3D Artist

The Jungle Book and MPC’s greatest assets

News & Features
Ian Failes

Now with an Oscar nomination under its belt, 3D Artist embeds itself with MPC’s 3D assets team to see how 54 species and 224 unique animals were created

The Jungle Book and MPC's greatest assets
© Images courtesy of MPC/Walt Disney

When Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was released in 2016, audiences were enthralled by the live-action remake of the classic Disney tale. They also responded favourably to the photorealistic animals, many of which were digital models built by the assets team at MPC. 3D Artist sat down with the London team for an exclusive first-hand look at the tools and techniques they use.

Of course, it isn’t just in The Jungle Book where MPC’s assets team has showed off the studio’s artistry. Films such as Independence Day: Resurgence, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Terminator: Genisys and Guardians Of The Galaxy are among the many projects the department has had a major hand in. But how are 3D assets produced at MPC, and what are the secrets behind how they’re made?

The assets department is a centralised department encompassing modelling, rigging, texturing, grooming (hair and fur) and look development. That means that any character, creature or hard-surface object required for a project MPC is working on goes through the department, even if shot production is taking place at another of MPC’s offices, such as Vancouver or Montreal.

The team hovers at around 100 artists in both London and Bangalore, but can ramp up extensively for big shows like The Jungle Book. MPC hires regularly and looks for modellers, texturers, riggers and look dev artists at all levels. New starters tend to be ‘buddied’ up with someone in the same discipline who can “show them the ropes,” according to MPC head of modelling Chris Uyede.

The Jungle Book and MPC's greatest assets
© Images courtesy of MPC/Walt Disney

For one of the world’s most prestigious visual effects studios, you might be surprised to hear that MPC relies mostly on off-the-shelf software in its assets department. However, over more than two decades, the team has built a variety of proprietary plug-ins and workflows that make its creature and character creation unique.

Autodesk’s Maya sits at the core of the toolset for modelling, rigging and animation. Pixologic’s ZBrush and Autodesk’s Mudbox are used for sculpting and painting, with The Foundry’s MARI and Adobe’s Photoshop the main texturing tools.

On top of these tools (predominantly inter-woven into Maya) are MPC’s in-house solutions for rigging and muscle simulation and for grooming. The grooming tool Furtility, in particular, is one of the studio’s most well-known and most developed, and has found extensive use in recent years.

The tools of choice are certainly important, but after sitting down with the MPC team it’s also apparent that their physically-based approach to asset creation is at the core of great characters. Take The Jungle Book, for example. The animals were photoreal, but they also had to meet certain filmmaker requirements. Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, was designed to be the same proportions as a Himalayan bear. Yet he also had to take on the characteristics of the actor.

“Sometimes you have to make it work somewhere in between,” suggests MPC lead modeller and asset supervisor Giles Davies. “Usually we have to find the most realistic reference that we can and then make adjustments to him.”

And that’s exactly what MPC has excelled at; researching real reference and then crafting digital models that reflect the reference, but can still be adapted for a movie’s needs. Another example is the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), whose fierceness was communicated via an enlarged body and, in particular, a skull twice as big as a normal Bengal.

The Jungle Book and MPC's greatest assets
© Images courtesy of MPC/Walt Disney

The assets team relies on a collaborative pipeline to push models through. Modellers, riggers, texturers, groom artists and later animators and effects artists can all work separately on what’s called an ‘animated character package’. During the process, artists are always looking to add in elements from real life with the aim to give their assets some grounding.

The rigging process, in particular, reflects that real-world approach in that it uses physically correct modelled bones and has checks and balances to accurately cause skin and muscle deformation. “We most recently created what we just call the muscle primitive,” says head of rigging at MPC, Tom Reed. “It’s a toolkit for impacts and flesh protections that was made for The Jungle Book but instantly rolled out for Terminator: Genisys and other films.”

The Jungle Book and MPC's greatest assets
© Images courtesy of MPC/Walt Disney

“We have daily sessions twice a week here to talk about all the developments,” adds Reed. “We’re constantly trying to make sure the technology evolves and is not forgotten, and that new techniques get shared. One of the strengths of how we approach the department as a centralised team means we can really get this stuff used everywhere straight away.”

Terminator: Genisys was certainly one of the benefits of that desire to keep on top of the tech, but it was also one of MPC’s most difficult challenges, since it required the creation of a fully photorealistic digital human. Not only that, it was a human whom millions around the world instantly recognise: Arnold Schwarzenegger. And just to make it even harder, it had to be Arnie as he appeared in the original Terminator film in 1984.

With its ‘digital Arnie’, MPC also embarked on a heavy R&D effort into a FACS (facial action coding system) approach to replicating face and mouth shapes. “We’ve been working hard on developing new facial rigging, modelling and blend shape setups here,” says Uyede.

The work on the FACS system, and on the muscle and bone simulation work done in general for Genisys, is able to be adapted for future use at MPC on future projects.

For example, on The Jungle Book, the FACS approach was “anthropomorphised to animals,” according to Davies. “It was a fun process because you’re collecting a load of reference of, say, a bear, but a bear’s face is muzzle-based so you just have to relay the muscles in our face to the muscles in theirs.”

With future projects such as Alien: Covenant, Ghost In The Shell and Justice League on MPC’s horizon, it’s quite possible that even more complex assets will be created by the assets team. And that’s something that, as audiences, we’re always grateful for.