More than five years ago, the actor and filmmaker Andy Serkis began his odyssey to bring a grittier, darker version of The Jungle Book to life, one that had more in common with Rudyard Kipling’s original book than Disney’s ’60s cartoon musical. After being slowed by challenging technical requirements and a competing live-action film from Disney, Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is finally seeing the light of day, in select theaters now and on Netflix beginning Dec. 7.
Although Serkis has appeared in the flesh in films like 13 Going on 30 and Black Panther, he’s perhaps most famous for championing performance-capture technology, which he used to portray Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise. The technology also served as the foundation for Mowgli, in which A-list actors like Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Cate Blanchett star as slightly anthropomorphized but undeniably realistic jungle animals opposite the titular human, played by Rohan Chand.
“My vision for the movie was that we were shooting a drama, and therefore a considerable amount of shots in this storytelling were going to be in close-up, and you would be looking right into their eyes and reading their emotion,” Serkis tells EW. “So everything was geared around that. The relationships would have that depth, the ability for whoever was playing Mowgli to have great scenes and interact with great actors.”
To that end, the actors didn’t perform opposite tennis balls on sticks. Instead, Mowgli was in effect shot twice: first on a proxy set where Bale, Blanchett, and their costars did performance capture opposite Chand, and then again on a full set with Chand in costume, where he acted opposite motion capture actors who emulated the stars’ earlier performances.
One of the challenges for Serkis was creating character designs that felt realistic, but also human enough to express emotion. “To take a photo-real tiger or take a photo-real wolf and put a human performance or human voice into that, [it] just would be bizarre,” Serkis says. “It’ll feel dropped on top, it’ll never sit inside. You’ll never see those facial muscles that a real wolf has being able to make those shapes, vowel shapes, to emote in a realistic way.”
And so the design work required a process not unlike the covers of the Animorphs children’s book series.
“What we did was, we had a photo of every single actor who was playing a creature, say for instance Christian Bale,” Serkis says. “And then we’d get a photo-real panther and we’d morph, bit by bit, Christian into the panther, and then you’d go along the timeline and find the sweet spot of seeing Christian inside the panther’s physiognomy. And all of the eyes we made ever so slightly bigger, gave human coloring to them. So you’d believe they were photoreal animals, but they lend themselves to talking animals, if that makes sense.”