Jon Favreau’s upcoming “The Lion King” is technically an animated feature, but that’s not how the director approached the film when it came to filmmaking. In order to be able to shoot his remake of Disney’s 1994 animated classic, Favreau wanted to have the same freedom a director would have on a live-action set in terms of mobility and camera movements. How did the director achieve that? The process was detailed in a recent “Lion King” preview from Entertainment Weekly, and suffice to say it sounds absolutely bonkers.
The set of “The Lion King” was essentially a virtual reality world that put Favreau and his crew on location. To access the set the crew wore virtual reality headgear, which brought them into whatever location and scene the production was shooting that day, be it Pride Rock, elephant graveyards, or the African savannah. Each “set” was a 360 degree virtual reality space, similar to a video game in which you can have your character walk around freely. Every crew member was represented in the VR set by an avatar (EW describes them looking like “humanoid ball things”). Favreau was represented by a blue avatar. The technology included a hand controller that allowed each user to walk around the space, but mobility on the VR set could defy gravity. Favreau, for instance, could float in the sky and look down at a setting like Pride Rock.
EW reporter Marc Snetiker tried out the VR technology, writing, “Using the controller in your real-life hand, you eventually figure out how to fly up and join [Favreau], and suddenly there you are, suspended in the clouds alongside the director, watching a scene play out between two animated lions on the rocky, sun-drenched peak.”
Whatever scene was being shot was rendered using key frame animation. The scene would be replayed over and over again, with the freedom of the VR set allowing Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to move around the space with the “camera” and film the scenes from any angle they want. The sky was the limit in terms of where the camera could go and how it could move. The takes were then encoded onto video. The VR set was so accurate that there was even a video village in which crew members could gather as their avatars to watch the direction play out.
“The whole reason for all of this is to make an animated film feel live-action — to have a real crew come in, interface with an animated film, and make all the camera decisions that you would on set, instead of somebody sitting at a keyboard programming in the camera moves,” Favreau told EW. “If you look at the way we’re covering and cutting [the animated performances], all of that is related to traditional cinema.”
Disney will release “The Lion King” in theaters nationwide July 19.