Favreau on the live-action version of The Lion King that Disney currently is developing.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.