Director Jon Favreau discusses the technical process behind his new film The Jungle Book

He’s an actor, a writer, a producer and a director, he began his career with a string of successful indie hit films, then eventually broke through to mainstream and big budget blockbusters. From Swingers to Friends to that Daredevil film we don’t talk about to Elf to Iron Man to Chef. Jon Favreau for the last 20 years has been honing his skills in all areas of film, switching from being in front of to behind the camera and quite often times doing both.

We sat down for a surprisingly detailed discussion about his new project that’s about to hit Australian cinema screens – a live action version of The Jungle Book. We talk about the use and worth of 3D film and the technology used to make The Jungle Book. The themes expressed in the film, the music and songs, the casting choices and what he’s learned from making this film. In the first part of our chat, we discuss the technical process of bringing The Jungle Book to life.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (L-R) MOWGLI (Neel Sethi) and RAKSHA (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o). ©2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
THE JUNGLE BOOK (L-R) MOWGLI (Neel Sethi) and RAKSHA (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o). ©2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Considering that Disney has its own classic animated version of The Jungle Book, and that there have been a few other films and tv shows both animated and live that have tackled Rudyard Kipling’s classic work, it seems pertinent to ask what the motivation was behind why Favreau took on this project even though he claims he initially felt he wouldn’t be good at it.It seems that a combination of timing and circumstances resulted in Favreau taking on the role. With Marvel being acquired whilst he was working on Iron Man 2, he met with Bob Eiger and Alan Horn. Both were keen to do another Jungle Book film due to advancements in technology and felt like Favreau would be a good fit.

“It was something that Disney wanted to do. When Alan Horn started talking about how closely and deeply he felt the connection with the Kipling stories growing up, and I know that I connected very sincerely with the animated film as a small child. Then he started talking about the technology that’s available today after seeing films like Life of Pi and Avatar. I started getting excited because the idea of using these tools, and having slowly worked my way up from Elf and Zathura and the Iron Man films, to this one felt like I was in a position where I understood this technology; and I was ready to take that leap where you were completely jumping into the middle of the ocean. Compared to having the safety net of a real Iron Man suit, real things to film, here there was nothing that was going to be real. It was exciting at this point in my career to see what the technology had to offer. So It was the combination of the passion of the studio, and the tools available and my connection to the old story that made me feel like there was something interesting to do here.”

This new version of The Jungle Book combines CGI with voice acting talents of some great actors like Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Kingsley and also the live performance by Neel Sethi (as Mowgli) to bring Rudyard Kipling’s tale to life. The animation is seamless, and what helps this is incorporating some of the human performances into the characters, like that of Christopher Walken as King Louie. But Favreau also concedes that animals like Bagheera the panther posed challenges since incorporating facial expressions into a big cat would cause it to lose realism. Favreau gives us a rundown of how they went about bringing the extremely realistic animals and jungle environment to the big screen.

“They’re all CGI (the animals), and the environments are as well. Part of it is research, part of it is me as the director giving a set of parameters and saying I want them to all be animals you would find in this part of the world. We could exaggerate things like scale and we can play into the subjective experience a small boy would feel. But beyond those exaggerations I want to keep it photo-real. I want to keep the physics accurate. I don’t want to put things in that people could clearly pick out as fake. If we’re going to be pushing a performance so far that it makes the animals seem fake then I’d rather pull back on that. It’s something Walt Disney was actually wrestling with, where he decided that the animals shouldn’t be cartoon-y anymore.”

THE JUNGLE BOOK - Pictured: MOWGLI. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
THE JUNGLE BOOK – Pictured: MOWGLI. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

There’s often been debate in film critic circles over the value and worth of 3D films. Favreau admits that there are some films he’s seen in 3D that he would’ve enjoyed more in 2D. However he cites Avatar as a film that was worth the trouble and expense of seeing in 3D, also saying that James Cameron’s work, developing a camera system and filming in native 3D rather than converting after was revolutionary. We ask Favreau how he came to use it for The Jungle Book.

“A lot of the people I was working with were people who had worked on Avatar, and Jim Cameron actually visited the set and he got a kick out of the fact that here I was building on what he had developed. Not just the 3D technology but also something called SimulCam where you’re able to design the set ahead of time and you look through the camera and even though you’re on a blue screen stage you can see the set, and the environment, the horizon, the other characters, you can coordinate, and the cameraman can see it all. And it doesn’t feel like it was all crammed in there after the fact as it often is on a live action film where you add a lot of CG later.”

As with any film that relies heavily on technology we quiz Favreau about the challenges in making it. However he is surprisingly candid, revealing that it was the tonal elements of the film that posed more difficulty than the technical components. For someone who has spent a little over two decades in the film industry, Favreau believes he’s a good student but also has a strong support network to back him up with the technical side.

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 15: (L-R) Actors Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Neel Sethi and director Jon Favreau of THE JUNGLE BOOK took part today in "Worlds, Galaxies, and Universes: Live Action at The Walt Disney Studios" presentation at Disney's D23 EXPO 2015 in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Ben Kingsley; Lupita Nyong'o; Neel Sethi; Jon Favreau
(L-R) Actors Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, Neel Sethi and director Jon Favreau of THE JUNGLE BOOK  at Disney’s D23 EXPO 2015 in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

“The technical stuff was like a puzzle, a big puzzle, but a puzzle that was solvable. The harder part was the tone. How do you service the expectations of the original source material of the stories; and the animated film; and create something that felt of this moment; and would appeal to all ages around the globe; and what’s the best story you can tell and still tick all those boxes? And some of it is how do you use the music, how much humour to have, what’s the tone of the humour, the pacing of the film, how dangerous to make it, how scary to make it, how emotional, how can you draw real emotion out of these characters and make everybody forget about the technology? It’s a beautiful movie, but hopefully not distractingly so. Hopefully you’re getting caught up in the characters and you’re feeling things, and ultimately when you’re making a movie the biggest challenge is to make the audience feel. Just marvelling at spectacle isn’t interesting to me as an audience member or as a filmmaker, it’s about feeling connected to the characters on a heart level.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of our discussion with Jon Favreau, where we discuss the themes, the casting choices, the music and ultimately what Favreau learnt from his experience.

The Jungle Book is released in select Australian cinemas from 7th April 2016, with a nationwide release from 14th April 2016, through Walt Disney Studios Australia. Check your local listings.

Headline photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney.