‘Jungle Cruise’ director shares movie’s VFX insights

Jungle Cruise was released in the US on 30 July, clocking over $35 million at the US domestic box office and over $30 million via Disney Plus Premier Access in its first three days.

So far, the movie has earned $100.1 million in the US and the global box office earnings are $187 million. Jungle Cruise has been in development for more than 15 years and it was finally released earlier this year.

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt- starrer movie is based on the popular Disneyland ride, which was one of the original attractions when the theme park opened back in 1955. Besides a thrilling storyline, the movie packs a spectacular array of VFX shots that make for a visual treat.

Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra shares, “Since the movie needed a lot of visual effects, it was important that the beginning of the movie had to be grounded,” says the director. “When our characters arrive at Porto Velho in the Amazon, it had to feel like it was a real place.”

For the jungle aspect, filmmakers started the movie thinking they would go to the Amazon and shoot some plates, then composite the blue screen with the plates. But it became quickly obvious that it would take months to obtain the shots because all the amazing places they wanted to shoot in the Amazon are actually far away from each other. The decision was then made to go full CG for the Amazon, which freed up the filmmakers to shoot the movie in a way that did not rely on static shots to fit into the plates.

Just as important for Collet-Serra was that Johnson, Blunt and the cast had a tactile interaction with their environment, whether it was the rickety La Quila, the bustling town of Porto Velho or the dense Amazonian jungle.

“Since the movie needed a lot of visual effects, it was important that the beginning of the movie had to be grounded,” says the director. “When our characters arrive at Porto Velho in the Amazon, it had to feel like it was a real place.”

As principal photography began in spring of 2018, cast and crew got their first taste of Collet-Serra’s vision courtesy of the efforts of production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and his team of construction, painters, landscape and set-decorating artisans.

Driving up into the hills of Hawaii’s greenest island, Kauai, they were met by the unexpected—Porto Velho, a bustling, awe-inspiring river town, built up and along the banks of a serene body of water.

Production Designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and his team had broken ground and begun the labor-intensive process of transforming the untamed environment into a multidimensional film set that would allow Collet-Serra unrestricted access to film within any corner of the set with a breathtaking vista as a backdrop.

“In Hawaii, it was everything related to the river town when they jump from London to the beginning of the adventure in South America,” says Puzos. “So we had to turn the location into a more realistic beginning-of-the-century town. It was a very, very peaceful location where you can arrive with your truck and your team, and you build. And you have the background of the green and the mountains and everything.”

The French-born production designer, who is also an architect and a landscape designer, used all the tools in his arsenal to envision, design and build the fictional port town smack in the heart of the Amazon. For Kauai alone, a team of over 100 crew members from construction, painters and sculptors to landscaping and marine safety prepared the impressive set built in and around a hilltop reservoir for filming. The scale and tremendous amount of details for every aspect of his film sets were evident from the moment anyone stepped into the world he created.

The sprawling set encompassed multiple structures and multi-tiered exterior walkways punctuated with exotic jungle foliage leading from a bustling outdoor market to the two-story Porto Velho hotel and restaurant. Across the lagoon, docks housed the shiny new fleet of Nilo’s boats, and a second much smaller dock where Frank operates his Jungle Navigation Co. tour business and moors his boat, La Quila. From there the dock leads up to Nilo’s Tavern, a fully realized exterior and interior set.

“We really built a town, and it was huge, and all the interiors were done in the actual town, which is rare, because normally you do the interiors on stage. But we did it so we could get the light from the actual world and the interaction, and people could enter and exit through doors. The set was massive and incredible, and it was great to shoot there,” remarks Collet-Serra.

“The port that they’ve built from nothing is an amazing place to be for an actor because you step onto it and you feel like you’ve been transported back in time,” comments actor Jack Whitehall. “It makes your job so much easier because it feels like you’re genuinely there. Normally when you go onto sets, it all feels quite temporary, but this one feels solid and real, like you could actually live in it. The hotel, for example. I would one hundred percent stay in this lovely hotel. I wouldn’t be seen dead in that tavern, but this hotel with the veranda, the bar, that is a bit of me.”

Equally important to the filmmakers when it came to creating epic film sets in Hawaii was their commitment to ensure that the local wildlife and the surrounding environment were unharmed by their presence. The production worked closely with multiple environmental specialists to make sure that, upon completion of filming and removal of the sets, all areas used for filming were regraded and replanted with native greens, and any usable building materials were donated to Habitat for Humanity and other local island-based organizations.

The Hawaii-based set would be the amuse-bouche of Puzos’ efforts to once again wow cast and crew with more practically built sets. After seven weeks of filming, the company traveled to Atlanta to resume filming on several soundstages, including the stunning jungle village, the home to Trader Sam and her tribe; a 500,000-gallon exterior water tank, shrouded within hundreds of palm trees and greenery; and a visual effects blue screen to lay in the jungle horizon.

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