I first talked to Jon Favreau at the Comic-Con where Marvel announced the first Iron Man. I was one of the few boosters of Zathura, his space adventure movie, and one of the things I had really liked about that film was the way he incorporated good old practical effects. During that Comic-Con interview Favreau talked about how he was going to do the same with Iron Man, and he did - although the winds of change blew, and what had once been a full body practical armor slowly was reduced to some shoulder pads and dots on Robert Downey Jr's face (he hasn't worn a full suit since that first film).
It's been about eight years since Iron Man, and just as that armor has slowly become more CG, so has Favreau's films (with, of course, a rest stop for the non-FX Chef). His latest, The Jungle Book, is a technical marvel that has exploded onto screens across the country, blowing past expectations at the box office. A lot of that has to come down to the fact that The Jungle Book is an extraordinary visual experience thanks to the seamlessly photoreal animals and environments - there are no real animals in the movie, and the entire film was shot in a warehouse in Downtown LA.
Talk about your journey from being a guy who wanted to use as many practical effects as possible to becoming the latest director who is pushing the boundaries of CGI in movies.
I don’t like when effects draw attention to themselves. When they do draw attention to themselves I like when it’s the low-tech stuff, like Harryhausen. I find that bad CG does not hold that charm. Maybe for my children’s generation it will, but for me CG feels like something where if you’re seeing it it’s not being done right. So very often to keep the visual effects honest you put something real in the frame, and for the first Iron Man we built real suits. It forced the vendors to match to something photoreal in the frame. They were able to do it to the point where they fooled me - I remember giving notes on a shot to ILM and they respectfully said to me, “The shot you’re talking about is the real suit.”
That made me say, okay, they got the hard surface thing down. But I was more concerned about what was going down with flesh and fur, and they hadn’t gotten there. I don’t remember if it was Life of Pi or the latest Planet of the Apes, but they both had shots that really fooled me. I realized they were getting there with things like ray tracing and fur sims that had gotten to the point where it was worth exploring whether or not you could do a photoreal version of the animal kingdom.
By meeting with the vendors and hiring Rob Legato, who had worked on Avatar and is a multiple award-winning supervisor, I became confident. My big thing was ‘Don’t do it twice.’ Don’t build a big set and then replace it (in post). I felt like this was the kind of story where you had to go all the way. You couldn’t half do it, you couldn’t hedge your bets. By opening it up so completely you do what Avatar could do - you build a whole world and exaggerate certain things - like scale - and you could play with certain elements, like fire and water and air and earth, and you could have shots at dawn and shots in the rain and shots at night. It was a whole new palette of opportunities and tools that most filmmakers don’t get to use right now unless they have tremendous budgets and long schedules.
But at the end of the day it all had to work. I’m breathing a big sigh of relief now that people are accepting it. You’re taking a big chance, you’re making a decision two years prior about whether or not the technology is going to get there.
The flip side of making a movie like this photoreal is that it's so photoreal I feel like I'm seeing real animals fight each other. When Shere Khan bites Baloo, I don't feel like I'm watching cartoons go at it, I feel like I'm watching real footage. How do you maintain the reality without making this stuff just too terrifying for children?
That’s a question we would wrestle with all the time. One of the tricks we would use is that we would keep everything off camera - even though you thought you saw the tiger bite Baloo, it happened off camera. We kept it out of frame. When one animal attacks another one we cut away from it a lot. We used the tricks that Walt Disney used - and that’s why we got a PG rating. Even though there are moments that feel exciting, and you feel like you’re seeing a lot of action, actually you’re not seeing as much as you think. But you’re doing it with the movement of the camera, and when the animals are fighting they’re actually just swatting at each other a lot. We took cues from The Lion King, where there are actually more violent images in that movie than there are in this one. But since it’s photoreal your brain kicks in in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching something real. That’s the balance we wanted to strike.
When I saw the first footage presentation for this movie my mind went in a philosophical direction - maybe an unusual one. I thought that, considering the state of the world today, these photoreal animals may serve not only as entertainment but also as a kind of a digital ark, preserving endangered species for future generations to experience.
I think you’re definitely on to something. Especially with virtual reality, I’ve been exploring that, and when you’re experiencing this type of technology and doing it in VR you’re butting right up against the experience of truly encountering these creatures. As that technology is refined there are going to be opportunities to experience flora and fauna that you’re not usually exposed to. My hope is that this protects the environment more, so that people aren’t intruding on these environments and we can experience things voyeuristically without destruction. But also hopefully movies like this can encourage a sense of responsibility to nature so that we preserve it for generations to come.
But I think it’s a great way to work with animals and not subject them to the conditions of the film set.
You mentioned VR - is that something you're actively investigating?
Yeah, sure. I think there are a lot of different ways to use that tool. Some of that feels like an extension of narrative, linear filmmaking, and I think a lot of filmmakers are playing with it, but also the non-linear aspect of it that a lot of game designers are working with in parallel. There are a lot of opportunities, and I think there’s a lot of ground between the two. There’s definitely a dream-like aspect of it, where you’re subconsciously emerging yourself in something.
It’s a huge territory to explore, and the technology is robust and powerful and I think we have to be very thoughtful about how we use it. To make sure that we’re aware of what can be achieved, and how far we can push it - because at the end of the day it’s human beings experiencing this. But there’s a lot of opportunity here, and with film and television it feels like those stones have been overturned already