“My child, Shiloh brought the book to me, she had read it and she loved it,” Angelina Jolie says recalling the first time she had seen “The One and Only Ivan,” written by Katherine Applegate.
Exploring why her child was affected by the book, why she loved Ivan, a silverback gorilla, and why he spoke to her led to Jolie stepping in, not just as a voice actress, but as a producer on Disney’s adaptation of the novel.
Not only was Ivan based on a real gorilla, Jolie thought it was a great way for her child to learn about “what activism can do and what sanctuaries are.” But more importantly, “There’s family and self-discovery,” she says of the story.
“The One and Only Ivan” centers around a gorilla who lives in a cage at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. Having spent his life in captivity with other animals, he starts piecing together his past with the help of Stella, an elephant voiced by Jolie, and together they devise a plan to escape from captivity.
The bigger question was how was director Thea Sharrock going to bring Stella and the animals to life when the film’s principal cast consisted of animals. That’s where the VFX team at MPC stepped in to bring Stella, Ivan and the other animals to life.
“Any time you see a shot that has no humans in it, that’s CGI; it’s not just the animals. They also created the environment,” Sharrock notes of the meticulous detail that combines CGI, virtual production, live-action and VFX.
Nick Davis, VFX supervisor, says “The biggest challenge for us was creating the photorealistic animals. That was the biggest challenge; finding that place where we built the animals so the animation team could add in that anthropomorphic movement and balancing that with a performance where they were emoting.”
The film gave the team a chance to push the technology and build on innovation from “The Lion King.”
Jolie, Sam Rockwell (Ivan), Bryan Cranston and the cast all delivered initial voice recordings which helped MPC shoot intuitively to get the best scenes possible.
For the motion capture, Sharrock explains there were two people in green from head to toe, and a soft board skeleton, so if anyone needed to have contact, there was something to look at, “It was like working with puppeteers — it was there to help all of us.”
Jolie says, “We would do our voices, we would play with the scene and we would see what was created in CG and the VFX. We would redo the performance because the slowness of the breath or how long it takes to drag her feet when she’s tired. Everyone would take painstaking efforts [to recreate and readjust that moment] because it mattered in this film.” She continues, “I remember the first time I saw some of the animals, I thought, ‘There’s a soul to it.’
“You don’t realize how much work is put into it,” Jolie says –MPC delivered 1055 shots for the film which took eight weeks to shoot for the virtual production and 12 weeks for the live-action. “Sometimes it’s obvious that this is a CG thing or some action. You don’t watch the movie thinking ‘Is this fake or is it real?’ You are engrossed in the emotion of the characters.”
Sharrock adds the refining process was a collaborative process not just with the VFX team but with the cast, “The voice was where the soul began.” To get that right, she would have Jolie and the cast come in, “Sometimes I’d call Angie and say ‘We’ve done this scene 24 times, and you’ve given me 15 different examples, but something the animators had done would spark a new idea. She would get it and give me something new.’
Jolie jokes that she even had an elephant onesie that she wore for a few voice sessions, “That was my method moment.” But it wasn’t about watching nature documentaries or elephants. “You’re doing a being. What is this being? She has the weight and heaviness of being an older elephant. It was thinking about the being that had been captive and had been harmed, and an elephant who was worried about the next generation – what is the soul of an elephant, that’s what it was.”
Jolie says her children were surprised by the finished product. “They were a bit shocked because it’s something that they hadn’t seen before it became real.” With the film coming out during a pandemic, she hopes the film will be released on a big screen when it’s safe because of the “extraordinary detail and care” the VFX team went through to bring Ivan to life.
She notes the film’s theme of feeling trapped resonates with children at this time. “There’s something about the captivity of it too that I think was sadly speaking to children and helping each other through with feeling confined. I think it spoke to kids and touched at a good time.”