It’s always a thrill to be in the front row when cinema technology takes a giant leap. And this summer, prepare to roar with excitement, as The Lion King tears up the rulebook and throws us into an African savannah created entirely using virtual reality. Here’s how the Disney classic went from pencil-sketch to SFX pioneer.
Don’t mistake Jon Favreau’s new Lion King for a retread of the technology used on 2016’s The Jungle Book.
Stunning in its own right, that earlier movie combined real actors and physical objects with blue screen and CGI effects – whereas The Lion King is entirely digital with no flesh-and-blood elements (and should technically be described as a ‘photorealistic animation’, not ‘live-action’).
“By removing the one physical element of Mowgli,” Favreau told Entertainment Weekly, “we were no longer tethered to the fact that we had to have blue screen or an actual set or real cameras. Once that gave us the freedom to operate without actually having to move through physical photography, it allowed us to open ourselves up to a whole new approach.”
Chances are, you’ve heard of VR: the emerging technology that lets everyone from gamers to deep-sea divers immerse themselves in a 360° virtual environment by putting on a headset.
With the ability to pan 360 degrees – and even view the scene from above – Favreau recalls he could make real-time adjustments, from zooming in to catch a character’s facial expression to tweaking a camera angle for the best vantage point on the action.
“The whole reason for all of this is to make an animated film feel live-action,” he says. “To have a real crew come in, interface with an animated film, and make all the camera decisions that you would on set, instead of somebody sitting at a keyboard programming in the camera moves.”
For The Lion King, Favreau’s team had a world of tech at their fingertips, but they made it a point of principle to work like a traditional crew.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, for instance, used a physical camera track and moved his equipment by hand (with each adjustment he made in the real world echoed in the VR landscape).
“By having the tools here,” Favreau told Collider, “like having a dolly with somebody who’s a dolly grip and a cinematographer operating the wheels, and having all the people that would be on a real set, you have the same communication, the same chain of command, the same rhythm.”
If all this tech-talk is making you worry that The Lion King will be like watching a video game, rest assured that the wizardry is invisible in the final product, which feels like watching the world’s best-ever nature documentary (albeit with talking animals).
Ultimately, Favreau’s movie uses its futuristic technology as a means to make us feel emotions as old as time: love and hate, bravery and fear, hope and desperation.