When is an animated film, not an animated film? Prior to the release of The Lion King earlier this year, this question was buzzing through the minds of many a film fan. I took a crack at an answer based on a few junket quotes pulled from director Jon Favreau, and while I was happy with my snarky tone at the time, I’m not sure I actually came to a conclusion. Hearing that there were “no real animals” and “no real cameras” involved in the process of construction puts a crook in your eyebrow. If it’s not shot, then it must be animated. Case closed.
Ah, but there is a kind of camera applied, it’s just of the virtual reality variety. Huh. Do you still not get it? You’re not alone. “I worked on it for a year and a half and I have to say I’m still confused,” admits cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The Lion King was not crafted on one monitor, and each frame was not drawn one line or pixel at a time. Favreau built the image the way he would in any of his other movies, but instead of walking onto a physical set with his crew, they donned VR goggles.
“They call it virtual reality, but at a certain point, you put on the goggles and the environment is realistic enough that you feel that it’s very real,” says Deschanel. Inside, the cinematographer would establish his shots as if he had boots on the ground in Africa, but instead of physics confining his choices, he could lay a dolly track inside the clouds or swish pan from within a charging heard of wildebeests. “So I had the camera and I could change lenses or zoom in or out,” he continues, listing his available weapons. “I had a gear head and I had a fluid head and I had a dolly and I had a crane and I had a steady cam. I had all the tools I was used to using and also control over where the sun was and control over what the sky looked like.”
The sun and the sky are overseen by special effects supervisor Robert Legato. As Deschanel determines that a particular hue won’t match the emotion of the scene, Legato can correct the image from over 350 predetermined skies. His job on The Lion King is not that much different than what he did on Hugo, Avatar, and Titanic. “It feels just like film,” he says. “What drives it is the physical animation of it, but that’s not the whole story.” His Lion King is not Toy Story. “There you can conjure up anything because it’s not tricking your eye into believing that it really exists. That is just the imagination of the artists, and the people who animate even the background and the stretching and squashing when somebody hits an object.”
All that stuff is fun, but The Lion King operates under far more restrictions. “You’re in the environment,” says Deschanel. The sets are digital, but they were built, and camera operators must navigate the landscape to capture the scene. “If I went right to left, the parallax would change,” he explains. “It was just like being in reality. It’s remarkable. The great advantage were these little handsets that you could press and then you would fly from one place to another, and it made it a lot easier than getting in the van and riding over a bunch of dirt roads bouncing around and getting all dusty and hot and sweaty.”
A day on set would begin with the crew finding their spot within the virtual location, and then they would block the sequence. “Virtual reality becomes a reality, and you would bounce off of it, ” says Legato. “I would say, ‘Maybe we should start by the tree? You don’t know exactly why, but it just feels right. Then Jon would say, ‘Well, if he’s going to start by the tree, then I don’t like that tree, attribute another tree. Then the art director would say “Well, yeah, let me put a rock and a thing by it.’ And then the cameraman would say, “Well, if we’re going to do that, I should backlight it from lower camera left’ and all of a sudden it starts to build the picture that is very akin to how our favorite movies are made. Exactly like it.”
Within the VR, at the speed of thought, Deschanel, Legato, and Favreau could share the exact same angle on the shot. The image observed may not apply to the scene they were currently working on, but they could save it, and return to it later on in the schedule. “We would leave it there,” says Deschanel, “and then the next time we came back to that environment, we would find that same shot.” And mother nature had not ruined it all.
Formulating film in VR allowed for both improvisation and error. “It was very much like making a regular movie,” says Deschanel. “To the point where even though we could repeat actions over and over again, we would sometimes make little mistakes. An animal would jump and we would pan as fast as we could, but we’d miss them and then have to catch up with them. You could go back and perfect it, but sometimes the imperfections felt more real, or like they had more life to them.”
When Legato worked with Favreau on The Jungle Book, the VR technology was nowhere near advanced enough to achieve such a physical creative space. “We did the best we could with only looking at a portal into the virtual world,” he says. “On The Lion King, we were totally in the VR. Here we created our own opinions of what looks good or what doesn’t look good; what feels right or doesn’t feel right based on all of our senses, including balance and how high you are and how much light is hitting you. All that stuff intangibly alters your opinion on something. So, it’s less intellectual, more artistically intuitive.”
Does that mean the DP who masted the warm, nostalgic glow of The Natural and scored his sixth Academy Award nomination last year for Never Look Away is ready to go full-Lawnmower Man and disappear into VR? “It’s funny,” says Deschanel, “I actually did some pickups on Ad Astra, which was all on film and it was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to have light meters and I have to figure out what I’m doing and, you know, move lights around?!” The horror, the horror. “But I think it’s like riding a bicycle. You kind of remember what it’s like and just fall back into the old way of doing it.” Deschanel cherished his time removed from the physics of his art, but he’s not ready to kill the past yet. “I’m looking forward to doing some live-action, where I don’t have the control anymore because there’s something about the serendipity of that which does not exist in the kind of moviemaking that is The Lion King.”
The Lion King is now available on Digital HD and will be available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on October 22nd.