James Cameron’s Avatar was groundbreaking in that it used a virtual camera system that let the director move about in the virtual world of the film and select the best camera angles as though he was standing there in the world himself. Disney’s Mars Needs Moms (2011) actually used a similar, possibly even more advanced system to get motion captured performances from the actors in addition to providing the same kind of flexibility to the director and camera operators.

The new film from Disney, the live action remake of The Jungle Book, used the same kind of technology, but with a twist: the real time visualization of the scenes was accomplished using Unity3D, a free game engine used in the vast majority of mobile and PC games being made today. They incorporated the game engine into the workflow, creating special low impact models and textures for visual elements that would appear in the final footage so that the Director Jon Favreau, and Director of Cinematography Bill Pope could move through the environment and choose the best angles from inside the virtual world, much as they would do if they were actually on location scouting a real physical place. Except, obviously, without the expense and risk to life and limb that shooting in an actual jungle with a ten year old boy in tow would have entailed.

Rob Legato had worked with James Cameron in 2009 on Avatar, and he was consulted for this film as well. He began working with Favreau and Executive Producer Pete Tobyansen to create a CGI pipeline that looked like cinema shot with real (not virtual) cameras. “I needed to come up with a vocabulary that would translate the filmmaking disciplines that Jon and Bill were familiar with from the analog world, but which make use of CG animation techniques,” the two-time Oscar winner explains. They needed to be able to make intuitive, not intellectual, choices – looking through the lens and moving to the right or left, or raising up a foot. That’s different than telling an animator, ‘Move me up 6.7 inches to the right.’ I had to create a methodology that drove the computer, which was precise but not intuitive, via an analog input device like Bill’s used to.”

Legato and teams of artists from MPC in England and Digital Domain in Playa Del Rey in California worked out a visual language and production pipeline for integrating the live action footage with the computer generated world of the film.  The Unity3D engine was used for fast visual previews of what the shots might look like when finished, and this marks the first time a commercial game engine has been used for this purpose.

Now that we know The Jungle Book live action movie is nearly completely computer animated, we have a whole new reason for wanting to go see it.