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.

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