By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
By 1995, many Hollywood films had embraced the use of CGI to help tell more elaborate tales. The industry had been spurred along in this way by the success of digital effects in films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and The Mask.
Joe Johnston’s Jumanji, starring Robin Williams who, as a child, is lost in a magical jungle after playing a mysterious board game, is one of those films that took full advantage of the state of CGI in filmmaking – from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in particular – using it to depict living, breathing jungle animals.
However, with digital effects only then in their infancy, Johnston still employed a great deal of practical effects in Jumanji, including full-scale creatures made and puppeteered by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. and miniatures crafted by ILM.
A new take on the board game adventure – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, directed by Jake Kasdan – has just hit cinemas, so VFX Voice took the opportunity to ask Johnston and ILM’s Animation Supervisor at that time, Kyle Balda, about how the CG creatures in the original film were brought to life.
Jumanji’s digital visual effects were ambitious. A herd of rhinos would be seen crashing through the corridors of a house. A stream of wild animals would pound through the center of a small town – this scene included the iconic shot of an elephant crushing a car. A lion would need to leap down stairs. And wild monkeys would tear up a kitchen, and then drive a car.
Johnston was not sure any of these shots would be possible, especially since many of the creatures had hairy or feathery features, which was a major challenge in VFX at the time.
“I had no confidence at first that it would work at all,” the director says. “Early tests on the lion’s mane were not confidence builders, but the team kept digging down on the tech to make it work, and I think it paid off well in the end. If you compare it to where CGI is now with textures like hair and feathers and other subtle skin surfaces, the Jumanji stuff is fairly primitive, even crude in places, but audiences are forgiving when they are engaged in the story, and hopefully they were.
“I think the biggest challenge with the CGI in Jumanji was its place in time,” Johnston adds. “If the film had been made five years earlier, before the groundbreaking CG of Jurassic Park, everything would have been done with animatronics, puppets and wire and rod removal. Five years later everything would probably have been CGI.
“We were at a point where we could do some of the creatures in CGI that would have been the most difficult, but we couldn’t afford to do them all,” he explains, “so the spiders, the crocodile and some of the vines became animatronic. The lion and pelican had to exist in both worlds. The monkeys were all CG. The bats were CG except for one shot where it lands on young Sara’s shoulder.”
ILM’s work on Jumanji was led by Visual Effects Supervisor Stephen Price, who sadly passed away during production. Ken Ralston later came on board as Visual Effects Supervisor. Despite several digital effects productions under its belt, the studio still had a relatively small computer graphics department.
“When I started in the department there were about 30 people,” recalls Animation Supervisor Kyle Balda, who had already worked at ILM on The Flinstones and The Mask before Jumanji. “Just a few years later there were well over 800 people.”
The sudden rise of using CGI in movies was not without its challenges. Firstly, computers were expensive – and slow, as were some of the animation techniques (this was before the full adoption of inverse kinematics).
“The update speeds on the computer were really, really slow,” outlines Balda, “and as a result we would be working on one shot for four weeks that would last seven seconds. These days, from an animator’s point of view, that’s kind of what you’d be expected to do in a week or 10 days.”
Still, Balda retains fond memories of his time on Jumanji, particularly arising from the close-knit quarters in which the computer graphics department worked in ILM’s then-offices in San Rafael. “In our room we had technical directors and a couple of other animators,” says Balda, who has since gone on to direct films such as Minions and Despicable Me 3. “So you could talk to everybody who was doing every part of the film. People were also working on different movies. The guy behind me was working on Dragonheart while I started working on Jumanji. It was cool to be able to see what was going on elsewhere, and to get a little bit of inspiration from that.”
“I think the biggest challenge with the CGI in Jumanji was its place in time. If the film had been made five years earlier, before the groundbreaking CG of Jurassic Park, everything would have been done with animatronics, puppets and wire and rod removal. Five years later everything would probably have been CGI.”
—Joe Johnston, Director, Jumanji
“I had no confidence at first that it would work at all. … If you compare it to where CGI is now with textures like hair and feathers and other subtle skin surfaces, the Jumanji stuff is fairly primitive, even crude in places, but audiences are forgiving when they are engaged in the story, and hopefully they were.”
—Joe Johnston, Director, Jumanji
For Jurassic Park, ILM’s animators had looked to plenty of present-day animals for reference, but they certainly had some artistic license in coming up with dinosaur walk and run cycles. Jumanji’s animation team, on the other hand, had to ensure their wildlife closely matched the real thing.
“In every scene,” notes Johnston, “the thing I stressed the most was that the creature needed to look and behave as realistically as possible, which isn’t always what you think it should be. The animators watched a lot of nature documentaries to study each animal’s idiosyncrasies, but there wasn’t a lot of screen time to take advantage of what they had learned. That kind of realism is a lot easier to achieve with a stampede than it is with a kitchen full of demonic monkeys.”
After visiting a zoo for reference, Balda found that just replicating the motion of real animals was not quite going to work in the film; animators would need to exaggerate this motion in their CG models.
“When we were looking at the elephants we took something like a 29 frame cycle of video footage and stabilized it so that you could see it looping, but the elephant would be walking in place. So the starting point was, ‘Let’s just try rotoscoping it just to see what that movement is all about. What’s happening? What’s the cadence and the foot order?’
“And, of course,” adds Balda, “rotoscoping always looks very cold when you finish it because it doesn’t have any exaggeration. It’s like a facsimile of the life itself. So you would need exaggerate the up and down movement of the elephant. You would make the stride a little bit bigger than it is in life. And only by exaggerating does it feel like you compensate for the thing that’s missing, and then it starts to look more alive.”
Johnston cites the prilivege of working with Robin Williams as a highlight of his Jumanji experience.
“People would ask me if Robin would go wild and just start ad-libbing lines during the scene. But he once told me that he was happy to be in a film where he couldn’t go crazy because of all the visual effects he had to interface with. He would occasionally ask for another take or two, to try something different but it was always in the context of the script.”
And although it is considered a landmark film in terms of digital visual effects, Johnston remains adamant that then – and now – VFX should only ever serve the story they’re helping to tell.
“I’m a firm believer in the unwritten rule that a film shouldn’t have one more effect than is necessary to tell the best version of that story,” Johnston says. “Filmmakers, and I include myself in the list of the guilty, sometimes get enamored with how well an effect is working and start trying to convince themselves – and the studio – that more is better which is seldom the case. Fortunately, budgets are often the things that keep us honest.”