The unprecedented level of world-building they had in mind would first require much of the team to travel to that world: Africa.
“Jon wanted to create an experience where you forgot you were watching something created,” says Valdez, “a new connection to the story through a documentary-style sense of reality. Accomplishing his vision to make something that looked entirely believable as the real thing – not abstract or stylized – required that we be true in terms of representing Kenya; in giving it enough detail that you fall into that magical sweet spot between ‘I know this isn’t real’ but somehow ‘I believe it.’ That was our mission.”
For such a mission, references alone would not suffice. The team would need to see the African Savannah with their own eyes and experience the sense of place for themselves.
“Going to Kenya was about getting what you can’t get from seeing pictures of it,” elaborates Valdez. “From a helicopter, going back out over and over again for a couple of weeks, you really get a meta understanding of it as a real place; the expansive vistas, the diversity of the landscape, the colors and variety of tones, how the vegetation grows and what the light feels like.”
“For me in charge of the sets, the main goal was to replicate the natural environment in such a way that the audience believes they are in Africa on the savannah,” adds MPC’s Audrey Ferrara, DFX Supervisor. “Traveling to Africa was important to that goal. It created a common experience that enabled me to understand exactly what James Chinlund (the production designer) wanted to achieve in terms of sets and environments. It built a common memory of spaces, so that when Caleb Deschanel (the cinematographer) references the light halfway up Mount Kenya, everybody remembers exactly what he’s talking about.”
As on The Jungle Book, Favreau had assembled a team of traditional filmmakers who understood that, as Ferrara says, “the perfect shot doesn’t sell reality.”
“The early brief from Jon was that he didn’t want it too perfect,” explains MPC VFX Supervisor Elliot Newman. “The too perfect sky or dappled sunlight tends to make you not believe it. He appreciated the fact that sometimes in nature you get imperfect situations. It’s the reality [not perfection] that’s important.”
“All of a sudden you are converting what would be perfect in the CG world to be imperfect in our world when we photograph,” elaborates Legato. “And we found that is so much better, so that conversion became something that you sought after as opposed to trying to eliminate, or try to make perfect. You don’t want to make it perfect – you want to make it feel like a human is behind the lens.”
The process of capturing reality would commence again on a second trip to Africa, where Technicolor MPC artists would document the diverse landscape, and build a preliminary set of locations.
“A tremendous amount of research goes into creating these digital environments,” offers Favreau, “things like, recording everything that you can; research through still photography; and also high dynamic range photography, to understand how different surfaces react to light.”
“We had a team of data capture people there to photograph foliage, the different species of plants and trees, and to capture various lighting environments,” says Newman. “We created big 360-degree HDR images of the sky and the sun – and even figured out exactly how to capture the sun itself, which is quite tricky as you can imagine – and built up a huge library of these high-resolution images.”