The new Lion King movie is visually spectacular. A two-hour remake that frequently defies belief. Pride Rock is, of course, a fictional place but in director Jon Favreau's film it feels eerily real. The creatures, too, move just like they would on the plains of Africa. They're utterly believable until they talk and sing to one another about family, responsibility and the circle of life.
Disney has been remaking its animated classics for some time now. But The Lion King, which hit theaters on July 19th, sets a new benchmark for what's possible with computer-generated animation. The secret behind it all? An experimental form of filmmaking that, through VR, allows studios to shoot virtual sets with old-fashioned direction and analog camerawork.
The Lion King wouldn't have been possible without The Jungle Book, a 2016 remake by Favreau and Robert Legato, a visual effects supervisor best known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Titanic and Avatar. It was a special movie that cleverly surrounded Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, in a breathtaking world filled with pixel-perfect animals.
Almost all of the animation was handled by MPC Film, a division of Technicolor that specializes in visual effects. The team had worked with Disney before on blockbuster films including Maleficent, Into the Woods and Cinderella.
"We did the majority of [The Jungle Book]," Elliot Newman, a visual effects supervisor at MPC told Engadget. "We did something like 1,300 shots." The only scenes it didn't touch — with King Louie, played by Christopher Walken, and his tribe of monkey minions — were handled by WETA Digital in New Zealand. MPC won both an Academy Award (Best Visual Effects) and a BAFTA (Best achievement in Special Visual Effects) for its work on the film.
"It really did feel like 'The Jungle Book' was the test, in a way."
Toward the end of production, MPC discussed VR as a filmmaking technique. At the time, the consumer versions of both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift were nearing release, and developers were excited about their potential for consuming and creating content. "We were already talking towards the end of The Jungle Book about new technology, and 'should we use VR?'" Newman explained. "And the idea of 'virtual production' was discussed." A 'virtual production' meant creating a digital world with characters, or 'actors' that could be 'shot' while wearing a VR headset. It would be like a video game, but with the quest of creating a movie.
These conversations were put on hold until roughly one year later, when MPC started talking to Disney about The Lion King. The company was keen to be reunited with Favreau and other key members of The Jungle Book team. "It really did feel like The Jungle Book was the test, in a way," Newman said. "It was like 'We know that we can achieve this. How do we improve upon that?' We were all keen to go even further than what we were expected to produce. Everyone was just so enthusiastic to work on [the movie]."
MPC produced a brief animation test of Simba walking through the jungle. It was enough to win the studio the project, which started with a second piece of test footage shown at Disney's D23 Expo in 2017. "That was a minute and a half of the opening of the movie," Newman recalled. Thankfully, the crowd loved the team's interpretation of "The Circle of Life." "I was lucky enough to be in the audience and I think that was a really clever move," Newman said. "It was something Jon [Favreau] really pushed for, to create some sort of a buzz around this thing."