Interview: Chris Glass of “The Jungle Book”

Posted on August 29, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney
One of the most visually striking and just plain beautiful films of the year is Disney’s gorgeous live-action remake of “The Jungle Book.” The man responsible for the look of the film is production designer Christopher Glass, and it was a thrill to get a chance to talk to him about it.

“It’s kind of funny,” Glass told me, “because Jon Favreau, Bill Pope, Rob Legato, me, everyone working on the movie, all of us come from the same philosophy where more practical is better. You know we talked about CG movies, movies that were mostly done on the computer and the shortcomings or the strengths, what works and what doesn’t work, and then it’s kind of ironic because we’re making a movie that’s 98 percent computer generated. But I think that is actually good that we all had this healthy skepticism of the technology. Rob Legato is a master of the technology and so is Andy Jones the animator and Adam Valdez and Dan Lemmon. So really what we needed on this movie was kind of that spirit of doing things practically but yet we knew that a lot of it wasn’t going to be practical. But having said that there was a lot of practical stuff but it was all snippets and slices of sets and a prop sometimes like a cow bell would be real, like the stuff around Mowgli inside King Louie’s Temple next to him is real. We had some real fruit on the ground. We threw real fruit out of a fruit launcher when he throws the fruit down on the ground. But there’s some CG. You don’t know where the line begins or ends and that was kind of our intention. Jon wanted to blur the line between reality and what we create in the computer. We wanted to be fooled ourselves.”

In a non CG film you can see the footage immediately after it has been filmed. But because of all the effects, the crew would not see what the scenes looked like for months. “It wasn’t like the next day you would see the finished shot; it was an iterated thing. So our challenge was to see if we could fool one another and there were times when we were fooled, and sometimes it would be the reverse, sometime Jon would be like, ‘Oh that is so fake’, but it would be real. I would say, ‘No that’s actually my set.’ He would be like, ‘Oh, that’s the fakest part’ and I’d be ‘Oh no.’ It felt sometimes like it was backwards. There were literally times I was designing sets after we had already shot the scene physically and edited it then I would design the set; it was very odd.”

Ultimately the real and virtual worlds were so integrated that it was hard to tell where the line was. “Basically anything Mowgli is touching is mostly real. If his feet are touching it or his hands are touching it, but not always. The animals aren’t real, some trees are definitely not but a lot of the plants and the things he’s walking through are, and even the grass he is walking through when he is talking to Bagheera. We built a little strip of grass like 4 feet wide for him to walk through. Technically it served the purpose of giving him interaction. If you have to animate everything that the kid is touching and everything it would have made his task even more daunting than it already was. And if you do end up replacing stuff it’s a great lighting reference and physical interaction reference for the animator so that they can copy that when they are doing the rest of it so that it behaves in the same way or looks the same.”

Glass was very impressed with Neel Sethi, the young actor who played Mowgli, and how natural he was even when he had to imagine how it would all look. “A lot of the stuff he did do completely with nothing but blue and he did a great job. I think even well-seasoned actors have more trouble. A kid is pretending and he’s cool with it. He was talking to the puppets and it worked.”

Glass had been to India and other jungles before. “And we did have a team that went out and took at least 80,000 photographs of India. We had research that were on for many, many months; we just researched everything that we could. We used the Internet, we used books, we called consulates, we talked to directors who were shooting. There was the “Monkey Kingdom” movie that was shot in Sri Lanka and India. We talked to them about monkeys, how they behave and what kind of places they lived and they showed us their footage. We discovered the pangolin, the weird-looking scaly animal that’s highly endangered and I said, ‘Oh let’s put that in the movie.’ We took some liberties but we really tried to keep everything as something that could be realistically found in India. Now obviously we have exaggerated sizes, and we created a world that was more like the composite of India because the kid really couldn’t walk from a really jungle area to a really desert-y area overnight like that. In reality that would take months and weeks. And we looked at the Disney ’67 movie and we had to incorporate the feeling much of that film, too. It’s more colorful, with more flowers, more whimsy and I had to bring that into the real rendering of the plants and things. We tried to find the balance of where it starts to looked too weird, where it looked good. So it was all just a lot of experimentation and a lot of research.”

