Last week, The Lion King roared into theaters (and our hearts!) To say it was a technical masterpiece would be an understatement. From Pride Rock to the Elephant Graveyard, the film went beyond our wildest expectations — not only recreating these iconic sets, but also making you feel as if these places existed!
If you’re anything like us, the experience of even watching the trailer likely left you wondering, “How on earth did they do that?!”
Well, fellow readers, you’re in luck! We had the opportunity to visit the set of this groundbreaking film and speak to the technical wizards behind it. Here are 7 things we learned from that epic adventure:
1. Every shot went through an extensive production process.
If you’ve ever stayed through the credits, you know that it literally takes a village to make a movie. On technically complex movies like The Lion King, there can sometimes be hundreds or even thousands of people contributing to just one film. What do all these people do, and how do they work together to make what you see in theaters? To understand that question, let’s break down the process:
Like most movies, the filmmakers on The Lion King started with a script. That script was then handed over to a story team who storyboarded out the various sequences. From there, the sequences were given to the art department and the production designer to come up with concepts for the world. A virtual art production team stepped in next, to translate those designs into VR sets of the world. At this point, animators were brought in to animate the characters. Those animations were then combined with the VR sets, loaded onto VR headsets in a physical stage, and given to the cinematographer and director to place cameras and create shots for editorial to cut. Once a cut was approved, it was then sent to a vendor to refine, then reviewed again by the team, and ultimately approved. Talk about the ultimate group project!
2. One of the goals of the production was to capture the feeling of being on a live-action set, with the technology of an animated film.
As mentioned above, VR was used throughout the production to help bring the world of the film to life. Through the use of this tool, actors could experience the set and have a better context of the scene. Additionally, cinematographers could actually walk through the set, survey the action and figure out the best shots, instead of just viewing everything on the computer.
Additionally, this new approach allowed the filmmakers to avoid certain restrictions often faced in live-action settings. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel recounted a story about how on a live-action set, they’d set up a shot and have to work around restrictions of things being in frame or the sun setting at a certain time; but on this virtual set, there were no such setbacks.
“Here, we don’t really have to think about anything like that and it’s sort of wonderful in that way. And I have to say, it makes you think about things you’ve never thought about when you’re making it,” added Deschanel.
3. When possible, actors were encouraged to read their lines with a fellow actor or improvise.
“We learned from Jungle Book that when we did sessions with the actors, [they’d]… stand at a stand, read the lines, look up, read the lines, look up,” said producer Karen Gilchrist. To achieve more organic performances on The Lion King, director Jon Favreau encouraged the actors to improvise and record together. The approach was especially good for comedic scenes, where actors could bounce lines off each other and get that organic feedback. Animators then used footage from the session as reference for everything from when a character should blink or turn to what a character’s tone should be in a certain scene.
4. Extensive research went into making the world and characters feel as real as possible.
Throughout the production, the team took several trips to Kenya as well as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, to better understand their characters and the world they were building.
“[Whether it was the] movement of an animal, the way the animal walks, stretches, blinks, etc., [everything was] backed up by extensive visual research,” remarked producer Jeffrey Silver.
“My ambition was to build a world that was entirely cohesive, so that at any given moment, the audience is going to feel like they know where they are. They’re in true geography, so when you’re at Rafiki’s tree, you can see Pride Rock in the distance,” added production designer James Chinlund.
Even in the cinematography, the realities of the world were taken into account.
“With the more dangerous animals, you wanna be back with a long lens and as you become more familiar with them and they’re your friends, like Simba as a baby, you feel like you can be close to them with wider lenses,” added cinematographer Deschanel.
5. At the same time, being too realistic with their choices posed its own set of challenges.
One of the biggest challenges in going for an almost documentary-style approach was striking the right tone with the animation. The filmmakers knew that if they made certain scenes too real, those scenes would come across as scary. At the same time, they didn’t want the animals to act in ways that weren’t inherent to their real-life animal counterparts.
Animation supervisor Andy Jones shared a story about trying to animate the fight scenes. “The original film was animated and they could do slow motion and soften some of the impact [of the fight scenes] because it was a cartoon. With ours, the challenge was that the more realistic we make it, it then becomes gory, or something you don’t want to bring your kids to.”
Subtlety became the filmmakers’ best friend but, at times, also their foe.
“The classic example is [animating] the top [eye] lid. If the top lid gets near the pupil, you look sleepy or [a variety of other emotions.] And so, we created an entire puppet just in the eye of all the moving parts that the animator controls, [to] execute it more precisely,” added VFX Supervisor Adam Valdez.
6. AI even played a role in the animation of characters.
One of the most astounding parts of the visit was hearing about how AI — yes, artificial intelligence — played a role in the filmmaking process.
Virtual Production Supervisor Ben Grossman shared the following example:
“Let’s say I want an animal that walks with a certain style. And rather than just making an animal that looks like a real lion and moves like a real lion, I want the lion to have like a limp. And I want it to be a little shifty. So what you can do is you can hand-animate that performance so that it looks like you want it to look, and then you can send an artificial intelligence program to study that animation and then say, ‘OK, I’ve now learned what you want and now I can do what you’re asking for.’ So then you can just take a lion and say, ‘All right, now that I’ve got this shifty lion who’s really sketchy, I want him to run the surface of the thing, climb up that tree, do whatever,’ and it does it in the same style as if an animator had animated.”
Mind blown? So are ours!
7. The technology used in the making of this film has the potential to ultimately change cinema as we know it.
With all this groundbreaking technology like VR and AI entering the filmmaking space, one can’t help but ask what this means for the future of film itself. VFX Supervisor Ben Grossman had this to say, “[With this technology], you [could potentially] create a world where characters have personalities and they have motivation to do different things… Then essentially, you can throw them all out there like a simulation, and put real people in there and see what happens.”
Again… Mind. Blown.
From the use of VR to AI, the production of The Lion King was truly unlike any other, and it certainly shows when you watch the film! Ready to watch The Lion King for the first time or (in our case) the fifth time? Us too! Get your tickets here!