It’s a beautiful day in Los Angeles. The sun rolling is high on a sapphire-esque sky and a gentle breeze in the air. And yet, we didn’t come all this way just to gaze at the view. Today, we came to see Pride Rock.
Yes. THE Pride Rock. First seen in the 1994 animated epic, next in the long-running Broadway stage show, and now rendered through the magic of some of cinema’s most modern technology.
But unlike those other Pride Rocks, this one we can experience. We strap on a pair of goggles, grab a console, and just like that, we are there — witnessing one of animation’s most cinematic locations, in a 360-degree immersive medium.
Want to see it from a bird’s eye perspective? Or maybe from the perspective of a bug? Wish you were at the elephant graveyard instead? Or that the tree on the right side was moved a little bit more … to the right? With just a couple of toggles, anything is possible.
Trying to make sense of how any of this works is enough to make your head spin, but we have the best guide in the business: None other than Iron Man and The Jungle Book director, and executive producer and writer of The Mandalorian, Jon Favreau.
Each and every day, Favreau and his team mill about this world making their live-action (or is it animated? More on that later) version of The Lion King. They go around adjusting the sets, fixing everything from trees to elephant trunks, and filming scenes. Through building in these tiny details, the goal is to more deeply immerse the audience in the story.
“It starts to hopefully feel like you’re watching something that’s not a visual effects production, but something [that] … emotionally feels as realistic as if you’re watching live-action creatures,” Favreau remarked.
It’s a set few in Hollywood, with maybe the exception of the folks that worked on Favreau’s The Jungle Book, have ever experienced before. Usually high-powered technologies such as the ones used in this production are reserved for flashy action sequences or scenes in space. One of the most refreshing parts of the process for Favreau has been getting to test this tech on smaller stuff. “It was nice to be able to say, ‘Hey let’s really look at what a leaf looks like or the way water moves, or the way the wind blows grass — and create, just really beautiful, arresting images.’”
Even acting and performance choices are captured in a different way on this set compared to most sets. Actors on this film stand in a soundproof room with microphones to record audio and a long-lens video camera to get their faces and performances, often performing scenes together to allow for improvisation. During these sessions, the focus is as much on getting the audio as noticing the little subtleties in the performance. “It’s important to see when they make eye contact, when they break it, who cuts who off in the dialogue.” All of which are then incorporated into the characters.
To build the animation for the animals, Favreau and his team relied on reference libraries as well as photography and video of animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to build the most accurate portrayals. The performances of these animals were then combined with that of the actors in hopes of building a deeply immersive experience.
One of the big questions starting off the movie was how to adapt the story for a live-action setting. While certain elements were updated to make it more conducive to the medium and the current era, Favreau also understood the strong resonance of the audience to the original story. After all, who doesn’t remember popping in the VHS tape or cassette soundtrack and begging their parents to hit replay?
An update they did make that fans have already expressed their overwhelming excitement for is the cast, including perhaps the biggest star out there today: Beyoncé. Singer, songwriter, dancer, actor, fashion designer, filmmaker, mother, and so much more — there is truly no one else out there like her (and probably no one else with a schedule like hers as well). Finding time between her many commitments to record performances for Nala was no easy feat, and yet when Beyoncé would come to set, she was a portrait of professionalism.
“She had really prepared and is a very hard worker. It’s no surprise that she has had success in so many areas and if you look at Lemonade, you see she really understands filmmaking too. And is very curious and innovative,” added Favreau.
Another choice with another big fanbase was the casting of Donald Glover (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Childish Gambino, Atlanta, the list goes on) as Simba. One of Favreau’s favorite moments from working with Glover was seeing the actor collaborate with James Earl Jones (Mufasa), who also played the character in the original 1994 flick. “Donald is very of this moment, and creative and new and fresh; and then James Earl Jones — he really carries the tradition. His voice has so much character to it and it’s so closely associated with Mufasa. And having them together is [like having] one foot in the future, one foot in the past. I think that’s what that story is.” A true Circle of Life.
No article on this film would be complete without asking the question that’s been the subject of many an internet debate: Is this film live-action or animated? “It’s difficult because it’s neither, really,” remarked Favreau. “I mean … it depends [on] what standard you’re using. Because there are no real animals and no real cameras, and there’s not even any performance that’s being [motion] captured … But to say it’s animated, I think is misleading as far as what the expectations might be. And it also changes the way you sit and watch it … it causes you to be present and mindful and pay attention because you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at.”
Whether you categorize this film as animated, live-action, or something entirely different, one thing is for sure: When The Lion King hits theatres on July 19, it will truly be an experience unlike any we’ve seen before, and for that reason, we couldn’t be more excited.