A new breed
How director Andy Serkis reinvented the jungle animal with Mowgli
GIVEN HIS POSITION as a pioneer of performance capture, it’s hardly surprising Andy Serkis’ take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book involves the same hi-tech techniques used to bring characters like Gollum and
Planet Of The Apes’ Caesar to life. But what is surprising is the way he’s doing it.
When Empire observes Serkis playing ursine mentor Baloo on a tropical plant-smothered soundstage at Leavesden Studios in March 2015, the
Mowgli director is familiarly donned in a grey onesie liberally dotted with motion-capture tech. But curiously, he isn’t the only person playing the bear. Behind him stands another unitarded actor, tethered to Serkis via a four-footlong pool noodle. As Serkis growls his lines in a cockney accent, this guy (named Ben), sways slightly from side to side, helping provide the full physical presence of the large, four-legged creature on set — as well as reference for the animators at MPC who will later flesh the surly beast out. In short, Ben is playing Baloo’s arse.
It is all part of what producer Jonathan Cavendish describes as a “unique methodology” for creating Mowgli’s animals. The other key beast roles — Bagheera (Christian Bale), Kaa (Cate Blanchett), Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) and more — were facially and vocally performed the previous summer, with different noodle-tethered actors representing their bodies on set.
This jungle’s residents will, in the final rendering, be deliberately nonphoto-real. Serkis reasoned it would seem “ludicrous” for a photo-realistic bear or tiger to talk. “The whole ethos behind this production was to make the animals feel emotionally real,” he explains. “So with Bagheera, for example, we took Christian’s face and we took a panther’s face and then we morphed in stages from one to the other. At a certain point along that spectrum there is a sweet spot where you can read Christian’s expressions, but it’s still a believable panther.” Also, he adds, the animals are intended to represent “anthropomorphised visions of a 19th century explorer’s idea of what each animal could be”, giving them an interestingly humanised and largerthan-life feel.
This bold, interesting vision is, after years of delays, finally going to be seen very soon, almost four years after Empire’s set visit — although in a final twist, the studio, Warner Bros., sold the film to Netflix last July. Still, with its novel approach to Kipling, it should be worth the exceedingly long wait.
Empire visited the set of Mowgli at Leavesden Studios, Watford, way back on 26 March 2015. Clockwise from above: Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale), mentor and protector of young Mowgli (Rohan Chand); Mowgli, discovered by wolves, feels no fear; Gentle Baloo, voiced by director Andy Serkis.