Disney's The Lion King remake is a visual achievement, representing nearly three years of work by director Jon Favreau and his production team from the 2016 blockbuster The Jungle Book, which similarly photorealistic computer animation. However, The Lion King represents another technological leap forward.
During the press conference ahead of the film's release, Favreau revealed some of the groundbreaking methods used to produce The Lion King, and the lengths to which they went to achieve realism.
"I've been working on both of these movies back to back for about six years," he told journalists. "And with all the technology available, I'd figured out how to use it all by the end of The Jungle Book. There's a lot to be said for the technology, but these are handmade films. There are a lot of animators working on every shot. Every environment in the film, except for one shot that's an actual photo, everything else is built from scratch from artists. And we had a great team assembled, and then the idea of using what we knew from [The Jungle Book], all that technology being available for a great story like Lion King... it seemed like a wonderful, logical conclusion."
The voice-recording The Lion King was different from typical animated films. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner especially recorded much of their dialogue together, a rarity in the industry.
"I've been working on this one for about three years, and a lot of [the cast] have been working on it for the same amount of time," Favreau said. "They came in back when it was still pencils. So it was a huge leap of faith for this fantastic cast that we have. And, of course, musically for Lebo M. and Hans Zimmer, who were so involved in the original, to trust that it could turn out well. It was a huge leap of faith. In many cases, the cast came back and kept recording, especially for the comedy bits. This isn't like one of those things where I've been working alone. This is a large group of artists, people who were involved in developing the musical landscape of it. Coming in and recording through improvisation, re-doing scenes, re-writing scenes."
The production team was able to combine VR advancements with camera technology in order to film the movie in a VR-simulated environment. "That was actually one of the big differences between Jungle Book," Favreau said. "With Jungle Book, we were using the same facial-capture technology developed since Avatar. But towards the end of Jungle Book there was a slew of consumer-based VR products that were hitting the scene.
"So we started experimenting with The Jungle Book and realized we could make this really cool system of filmmaking with gaming technology and VR technology. So we were essentially writing out own code as we going forward... We could design the environment, we could take the audio from the performances by the actors, and we would animate within the game engine. So the film crew could go in and set a camera within VR."
Favreau made a point to show off the new tech whenever he could: "Whenever anybody visited [the set], I'd pop them up into it." That prompted J.D. McCary, the voice of young Simba, to burst with excitement. "It was awesome! It was so cool," he said. "It's like watching your favorite movie, except you're in it. It was me and [young Nala], and we put on the headsets. And we could fly! It was like we were Zazu, it was like were birds! We saw everything. We saw the Pride Lands, we saw Pride Rock, we saw the water hole, we saw the elephant graveyard, it was so cool."
"We built all the assets from it," Favreau continued. "And we've been talking about different VR experiences. Because VR and film are overlapping so much. And the idea here was to keep the tradition. Not just the tradition of the versions that came before like the animated and the theater production, but also the film making tradition. Anytime a new technology appears, it disrupts the industry. But with a little bit of effort, we were able to build around the way filmmakers and film crews work. So the cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, who've I've always wanted to work with, was able to work on a movie with massive special effects and have no experience in visual effects. We were able to make it so we could say 'You can make the movie like you would make The Black Stallion.'"
"I can't take full credit, there was a whole team who set this up," he said. "We would actually have cameras driven in VR space by a film crew, in a space not much bigger than this. With dollies and cranes and assistant directors, script supervisors, set dressers... so we kept the same culture and planted it using this VR technology. So even though it's animated, it allowed a live-action film crew to go in to use the tools they were used to. Part of what's so beautiful about the lighting and camera work and shots we were able to inherit the full artistry and experience from our fantastic team. It's nice to see technology as a way to progress and not just as a way that's going to change everything that came before. There's a balance between talent and innovation."
Despite all the technology, Favreau still believes that the heart of the film comes from the cast. "There were lots of steps to this process, and that's why it took so long... to me, casting is the foundation of great cinematic storytelling. I didn't come from the tradition of visual direction. It's always been about storytelling and performance. I came up as an actor. You have to get the best people you can. They're the ones who are going to do everything. We built everything off of our cast. So we started in just a room, like a black-box theater, it was like a theatre rehearsal. It was like what you do with that. You'd grab the book for the first time and you'd move around the stage, starting to figure your character out. And everyone would act together. We would get them into groups and we had them all mic'ed, so we could use the sound was usable or the film, and we had them interacting and improvising.
"At that point, we would take basically an audio play we would cut from that, and we would shoot video on long lenses so we could have a reference of what they were doing with their faces. And we would give that to the animators, and the animators would take the decisions they would make and transfer that onto what a lion would do or what a hyena would do. Because if we just motion-captured them and put their human face on the animals, I was concerned that would blow the illusion of being a naturalistic documentary.
"We looked at what Hans [Zimmer] did with Planet Earth, all the things David Attenborough has done, about how much emotion can be expressed without human expression, just with music and editing and the story that you're telling. It was like Babe, which was an inspiration for what we did on Jungle Book. How much expression and emotion could come out of those characters without that human performance. That was the real challenge for the animators, having to figure out how to express those performances through the language of an animal's emotive [capabilities]."
Directed by Jon Favreau, The Lion King features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric André, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.