When Jon Favreau decided to make “The Lion King” as realistic-looking as possible, he realized an innovative tech achievement and an aesthetic one as well, crossing the line between live action and animation with a more tactile photo-realism. Favreau and his team created a virtual production game changer with a new way of shooting in Virtual Reality with a live-action crew (including six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), and making use of life-like animation from Technicolor-owned MPC Film (“The Jungle Book”). The result is a breakthrough all-CG feature with a live-action sensibility, advancing the way virtual productions can be made, with implications for future application.
At the same time, “The Lion King” serves as an important lesson in how we experience live action and animation by revealing their individual strengths when combined together. Favreau’s edict was to adapt the beloved Disney hand-drawn blockbuster with the illusion of reality, transporting us to Kenya, which served as the inspiration for the Pride Rock, the Elephant Graveyard, and the other iconic landscapes.
Favreau essentially turned “The Lion King” into a narrative doc about animals and nature trying to co-exist in The Circle of Life. “The achievement for me is the ease in which we can now see and play with what was previously an abstract concept or only an imagined finished construct and work with it as a living, breathing and iterative piece of live inspired art,” said Rob Legato, the three-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor (“The Jungle Book,” “Hugo,” “Titanic”), who helped Favreau take virtual production to the next level after “The Jungle Book.”
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“This particular story could only previously be realized as traditional animation where the exaggeration of character and situations lent themselves to the artificial nature of the medium,” Legato added. “Our concept is ‘what if it were real?’ What if this type of love, respect, and power struggles that plague our human lives also happen in the animal world? There clearly are power struggles in the wild, as well as rituals and fierce love and protection of their offspring. So what if we edge closer to real life and give their thought process a voice we can understand and relate to? This particular subject matter is an age old examination of love, honor, responsibility, as well as palace intrigue and abuse of power. The new ‘Lion King’ is a compelling story seen in a way we have not experienced it before.”
This live-action ethos required a new approach to virtual production. Working on a VR stage at Play Vista, Favreau and his crew interacted closely together in a virtual shoot, essentially making a rough version of the movie in real-time (with necessary cameras, lenses, and rigs) and using a customized version of the Unity game engine. MPC created the workflow and adjusted its pre-production pipeline by supplying low-res versions of the animated assets and a new rendering solution for the game engine. This allowed the crew to scout locations in VR before making their camera, lighting, and shot choices. However, the VR quality had to be detailed enough for Favreau and his crew to work with. This back and forth allowed for greater collaboration on the front-end and greater proficiency on the back-end when it came to integrating the characters and environments at full-resolution for the illusion of reality.
“We shot 12,000 takes of photography and whittled it down to the 1,600 shots that are actually in the movie,” said Adam Valdez, MPC’s VFX supervisor. “What Jon wanted was this magical combination of the best of what the animated film process has to offer and the best that live action has to offer. In the sense that people work together in a space and they get inspired, they pivot, and they improvise, and they react, and they design, and get into cool moments by being there. And that’s harder to do in the animated process where inspiration can hit and you can just grab a shot and do what you want to do on the fly.”
On the animated side, MPC upped both its character and environment animation. In accordance with actual animal behavior, the rigs and simulation of skin, fur, muscle, joints, and the rest of the anatomy had to be believable. Meanwhile, new world building techniques were created to apply the landscapes, rock formations, water, and vegetation in a much more orderly and efficient manner.
“We worked within the whole piece with nature because it’s clear that one thing that works for all audiences is the natural world and animals are fascinating to watch,” Valdez added. “And there is a certain beauty to just being immersed in it. We also wanted to add the element of portraying the Kenya landscape accurately. This is a classic story, but this whole other appreciation of animals and nature is hard to do outside of photo-realism. So we worked really hard to make it life-like.
“When you go to Kenya and you see the way light plays off of land and the scope of it, you can’t portray it using bits of photography, bits of creative work. You need to make everything together,” Valdez said. “What we saw was an unprecedented level of planning and care that went into that world building [led by production designer James Chinlund and set supervisor Audrey Ferrara] to break Kenya down into manageable pieces that we could create and then deliver a version of that into the virtual shoot, and then extending that work back here in London…fabricating everything.”
The wildebeest stampede is certainly a wonder to behold as thrilling spectacle. “You’re in VR, you’re in Africa, where do you want to stage it?” Legato said. “Stage it up there and is that high enough? The walls have to be steeper. Because it’s steeper some of the animals actually can’t climb down, they fall down, and that adds to excitement of them falling and tumbling. And, all of a sudden, you’re starting to build a cool sequence. We looked at a lot of reference of real stampedes, and we made something that was fairly similar but engineered in that we made an action sequence to advance the story.”
Clearly, though, the move to a completely photo-real version imposed limits on the animation, which MPC did its best to turn into advantages, dialing down movement, gesture, and lip sync. “Meaning, the audience was going to relate to this film in a different way,” Valdez said. “And you didn’t have all of the comedy turns and exaggerated action and hyper-stylized look that you can do in a cartoon. You get a strange hybrid if you dial up the emotions where you’re not sure whether you’re watching animation or live action. And it’s a film that has to work for a wider audience, so the challenge was, what were you going to put in the place of those things in terms of the overall impact of the film?”
At least with meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), they made it work with improvisational hilarity. “They managed to find an energy and physical behavior that was not unnatural, but seemed to marry so well with those vocal performances,” said Valdez. “All of that frenetic energy was a fertile playground for the animators.”
For Legato, who continues to evolve virtual production as a live action ethos, the great accomplishment of “The Lion King” was witnessing the awe inspiring Circle of Life in person. “There is such a specific ritual to how nature continually replenishes itself that is so simple and complex at the same time….Trying to re-create what it felt like in person inspired the photo-realism,” he said.
And what of the future possibilities for continuing the virtual shoot concept for other hybrids? “The ability to see in advance what only can be imagined until fully constructed will create better and better films, plays, concerts, and television shows,” added Legato. “The daring one can now preview with great detail can only make for more exciting and original artistic expressions. So, in short, the encouragement to explore will take the advantages of VR to the next level.”