“The Jungle Book” was only the beginning for Jon Favreau. With “The Lion King,” the director has made an industry game-changer: the first keyframe-animated movie shot on a virtual reality set with a live-action aesthetic. Indeed, thanks to its innovative use of VR for world building and camera layout, and stunning photorealism by Oscar-winning VFX studio MPC (“Blade Runner 2049,” “The Jungle Book”), “The Lion King” essentially removes the divide between live action and animation.
Favreau, though, refuses to classify it, hoping audiences will experience “The Lion King” as though it were live action. In reality, it’s the latest virtual production advancement spearheaded by Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book,” “Hugo,” “Titanic”). Meanwhile, Disney continues to market it as a unique hybrid (likely ruling out a Best Animated Feature Oscar campaign in favor of a Visual Effects push).
However, when asked to ponder “The Lion King” as a landmark in naturalistic animation, Favreau partially conceded that it was probably on the right track. “If we tell the story as you would an animated film, it would be very intense, so we’re…treating it creatively like a live-action story as far as what we’re presenting. And what we expect the imagery to be,” the director said during a set visit at the Playa Vista production facility, inviting journalists to put on the VR headsets and play in the virtual “Lion King” set, surrounded by the iconic Pride Rock.
Favreau’s goal, in fact, was “to create something that feels like a completely different medium than either [the Disney animated classic or the stage production]. And so part of this experiment is to see if we really lock in early as animated films do, and spend all of our time refining, which isn’t to say that we don’t examine story…we were working off of a story that works really well so…the more we looked at it, the more we challenged the story; there were certain things that needed addressing to make it feel more appropriate to this medium….
“I think we learned a lot from the stage show,” added Favreau. “I think our casting was definitely formed by that [Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar]….But, as far as the characters, the story, the themes, the music, we really felt that people were very connected to the original and so, hopefully, if you are a fan of the original, you’ll look at this and say, ‘Oh, I feel like I saw ‘Lion King.'”
On “Avatar,” Legato established a live-action comfort zone for director James Cameron to shoot within the performance capture volume. On “The Lion King,” however, Legato made it possible for a full crew to join Favreau in the virtual space, where the Unity VR interface created the African Pride Lands.
Which meant that production designer James Chinlund (the “Planet of the Apes” franchise) could do his world building and then scout locations for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to light and perform camera moves with virtual versions of real cameras, lenses, dollies, cranes, and Steadicams. Thus, the layout functioned as a low-res version of the entire movie, with MPC refining and finalizing the environments, characters, and VFX.
The result was a continuation of the Disney legacy with a documentary-like authenticity and poetic lyricism. “And what’s nice about Disney, too, is it’s very multi, multi generation,” he said. “You got grandparents, great grandparents, children, you know, all experiencing something together. And that’s what’s nice, because it doesn’t feel like a kid’s movie, it feels like something that’s appropriate for a whole family –and there’s some stuff where you’re gonna hide your face if you’re little.”
And when it came to transforming humans into photoreal animals, Favreau threw the actors into their own black box theater and shot video footage of their interaction, providing rich reference material for the animators. “As far as the performers go, a lot of improv, getting people singing together, and musical collaboration is really amazing to watch. Physicality that comes from it inspires animation.
“But because we’re not using humanoid creatures, we didn’t have tracking [mocap] information, but it’s still as important to see when they make eye contact, when they break it, who cuts who off in the dialogue, and having that video footage and having the cutting together a radio play of real performers performing together adds a certain subjective realistic texture to it.”
Overall, Favreau entered the circle of life with a combination of old-school and new-school methods: “Not every scene in the movie is fun to watch,” he said. “There’s sad, there’s tragedy in it, but, ultimately, what I like about it, is that, somehow, after that whole experience, you walk away feeling inspired and hopeful. Which is how I like my stories.”