Animation Supervisor, Gabriele Zucchelli walks us through MPC's stable of wild processes and techniques for 'The Jungle Book,' and reveals what's got him so excited for the future of his profession.
For even more behind-the-scenes commentary from Gabriele, see our special Instagram Feature..
Tell us a bit about your role.
I was one of two in-house Animation Supervisors here at MPC, alongside Peta Bayley. We rubbed elbows with Animation Director, Andy Jones, for over a year in the studio. He supervised us and Weta Digital as well, leading the creative process under [Director] Jon Favreau. He was involved from the beginning, during previs, working on-set with Jon and MPC's Adam Valdez. We basically continued the work he’d started and together, we detailed the animation and the characters working very closely with rigging.
And what role did Maya play in this film?
Maya was the core engine across the board in rigging and animation and we used it pretty much out of the box. We also have a toolkit of bespoke plugins that helped us with the pipeline, and some add-ons that are specific to the way we work. [Read More on Instagram]
And how was the fur handled?
We experimented a lot. We started off by showing animations to Jon with fur and they represented the volumes quite well, but it ended up that it was too coarse at the Viewport level to be truly representative, and it would’ve also hidden details of the face. Because Jon was so conscious of how the subtleties of the animal’s expression would read, we used a fur volume next – but even that one was sort of occluding the facial details so we only turned it on to get a sense of how big the animal would look, like if Mowgli had to be next to an animal’s thigh or belly or needed to touch the neck, for example. For many characters, we ended up giving them a lovely texture that represented the fur and in most cases, it was fine. It was an experiment that we toyed with for a while, fine-tuning the language that was best suited to Jon so that we could get the best notes.
What's the key to making these ‘real' but talking animals?
Their physicality, their locomotion, their animal behavior needed to be perfect. The audience needs to believe that they’re looking at a panther and not a cartoon or animated character. There was a stage at the beginning where a lot of alterations were made purely on the lip synch and on the delivery of the line. We voted to establish purely what would work for Jon and the movie by asking ourselves, ‘What is the key for believing that these talking animals are real?’ We knew we couldn’t rely solely on an animator filming himself acting out a performance as a cat because he’d do it as a human would, not as a cat would. We concluded that we should rely heavily on real-world reference, and we’d browse and identify footage showing a real leopard moving, turning his head in such a way to provide a moment where it looks like he could be saying something. That was the first, initial exercise. And once we got in that territory and we were finding real-life examples of animals moving the way we needed them to, it brought our animated animals into life in a way that we can relate to them and not be distracted by the fact that they’re animals. [Read more on Instagram]
What small details were added to ensure naturalism?
Well, one example is that we developed the direct linear motion of the snake, Kaa, with Benjamin Jones (Character Designer at MPC). He was able to add it into the rig puppets, layering in details like wrinkles and tightening. Collisions were applied so that you could actually feel the snake's ‘sag,’ where he connected with the branches. We also had a gravity control for faces and bodies so that if a character was running, we were able to add the sense of gravity deforming the shapes of the skin in animation. We were able to achieve all of it in the rig puppet, without waiting for the stage that uses the complex puppet with the muscle system, jiggles, skin wrinkles and so on.
The end result is called ‘groundbreaking.’ Did you feel you were accomplishing something new and important?
It definitely felt like we were pushing the bar and breaking new ground. Naturalistic animation is something we deal with very often in visual effects but this wasn’t typical monster stuff, like dinosaurs or the usual ‘creatures’ that we’re used to. These characters needed more refined research; they needed to hit a different note – realism with personality – which took a more detailed, more acute sensibility to get right. Jon insisted that the characters have relatability. Nice pieces of animation weren’t enough. That was a key takeaway from our year or so of work. [Read more on Instagram]
With the remarkable strides being made in animation and VFX, will we reach a point where, much like in ‘The Jungle Book,’ almost nothing needs to be real?
There is a tendency to think that CGI and virtual filmmaking could replace real characters and locations completely, and it’s driven by the fact that audiences want to marvel at the next big thing. Humans will always remain incredibly difficult to reproduce, especially when it comes to a facial performance. Similar to 'The Jungle Book,' in using humans in a very exaggerated but very real world, I can tell you that when I was on 'World War Z,' with Andy Jones as well, we did a lot of humans and zombies using motion capture, heavily tweaked in animation. In most cases, I think it was highly believable especially when you watch it in context, but it wasn’t easy work. The human face is just so complex; it’s about the animation but also about the behavior of the face.
What aspect of your work did you enjoy most?
The live-action research. To have to study animals in so much depth was very exciting and I’m hoping to have that opportunity again. What a cool job it was to spend hours just looking at documentaries – and I don’t mean sitting back with a beer and watching a tiger eating a gazelle – studying how feet contact the ground, how muscles move, how the face bends whiskers. We discovered crazy, interesting things... Tigers, for example, smell with their mouth and make crazy faces that look like they’re laughing when they’re inhaling. And we came across strange things that happen in nature that I could’ve never fathomed, like tangling. We didn’t know what that was – and now we know everything about it. That kind of knowledge for animators is exciting and awesome. Being presented with a show like The Jungle Book is as good as it gets. [Read more on Instagram]
If you did this project over, what advice would you give yourself knowing what you know now?
That’s an interesting question... and a difficult one. This show raised the bar for us here at MPC and we’ve already applied things we learned from it. It feels that we came out more evolved and stronger because of the tech that was developed and all of the intensive animation research. Personally, this project brought technical challenges that were more to do with the overall filmmaking process, ones that went outside of the typical animation comfort zone. We had to understand more clearly and accurately how our work was going to both depend on and impact other departments. Certainly, it pushed me to be more involved. I felt part of a bigger process and not just relegated to one part of the movie.
Even with all of the advanced technical accomplishments in this film, is there still lots of room for improvement?
I think so. I’m sure even in five years’ time, audiences will see details that our eyes are not yet trained to see. The Jungle Book has raised the bar for now, absolutely. The sheer scope of it impacted even me, knowing every single shot. When I went to the cinema to see it, most of the time I was like, ‘Whoa…when did they do that?’ It still left me feeling surprised and super impressed. It felt epic.
Read more from Gabriele on MPC’s epic work on Disney's 'The Jungle Book' in our special Instagram Feature.
Complete crew credits available on IMDb.