Stuffie to stuntie to CGI

How ‘Jungle Cruise’ jaguar Proxima was brought to life, including with an on-set stunt performer in a jaguar-print suit.

The befores & afters coverage of the visual effects of Jungle Cruise continues with this new interview with Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Luke Millar about the studio’s CG jaguar, Proxima, crafted for the film.

On set, both a stuffy version of Proxima and a stunt performer (Ben Jenkin) stood in for the role. Then, production VFX supervisors Jake Morrison and Jim Berney turned to Weta Digital to create the photoreal big cat.

b&a: Can you can talk about the brief for Proxima? What were the filmmakers looking for?

Luke Millar: They had gone through a process on their end to begin with where they had started off with some artwork. And then that had developed into a 3D model, which had become an actual practical stuffy head build. And that build embodied the character. She had a certain look and a certain pose, and that was their leaping off point.

In terms of performance, they were very keen on her being a character in herself, but not being too caricature-y, or cartoony. We knew we were going to have to do things which a jaguar would not do in real life, but they also didn’t want it to become too farfetched. So it was a balancing act between keeping her grounded, but also adding in those beats that we would need to add in order to tell the story of her being Dwayne’s sidekick.

b&a: How did you approach the build?

Luke Millar: We started off with their 3D model, then also scanned the maquette model that had been made. One thing we realized quite early on is that as they had gone through their process, the physiology of the jaguar had changed, to the point where it wasn’t really like a jaguar anymore. There were things about it, which didn’t quite look right, and so, it was sort of taking away from the realism.

We ended up backtracking a lot, going all the way back to their original piece of artwork, and then finding the original photograph online that they’d used for their paint for that artwork, and then finding out where that cat lived, because most likely it was one in captivity. We ended up going all the way back and finding out that it was a female cat in San Diego Zoo, which was great. Then we could find a lot of online reference from people who have visited the zoo and have taken photographs of her.

That became the focus of our build. We would build her and then add in all of the art-directed design features which made her unique to the real cat rather than trying to make the maquette or the stuffy look real, which was proving to be a much harder path.

b&a: What did you work on in terms of her animation style?

Luke Millar: The motion side was interesting. We did obviously look at jaguar reference. But in terms of what she had to do, there were other things that we leaned into. Her nature as Frank’s best friend meant that she has certain dog qualities sometimes, like the moment where she leaps on top of MacGregor and starts licking his face, or when she drops the ball in front of Frank’s feet, she wants him to throw it for him. But also there was a certain kind of attitude that cats can have in there.

The other big component of it, as well, and this came from the filmmakers, which I think works really well, is that so much of her personality also comes from how the actors respond to her. It’s not about her doing something crazy. Sometimes it’s their reaction. She just gives a look, or a glance, or looks down, and it’s how MacGregor reacts to her or how Dwayne reacts to her.

b&a: You mentioned the maquette, or the stuffy. How did they use that on set? And how was any other kind of on-set performance done?

Luke Millar: The maquette was used as a lighting reference and walk through. They did a couple of passes. Then as an on-set interactive Proxima, there was stuntman Ben Jenkin. He had previously worked on The Jungle Book, doing similar work. And he really got into the character. He was actually in a leopard-like print, jaguar morph suit.

b&a: Really!?

Luke Millar: Yeah, he was great. He gave the on-set presence for eyelines. There’s a lot of good behind the scenes footage of people tickling him under the chin and rubbing his head and things like that. We kept the interaction, but replaced him with Proxima’s head.

Obviously Ben and Proxima were quite different size-wise. So there was quite a bit of work in making sure she could fit in the space that he occupied. But for the most part, it worked really well. He stood in there a lot, especially for the fight scene. For some of the other shots, they just used what director Jaume Collet-Serra referred to as an ’80s pillow, which is this big leopard-print pillow, which Dwayne would roll around on the floor with.

b&a: Were there any particular challenges you found with Proxima’s short fur, or certain things about the jaw or behaviors that you hadn’t really faced before?

Luke Millar: Yes, with the fur, it has basically two layers to it. You’ve got a very short layer and then you’ve got these guard hairs that lay over the top. And it’s the guard hairs that give the spots that smeared kind of look, rather than being very graphic. That became another balancing act creatively. When we made her initially she would always look very, well, the term that was always used was ‘factory fresh’. Like she was a brand new cat, and she didn’t have a lot of history. And she looked like a very young sort of cat, and they wanted to get more history as if her and Frank had been together for a lot longer.

Interestingly, cats are very clean animals, and they don’t get dirty. And if they do get dirty, they clean themselves pretty quickly. So trying to add this history to her and make her look real, but not make it look like she was getting ragged or mangy. That was in itself quite a challenge.

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