The Jungle Book has seemingly packed a surprise for everyone. Trade pundits couldn’t believe that the film’s gross income touched Rs 250 crore in its sixth week in India. And viewers couldn’t grasp the reality that the only living thing in the movie was the jungle boy, Mowgli, himself. And you will be surprised to know that the film’s virtual production technical director was a 25-year-old Indian named Girish Balakrishnan.
Who is Girish Balakrishnan?
“I have always been a student of film, even before I truly understood what cinematography meant,” says Girish. “I was raised in New Jersey, went to school at Drexel University in Philadelphia for both undergrad and graduate school in Digital Media before moving to Los Angeles. My parents, who are from Chennai, are incredibly motivated and cultured people. They work as senior managers and also volunteer at our local Sri Guruvayurappan Temple as well as teach prayer classes to young children. My younger sister is on the medical track at Boston University. She is the brighter child, classically trained in Bharatanatyam and volunteers as a ‘Big Sister’ to mentor young girls.”
Currently, Girish is the virtual production technical director working at Digital Domain, that was responsible for the visual effects of films like Titanic, Apollo 13, and X-Men. “The profession that I have chosen is one less travelled in our community. While what I exactly do may still be a mystery to my family, they are very patient and always willing to help,” says the Drexel University graduate, whose roles shift between working with the motion capture team, creative department and writing code for new tools to use on-set.
Working on The Jungle Book
The opportunity to be a part of The Jungle Book came during the crossover period between working at 5D Global Studios and Digital Domain. “It was a lengthy 18-month production from pre-production all the way to on-set filming,” he says adding, “I remember when the art department and a team of location scouters returned from a country-wide trip to capture the flora and wildlife of India — did you know that King Louie’s temple was inspired by the Kailasanatha Temple in Ellora?”
Meanwhile, Girish had begun working with Microsoft creative supervisor Habib Zargarpour and principal software engineer Wes Potter on developing a visualisation tool called Photon. Girish explains, “Photon was fully integrated into Digital Domain’s motion capture pipeline, allowing the cinematographer Bill Pope, ASC to utilise a virtual camera system, similar to the one used on Avatar, to look into the virtual world. Except with this new technology, he was able to do more than just compose shots — he could direct lights, pull focus on the lens, add dynamic atmospheric effects such as rain, fog, fire, and essentially dictate the mood of a shot. On the motion capture stage, you would see a child alongside motion-captured puppeteers, but in the lens of the camera you would see a boy standing under the dappled light of jungle alongside his animal friends.”
And that’s how The Jungle Book became the first feature film to fully integrate this video game engine as visualisation into the filmmaking pipeline. “As for the cast members, considering this was essentially following the model of a Disney animated film; all the principal voice actors were recorded in sound booths at a studio outside of set. Neel Sethi, barely 10-year-old Mowgli from New York City at the time of filming, was present at the studio every day. Since this was his first film, we watched him grow, learn how to act to a camera, and explore his imagination with the puppeteers in the blue-screen stage. His performance definitely resonated in the final film. Plus, you can’t deny he does look and act a lot like the 1967 classic Mowgli,” says Girsh, who feels he is just “one small cog in the giant machine”.
Writing the future of virtual production
From sleepless nights to sending out hundreds of job applications, Girish is humbled by how far he has come. “My passion has always been about how we can use the right tools to tell the best story. As for the future, I plan to delve further into more embryonic technologies like virtual and augmented/ mixed reality. And hopefully one day, I can even share one of our Indian epics with the rest of the world — it’s about time!”
And one final advice he gives those aspiring to make it big in virtual production: “Watch lots of movies and delve into the behind-the- scenes,” he says, adding, “Surround yourself with people better than you, and you will be pushed to do better. Also, coffee helps.”