The Lion (King), the wild and the VR

Following box office success for Disney remake The Jungle Book in 2016, director Favreau started planning a remake of 1994’s The Lion King. His challenge was to breath new life into a compelling story about love, honor, respect, and struggle for survival, taking it closer to the wilderness and reality of nature. 

To achieve this goal, Favreau and his team – including Oscar-nominated director of photography Caleb Deschanel, VFX supervisor Rob Legato, and MPC Film Crew – brought virtual productions to a further level, as they combined CG tools with live-action filming techniques, to give the remake a true-to-life, nature documentary-like feel.

One of the biggest challenges was to create animals that could look realistic and stay true to the original movie characters.

To this purpose, Favreau and his team took a trip to Africa to observe animals in their natural habitat. They also read anatomy books and scientific papers and watched thousands of documents and other reference footage.

They took HDR shots of natural details to see how the different surfaces would react to different lighting conditions, building a core library of lighting situations and backgrounds, and carrying out photogrammetric surveys useful for rebuilding CG environments.

Photogrammetry is, in fact, a technique that helps in reconstructing three-dimensional environments through the processing of multiple photographs taken from different points of view.  Thanks to this pre-production work, Director Jon Favreau and crew members were able to work in what is called pre-visualization (link). They created simplified animated sequences to use in virtual reality.

This VR approach on set, which they called virtual production, was unique. They put on VR headsets allowing them to interact like in a 3d virtual game and made a rough version of the movie in real-time. This way, they could treat this digital environment as a real existing place, shoot scenes with traditional production methods and equipment, adjust lighting, and experiment choreographed movements. 

While not motion-captured, the actors recorded most scenes in a black box theatre, where they were able to move around. Animators used their recorded voices and movements as a point of reference.

Creating the camera movements in real life, rather than just in the computer, allowed the filmmakers to create a nature-documentary-like feel. 

Though realistic, however, animals had to be also fully recognizable and complex characters. 

Mandrill Rafiki, for example, was one of the most compelling characters to realize. Because he is a primate, it was easier to add some more humanlike and emotions to him. But animators also had to face a significant challenge. In the iconic opening scene of the original movie, he was standing on his feet while lifting the lion cub, but that would have been impossible for a real mandrill. So they had to redesign him in a more natural pose trying to keep the original camera movement and general feeling. 

In other cases, however, animators strayed from realism. They gave to lion Scar, for example, a smaller and more elongated skull to enhance his evil soul and personality. 

Another challenge was making realistic animals that could sing and talk. For this purpose, animators repositioned their heads and timed the character breathing to their dialogue so that it looked like they were forcing air in and out while talking.

Animators also focused on every tiny detail, working separately on anatomy layers: skin, bones, muscles, and joints. They fine-tuned specific systems to simulate gusts of wind passing through the lions’ manes, simulated muscle movements to avoid the risk of water balloon effect when bodies collided and reproduced all kinds of light bounces and reflection on hair.

In the final collective scene of animal bowing to the lion king, animators had to draw by hand every animal separately, but also had to manage the complexity of all the movements happening at the same time.

For the Wildebeest sequence, animators started to build up a big library of animated clips of wildebeest doing different actions, whether that be walking, jumping or changing direction. This procedure allowed them to more easily create a massive crowd in motion, adjusting the level of detail to the closeness of images: the wildebeest in the distance had more simplified features and could be done by simulation, while the more visible wildebeest had to be animated in detail.

The world surrounding the animals was equally important.

They built landscapes based on real-life locations. The crew returned to the same sites several times to photograph the same environment on different lighting and weather conditions, and for observing the behavior and growth of surrounding vegetation.

Another piece of technology already used in The Jungle Book was the “scatter tool”, allowing sprinkle elements like twigs, leaves, and stones across the surface instead of just placing them one by one.

In the final scene, director Favreau added the only not CGI shot, as a sort of challenge for the audience, defying them to find it out. He succeeded in telling a compelling story in a way we have never experienced before. The production techniques used in The Lion King, including video game technology and virtual reality headsets, opened new frontiers for cinematography.