Monkey Business
Barbara Robertson
June 2, 2016

Monkey Business

Artists at Weta Digital created one main sequence in the movie  The Jungle Book . The sequence begins in the forest. Mowgli is on a perch, until, suddenly, he’s captured by monkeys that drag him to the temple of King Louie and his minions. A confrontation there leads to a song and dance moment. Mowgli escapes. And King Louie comes to his demise as the temple falls to ruins.

Dan Lemmon was visual effects supervisor when Weta Digital joined the production in early-fall 2014. Keith Miller took over as supervisor a year later, as Lemmon moved on to preproduction for the third Planet of the Apes film.

“On most shows,” Miller says, “we integrate a CG character into a live-action environment. This show was unusual. We have a single live-action element, Mowgli, that we integrate into a full-CG world.”

The kidnap moment is a perfect example. 

“It’s fun to look at the plates,” Miller says. “It’s a bluescreen environment with 20 or more stagehands in bluescreen suits passing Mowgli overhead like a rock star who’s crowd surfing.”

To create the final shots, Weta Digital artists and animators replaced the blue-suited stagehands with monkeys and added a CG jungle with vegetation. The vegetation interacted with Mowgli and with the fire brigade of monkeys passing him along overhead.

“We made minor improvements in our Lumberjack program in terms of the tree dynamics to give animators more control so they could drive the primary interactions,” Miller says. “Then the effects team managed the simulations. We also added instancing to our proprietary renderer, Manuka, to handle the large numbers of heavily detailed trees.”

The monkeys – King Louie’s minions – were species specific to India: pig-tailed and lion-tailed macaques, zippy langurs, and gibbons. In Disney’s 1967 film, King Louie was an orangutan. In this film, he is an orangutan-like prehistoric ape called a Gigantopithecus, which, unlike orangutans, might have lived in India.

“We didn’t have a lot of information about it,” Miller says. “Fossil records don’t tell us whether the Gigantopithecus was a quadruped or biped, but it was probably 10 feet tall. We received concept art and previs models, and then went through our design process.”

Because Christopher Walken would provide King Louie’s voice, Weta Digital artists sculpted a facial model with geometry matching Walken. Then, using their experience in incorporating Andy Serkis’s facial shapes to create The Planet of the Apes’ Caesar, a technique honed in other films as well, they began modifying forms to roughly match the volume and shapes of an orangutan’s face.

“We studied photography, video reference of Walken performing his lines in the sound booth,” Miller says. “We tried to incorporate corners of his mouth. His signature wrinkles. The line above the ball of his chin. It’s an iterative process. You always run the danger of anthropomorphizing to such a degree that you lose the feel of the character and what you would expect an ape to do.”

Animators had video of Walken voicing the dialog for reference, but because he had read the lines in the recording booth, they also turned to reference of the actor in other movies. 

“Sometimes Jon [Favreau] would send selections from films, moments we could use as a template for shots,” Miller says.

For King Louie’s body performance, the crew motion-captured Director Favreau playing the part, but the combination of Favreau’s body performance and Walken’s facial performance didn’t, as Miller puts it, “play nicely together.”

“We tried to find pieces that worked to craft a new performance,” Miller says. “Jon [Favreau] gave us a run-though of the scenes to establish a tone, so we could pick out actions here and there. But, this was used only as reference for animators. Any pieces we wanted to use were more easily keyframed.”

Song and Dance

Animators also used keyframing rather than motion capture for King Louie’s minions. As it turns out, the motion-capture techniques the crew had used for Planet of the Apes were not appropriate for the monkeys in this film. 

“The chimpanzees in Apes do knuckle walking that you can mimic with humans,” Miller says. “But our monkeys had quick direction changes that didn’t lend themselves to human performances. With Apes, we could capture a performance in camera on set during live action, so the director could craft the performance and it was a good jumping-off point for animators. For this film, the animators spent more time exploring and crafting the performances and assembling components into a cohesive piece.”

That process was especially intense for a sequence in King Louie’s throne room during which as many as 30 monkeys took part in a song and dance routine.

“They were jumping around and bouncing,” Miller says. “So, we had a lot of complex keyframe work. Jon Favreau wanted a sense of progression; he wanted us to whip up a frenzy, to continue ratcheting up the action as the song goes on. We tried to do motion capture, but the complexity of the motion was more suited to keyframe.”

In fact, originally the sequence had been planned without a song and dance component, and with King Louie taking a harsher tone.

“It was leaning toward too dark and menacing,” Miller says. “And the test audiences missed the song. Because it was added later, we didn’t have any reference from Favreau. We had reference of Walken reading lines in the sound booth, but it was a big shift from dark and menacing to song and dance. We preserved the facial expressions we had as much as we could, and animated our way through it. It was a bit of work, but it was fun.”


The filmmakers shot Mowgli [Neel Sethi] on the bluescreen stage in a set dressed to match the throne room designed by Glass, but the song and dance sequence was, for the most part, entirely CG. A handful of random plates were salvaged for Mowgli elements, while a digital-double Mowgli was used to help fill it out. The entire temple behind the set, inside and out, was CG.

“Our Reference Photographer Matt Mueller went to seven different temples in India and shot tens of thousands of photographs of buildings and the monkeys there,” Miller says. “That really helped us understand the construction and the weathering geometrically and texturally. We worked those details into the structure.”

Because King Louie’s temple would be destroyed, modelers considered the building’s demise as they constructed the complex system of passages and tunnels within the temple, as well as the overall geometry.

“We used a lot of modular pieces,” Miller says. “We might assemble hero stone blocks into a column, for example. Sometimes we had a shell piece that the effects team would fracture. But the collapse needed to be art-directed, and we never knew where the stress would cause fractures and how the forms would collapse until we got into it.”

When King Louie or other characters caused destruction by pushing on areas of the building, animators blocked in large forms to indicate timing and direction. Otherwise, the effects team started the action and, by using a rigid-body dynamics solver, would collapse the temple according to the laws of physics.

“Post destruction, we might swap out pieces when the result of geometry from the rigid-body dynamics was simpler than we wanted,” Miller says. “We wanted to be sure we were looking at detailed pieces of ruins.”

Although the reason Favreau would turn to Weta Digital for a sequence involving apes and requiring detailed environmental work is obvious, it was more interesting for the crew of artists and animators than they might have expected.

“Animating the monkeys was time-consuming,” Miller says. “But, it was fun to have that control and to explore ideas and changes as we went. It was exciting; a growing process for everyone.”