Back in 2017, I got to step into The Lion King. OK, not quite. But a quick journey across Los Angles to the Playa Vista Production Facility took me to the “set” of Disney’s latest remake, where I stepped inside the world of the beloved story thanks to the immersive digital technology used by filmmaker Jon Favreau and his production crew.
As you might expect, the so-called set of the film was more like a compound of offices and computer banks, where animators, VFX artists, story teams, and the expansive filmmaking crew brought the movie to life. But what you might not expect is how Favreau and Disney ran with their technical accomplishments on 2016’s CGI-heavy The Jungle Book, embracing the latest cutting-edge developments to create a filmmaking environment that was somewhere between live-action and animation.
The big buzz on the set was the VR. While it’s become more of a common practice in the near year and a half since we visited the Playa Vista Production Facility, Favreau’s set was the first where I ever saw filmmakers transporting himself into the world of their film via VR to pre-vis scenes, fine-tune the digital “locations” and immerse themselves in the environment of the film in the otherwise computer-lined rooms of the facility. One moment you’re in a grey room stacked with expensive equipment and rows of screens, but slip on the headset, and suddenly you’re in the sun-drenched Pride Lands alongside Simba and Nala — and what’s more, you can reimagine the landscape in real-time. Want to move a tree? Just pick it up and drag! Presto, new landscape!
That freedom to explore helped sub in for rehearsal on the all-digital film and gave Favreau the familiar feeling of making a live-action film. Favreau explained, “It’s really a lot like being on a real location, and doing a rehearsal. You say okay, here and then you could even make notes in the air. And you could use things like laser pointers.”
“It has the feeling of a live action shoot, because that’s the way I learned how to direct,” he continued. “It wasn’t sitting, looking over somebody’s shoulder or computer. It was being in a real location, and there’s something about being in a real 3D environment that makes it, I don’t know, just the parts of my brain are firing that fire on a real movie.”
In order to carry over that familiar feeling of live-action filmmaking, Favreau and his team also embraced classic filmmaking tools, re-fitting them to a digital environment. For cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, that meant an in-house camera track that allowed him to operate much like he would in a live-action production; pushing, pulling, and guiding the camera with his hands rather than a computer program. When Deschanel pulled his camera back on the tracks, the digital rendering in the frame also pulled back, allowing him to move along with Simba and Nala during their iconic musical numbers.
“By having the tools here, like having a dolly with somebody who’s a dolly grip and as cinematographer operating the wheels, and having all people that would be on a real set, you have the same communication, the same chain of command, the same rhythm to the day,” Favreau explained. “And also little things start to happen because this is all key-frame animated based on real animals — we don’t do motion capture for performance, because we don’t want to do it. We don’t want to put markers on animals, we don’t want to involve live action, live animals in this. In Jungle Book, we didn’t have to. I think that’s a nice next step for movies, is to leave the animals alone.”
Favreau also tried to make space for naturalistic performances from his actors, taking what he learned from working in the MCU — where, much like an animated film, the massive set-pieces have to be rigidly planned in pre-production. Favreau explained, “What we’ll do for performance is I’ll have the actors in this room, we clear it out, it’s a soundproof room. We have microphones, and instead of recording with music stands and a sound booth like we do in animated movies, I’ll instead have them performing standing up, almost like you would in a motion capture stage, except no tracking markers, no data, no metadata’s being recorded. It’s only long-lens video cameras to get their faces and performances, and that allows the mall to overlap and perform together and improvise and do whatever we want.”
“Much like how in Iron Man I kind of tried to have multiple cameras and let Gwyneth [Paltrow] and Robert [Downey Jr.] improv when I could, because there’s so much of the movie you can’t change, because it’s visual effects,” he explained. “In the same way we’re trying to create a naturalism with the scenes between the characters. But then sequences like this that are tied to music, they’re very much locked in like a music video, into shots that you have preplanned through the story department, and through storyboards.”
Ultimately, that made The Lion King‘s process something of an animation/live-action hybrid, wherein the filmmaker and his department heads were able to pull on the strengths they learned in both mediums. “Our process looks a lot like an animated film, up through layout,” Favrea explained. “Instead of going to layout where we’re over people’s shoulders, we come into this room, and then it becomes a live-action production, as far as the workflow, the creative process. And since we- since all of the decisions are made based on the actor’s performances and reference of animals we put that together and we create an animated sequence in short chunks.”
That live-action approach also carries into the edit room, where the film’s editors are presented with far more options and takes to work with than exactly what was pre-vised. “Since we’re using the techniques and approach of a live action film, we deliver these dailies to the editor, the editor is selecting the best footage based on what we shoot,” Favreau said. “Not just on what we plan, as you would do with a visual effects shot or an animated shot, where it’s like okay these three lines are this close up, these two lines are his medium, and everything is just fulfilling that template.”
“Here we like the editorial department make decisions like they would on a live-action film and so, especially for action sequences, if there’s a really good quick cut of a pan or the cameramen happen to catch a great moment or get a great frame, all of that is decided upon in post-production, even though it’s all happening concurrently,” he explained. “And what we’re trying to do is, just like motion capture tries to get anomalies of performance, what we’re trying to get is anomalies of photography.”
In practice, it all comes down to giving his filmmaking team the means to work like a live-action crew, even if the shot is 100% CGI. “if Caleb is communicating to someone operating a crane, or a dolly, there’s going to be a little bit of an interplay, almost like musicians working together, where the dolly might move too fast, or faster in one take. So we have to back pan a little bit, or a happy accident happens,” Favreau explained. “And all those little subtleties actually- it’s not anything I think anyone would notice consciously, but it just, you just start to feel like — between the quality of the rendering and the techniques we’re using, it starts to, hopefully, feel like you’re watching something that’s not a visual effects production but something where you’re just looking into a world that’s very realistic.”
You can step into the realism of the Pride Lands yourself when The Lion King arrives in theaters on July 19. Stay tuned for more from the set and our extended chat with Favreau in the coming days.