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Here's how the Legend of Tarzan was made without a single live animal

Stunt actors, grey suits, green screens and a lot of watching animal documentaries…

THE LEGEND OF Tarzan is a film mainly set in the jungle, and features numerous high-action shots of animals – gorillas, lions, elephants and more.

So you would expect that that the actors were bumping shoulders with all manner of wild creatures – when in fact, not one of the animals used in the film was real.

The movie shows that Hollywood no longer needs to rely on using live animals for filming, with CGI able to step into the breach and create realistic animals using cutting-edge technology.

tarzan bts 1 Behind the scenes of The Legend of Tarzan Source: YouTube

The Legend of Tarzan is about what happens when the grown-up Tarzan – John Clayton, now Lord Greystoke – and his wife Jane return to the jungle of the African Congo.

Production on the David Yates-directed film meant fusing design, aerial photography and state-of-the-art visual effects in order to create the landscapes and wild inhabitants of the Congo, (notably, the scenes shot in England were actually shot almost entirely on stages and backlot).

Legend Of Tarzan photocall - London Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie from The Legend of Tarzan. Source: Ian West

Producer David Barron explained that when it came to the many scenes that required real animals, it just wasn’t possible to use them.

“We would not use real animals because it’s very difficult to get wild animals, like big cats, elephants and great apes, to do what you want them to do in a way that’s humane – treating them the way they should be treated,” he said.

And with the advancements in modern technology today, it’s not necessary. CG animals do exactly what you want, whenever you want, which is fabulous.

It’s good news for those who don’t believe animals should be on film sets at all – and for filmmakers who want to stretch the imagination of their audiences a bit. CG animals can look every bit like the real thing, without any fears of cruelty.

Animal documentaries

Visual effects supervisor Tim Burke collaborated with a number of VFX houses to bring the animals to the screen.

The different teams all started their work by watching documentary footage in order to study the behaviours of the various animals in the wild, while some took trips to zoos to visit animals in person.

Source: Movieclips Trailers/YouTube

Then the CG animators recreated the animals for the film, such as gorillas, lions, elephants, gazelles, zebras, hippopotamuses, ostriches, wildebeest, and crocodiles.

How easy is it to get the look of the animals right? “Techniques have been developed to create fur, feathers and skin, but it gets very complex when you’re dealing with something on this scale – just being able to render the huge number of elements in so many shots,” said Burke. “It’s only in the last few years that you would attempt something of this size and know you could realise it.”

The bar is “constantly being raised” he said, particularly when humans are interacting with the animals.

To film these scenes, a stunt performer wearing a gray suit would act a stand-in for the animal.

tarzan 3 Source: aoife

Burke explained how they filmed a scene involving a fight between Tarzan and his gorilla brother, Akut:

“We designed a big padded suit as well as a transparent helmet that gave the stuntman the overall dimensions of Akut. It was very important to give Alex something to react to that was the same size and shape as Akut; otherwise, we’d later get into all sorts of problems with Alex putting his arms through Akut’s body or intersecting with bits of him he shouldn’t be intersecting with. It was not motion capture—it was only used as a guide for the actors and animators—but it helped massively.”

Thinking like a gorilla

Australia Tarzan Skarsgård poses with a (real) kangaroo in Sydney Zoo. Source: Rob Griffith

The stunt actors had to be similar sizes to the animals, and also learn how to mimic their actions – for that, they had to work with a movement choreographer. 

“They didn’t have to move exactly like a gorilla,” McGregor said. “But they had to embody the essence of being a gorilla. The discipline required not thinking like a human, so we did several workshops to explore what that meant.”

Reeve said that during film, the hardest thing for the stunt actors was to forget about acting like a person “because the natural inclination, especially in a fight scene, is to move as a human would”.

It’s not just the animals who were recreated in CGI – the actors were occasionally too.

For the scenes of Tarzan swinging from the trees, the only way to get the desired distance, speed and fluidity of motion was to employ CG effects.

tarzan 1

“For the sequences of Tarzan doing things like swinging through the trees and diving off cliffs, we decided to create a fully CG character just to give us the freedom of movement we needed,” said Yates, who explained that they got a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist to model the proper form and motion for the animators.

The face was Skarsgård’s alone.

To shoot facial capture, they built a large circular rig of 16 cameras to film his facial performance in real time. From that they created a real-time geometry of his face along with flat lit textures, which were then mapped onto that CG character.

It allowed us to get his actual performance with his own facial characteristics, which we then relit to match each scene. So even though the body is CG, you’re seeing Alex’s face.

(Interestingly, in the film Tron: The Legacy, a young Jeff Bridges was created entirely using CGI - here’s more on how they did it.)

The case for and against CGI

This isn’t to say that CGI is always necessary – or desired by every director or film-goer.

As Bryan Curtis explored in the New Yorker earlier this year, there has been somewhat of a turn against digital effects in some areas of the film world.

tarzan set Source: aoife

CGI proved its worth back in the early 1990s when Jurassic Park leapt onto the screen. But two recent blockbusters Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, saw a return to old-school special effects, rather than computer-generated effects.

But it’s not a black and white issue. As Bryan put it:

We’ve reached a point where directors and audiences no longer derive authenticity from what looks “real” but from what looked real in seventies, eighties, and nineties blockbusters. And real is an awfully flexible word.

CGI is here to stay – but it’s up to those who produce the film to make the call on how much they need it.

When it comes to using animals on film sets though, many would say that sparing the real animal and going the digital way is probably the best compromise.

Read: There’s another Star Wars movie on the way this December – here’s all we know about it so far>

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