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The Jungle Book: Original Versions

Posted on April 16, 2016 at 3:35 pm

This week’s splendid new “Jungle Book” from Disney may inspire families to check out the books that inspired it by Rudyard Kipling. Children may prefer his “Just-So” stories and “Rikki-tikki-tavi,” about a curious mongoose who saves the day.

Families may also want to watch the original live action version of the story, starring Sabu.

Or Disney’s 1994 live action version, starring Jason Scott Lee and “Games of Thrones” star Lena Headey.

And of course there is the classic Disney animated version, the last film personally supervised by Walt Disney himself, with some of the all-time best Sherman Brothers songs. Like the new film directed by Jon Favreau, this version has outstanding voice talent, including Sebastian Cabot (Bagheera the panther), George Sanders (Shere Kahn the tiger), and Sterling Holloway (also the voice of Winnie the Pooh) as Kaa the snake.

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The Jungle Book

Posted on April 14, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including bees, a tiger, a snake, and fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD: August 29, 2016 ASIN: B01CTNDO58

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney
The camera swoops behind the familiar Disney castle logo to take us to that magical place — you know, like the one that is found second star to the right and straight on ’til morning or through the wardrobe in the attic, down a rabbit hole, or via a house swept up in a Kansas tornado. Just a moment past the castle we are deep, 3D IMAX deep, in the midst of of a lush and luscious jungle, where a mop-headed, big-eyed boy in a red loincloth is running for his life.

The wolves are after him. No, the wolves are with him and a sleek black panther is after him. No, he catches him. No, they are friends. It is Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and the Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), the panther who discovered him as a toddler and delivered him to the best mother he knew, the wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) who raised him lovingly along with her other cubs. While he matures more slowly and cannot do some of the things they can to stay safe, he can climb and use tools. Although Raksha tells him not to use “tricks” like pulleys, knots, and scoops, he feels very much a part of the wolf pack and solemnly recites along with the others:

Now this is the Law of the Jungle —
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

When the rainy season ends, a dry spell shrinks the river so that the “peace rock” is showing. According to the well-established rules of the jungle, as long as they can see that rock, everyone may drink together in peace, meaning the predators cannot attack their usual prey. The one-eyed tiger with burn scars named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) sees Mowgli and warns the others that as soon as the rock is submerged again and the truce has ended, he will come for the boy and will do whatever it takes to kill him. Raksha reluctantly agrees to let Bagheera take him to the town, where Mowgli can be with other people. On the way, they have encounters with Kaa the mesmerizing snake (Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the easy-going bear (Bill Murray), and King Louis (Christopher Walken), an enormous ape (based on the extinct Gigantopithecus) who presides over an orangutan kingdom living in an ancient temple.

Fans of the Disney animated musical version will be happy to find some familiar moments within the superb score from John Debney.

But this is very much its own film, with stunning integration of the digital animals and the real-life boy. (Disneyphiles may think of Walt’s earliest short films featuring a real-life girl interacting with hand-drawn characters.) The world of the jungle is enchanting and vital, a Rousseauian dream of an Edenic natural world (in this PG film, while there is peril and some characters are injured and killed, any carnivore behavior happens off-screen). Sethi has an engagingly natural quality that is as important in bringing the digital characters to life as the brilliant work of the many, many artists and technicians whose names appear in the credits.

So does the storyline’s respect for this world and its inhabitants. Mowgli does not have many of the physical gifts of his wolf family or his friends in the forest. He does have some skills they do not, and it is heartwarming to see him develop simple tools like a stone ax and a pulley because they are not presented as superior or used to establish dominance, but to help his jungle community and to give thanks for all they have given him. This is gorgeous, inspiring filmmaking.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril with some violence and some disturbing images. A theme of the film is the tiger’s determination to kill Mowgli, and characters are injured and killed (including parents).

Family discussion: Why did the wolves and Baloo have different ideas about Mowgli’s “tricks?” Should Mowgli stay in the jungle or live with other humans?

If you like this, try: Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories and two earlier films based on this story, one starring Sabu and the Disney animated version.

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