The Legend of Tarzan filmed UK as West Africa
The new film follows Tarzan both in England – where he is John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke – and in Gabon in West Africa where he must protect his jungle homeland from a sinister mining company.
Production was mainly studio-based, with expansive jungle sets built on two large sound stages at Leavesden. The team eventually made half a dozen large-scale variations to the two stages to create diverse visuals and give the impression of completely different jungle locations. A 100-foot waterfall was a central feature of the studio set, with water flow driven by diesel pumps.
Jungle flora was imported from the Netherlands, with special lighting and in-studio irrigation systems set up to keep all the plant life alive. Additional plate shots were filmed in the Italian Dolomites to provide mountainous landscapes, which complemented other rock formations built using molds taken from a slate quarry in Wales.
River scenes were split between Leavesden’s water tank facility and Virginia Water near London’s Heathrow Airport in Surrey. On dry land Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in the Midlands stood in for Tarzan’s stately home Greystoke Manor.
A large-scale African shoot was never a real option for The Legend of Tarzan given the lack of regional infrastructure available in Gabon for a feature with a production budget reportedly in the region of $180m.
Producers grappling with jungle-set stories have choices about how best to tackle such a uniquely challenging environment. Working on location can immediately present access and communications issues, quite apart from the often severe weather conditions.
“Filming in real jungles is hard as it rains nearly every day for a few hours and there’s lots of wildlife that likes to bite,” says Sue Quinn, supervising location manager on The Legend of Tarzan, in comments to KFTV.
Instead, a small Tarzan production unit spent a few weeks on location in Gabon filming what were essentially plate shots of the landscape.
They shot high-definition aerial footage using a specially-designed rig of half a dozen RED 6K cameras that were sometimes suspended from the helicopter by a 50-foot wire to maximise their coverage. The footage was then digitally mapped into shots and added as backgrounds during the post-production process.
Visual effects advances mean that larger features and TV series have more of a choice between filming jungle-set stories on location or recreating them artificially, be that through studio set builds or by way of digital effects.
Recent cinema history offers examples of both approaches. M Night Shyamalan and Will Smith filmed their 2013 sci-fi drama After Earth partly in the rainforests of Costa Rica. Initial location scouts were on horseback with crew using machetes to clear the way forward. Once they made their selections they had to build their own roads to get to the locations and they faced major issues housing the crew.
Production teams also face potential restrictions with the kind of filming equipment they can use in places where the environment is protected. Noise can sometimes be regulated to avoid disturbing wildlife and sometimes weight must be kept off the ground as part of conversation efforts.
James Cameron created his own digital jungle for his 2009 sci-fi hit Avatar. Jon Favreau recently built on Cameron’s success for Disney. His acclaimed remake of The Jungle Book (pictured above) involved building an almost entirely computer-generated tropical environment complemented by small-scale set building in a Los Angeles studio.
Visual effects carry their own pressures with the need for photo-realistic environments that can involve seamless animation techniques for fur, scales, water and light. However, given that technology offers complete control – and has been hugely successful for both Avatar and The Jungle Book – it’s a smarter, safer option and is set to help innovate filmmaking for years to come.
For more on filming in the UK see our production guide.
The Legend of Tarzan images: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc/WV Films/Ratpac-Dune Entertainment. The Jungle Book image: Disney Enterprises