DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Rudyard Kipling's stories about a little boy's adventures in the Indian jungle were written for magazines in the 1890s. In April, Disney presents "The Jungle Book" in 3-D live animation featuring one young actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Come on, Mowgli. Let's be on our way.
NEEL SETHI: (As Mowgli) But I'm helping Baloo get ready for hibernation.
GREENE: For her annual pre-Oscars tradition of looking at movie jobs, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg meets the boy and his on-set schoolteacher as they juggle jungles and sixth-grade history lessons.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Eleven-year-old Neel Sethi is about to be kidnapped by monkeys.
N. SETHI: This is uncomfortable.
STAMBERG: It doesn't look that scary on the set at Los Angeles Center Studios, no animals, no jungle, just a blue screen in front of which the boy will run, leap, cavort, rigged up in a harness.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're just going to leave that strap hanging down.
STAMBERG: His live-action will be mixed with truly lifelike animated animals later.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Nice and quiet.
STAMBERG: Watching Neel's every move, over 300 members of the crew, including spotters, will catch him at the end of this run.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one, go, got him.
N. SETHI: That was awesome.
STAMBERG: But director Jon Favreau wants another take.
JON FAVREAU: Remember, look at the camera.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one.
FAVREAU: Cut, not bad, nice job, Neel.
STAMBERG: Take three, take four, take six.
FAVREAU: This is the one. Look at the camera, Neel.
STAMBERG: Jon Favreau, he directed "Iron Man One" and Two. Favreau is patient but very aware of the clock, not just for bottom-line reasons but because his only live actor is a kid. Voices of grown actors are in the movie - Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley. But only the boy is on-screen.
FAVREAU: You work very limited hours with kids. You have to be very careful about anything physical.
STAMBERG: All sorts of laws govern the use of children in movies - time limitations, procedures, practices, rules to keep them safe and educated.
LOIS YAROSHEFSKY: You're coming to school in a couple minutes, OK, perfect.
STAMBERG: Lois Yaroshefsky is Neel's on-set teacher. She's taught in school rooms and movie studios for almost 40 years. Film production companies hire studio teachers whose job involves supervising lessons and sprinting to and from sound stages.
YAROSHEFSKY: Trying to get at least a 20-minute block of school in with Neel.
STAMBERG: On this film, Lois teaches three similar-looking young performers, Neel, his stand-in and his body double. All these young bodies are schooled on-set for three hours a day minimum. That's the law. Lois runs a clock on every encounter. If it's less than 20 minutes, it doesn't count.
So you're always looking at your watch. You're always running a stopwatch on it. How do you do it?
YAROSHEFSKY: That's right.
FAVREAU: The fact is that Lois is the boss.
STAMBERG: Again, director Jon Favreau.
FAVREAU: You're on a set, you could be spending millions and millions of dollars, and you could have everything set up. And at the end of the day, you've got to look at Lois, and Lois is checking the watch and checking the kid.
STAMBERG: Because by 4 o'clock on this day, it's all over. By law, the workday ends for Neel and his young cohorts after nine and a half hours, including school.
YAROSHEFSKY: You with me?
N. SETHI: What?
YAROSHEFSKY: By 1849, people were coming from all over the United States.
STAMBERG: About an hour before lunchtime on a January day last year, Lois and Neel huddled for a while over a computer.
YAROSHEFSKY: What's a miner?
N. SETHI: A person who digs gold.
STAMBERG: At last, they're in school, well, a room near the state rigged out with three computers, one for each kid. The walls are festooned with personal stuff, Mets souvenirs for Neel - he's a New Yorker - photos, crayon drawings. Starting in August 2014, Neel was in and out of this classroom for seven months.
N. SETHI: Most miners had to work hard to make enough for food and supplies.
STAMBERG: School - history, math, science - comes to him online. Lois Yaroshefsky supplements and supervises. Each boy has different lessons. Lois hovers to keep them on track.
YAROSHEFSKY: I'm not only the studio teacher, but I'm a welfare worker. I'm always there on set, especially if it's anything dangerous. In my opinion, the schooling is very important, but the welfare is probably the most important part of our job.
STAMBERG: So the well-being of the child.
YAROSHEFSKY: That's exactly right - the safety, the health concerns. Because parents, they do have to be here, but they're not the ones that are saying yes or no to whatever's happening.
STAMBERG: Neel's parents are here. Either Gina or Sam Sethi is on set throughout the shoot.
SAM SETHI: He loves being on stage, he loves the shoot, but learning is fun for Neel.
STAMBERG: His parents didn't raise him to be an actor. They have a different dream for Neel.
SETHI: Hopefully will follow the footsteps of both of us.
STAMBERG: And what do the folks do?
SETHI: We're both dentists, and that's the seed we planted in Neel's head. But, you know, this is a calling from above, a blessing, and here we are.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here we go. Look for that camera.
N. SETHI: Should I bend my right knee?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A little bit.
STAMBERG: On the set, another break.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's a trap.
STAMBERG: A chance to talk with extremely focused, slightly wired, young Neel.
I noticed that your hands are very dirty and so are your feet. And you got terrible scars on your thigh. This was a rough day, huh?
N. SETHI: We're doing a monkey scene next where these monkeys, like so many monkeys in trees, and they're pushing me and throwing me around like I'm just like a toy, and that's where I got all these scratches. So this...
STAMBERG: So I'm glad they're fake.
N. SETHI: Yeah.
STAMBERG: How do you just in your own head keep your focus? How do you come to school, go back, fly with the apes?
N. SETHI: I just say, if I do this, this and this, the movie will be done, and I could see it, and I want to watch it a lot. I want to see myself on a big screen.
STAMBERG: Well, mom and dad, I don't know, fillings versus fame. Now ego can be a problem with young actors. Teacher Lois Yaroshefsky works to keep them grounded. It's not always easy.
YAROSHEFSKY: I've had some kids that have been real problems, and I've had a few kids fired off of different movies.
STAMBERG: So how do you do handle it when he gets sassy with you as any kid would?
YAROSHEFSKY: I'll tell him honestly. A child like Neel, he gets it. He understands. I'm about, today, to talk to him and ask him to thank these two boys for what they do. You know, the real actors in the real world, they thank their stand-ins. They thank their stunt doubles. I want him to be a little more humble. And he'll get it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Neel, you good?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Lois, Lois, one more.
STAMBERG: Boss Lois gives the OK for one last take.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Three, two, one, go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Got him.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Cut.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That's a cut.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Let's give a hand for Neel.
STAMBERG: Applause, smiles, cue the studio teacher, ever vigilant in the pursuit of knowledge.
YAROSHEFSKY: OK, we get to go eat for a half an hour, and then we run back the minute the half hour's up to get a block of school in.
STAMBERG: In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: All right, guys. That's lunch. Make it safe, guys. That's lunch for a half.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Lunchtime, it's not lunchtime. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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