Long before Disney’s remake of The Lion King hit cinemas, it was a beacon of curiosity. Obviously, director Jon Favreau and his team weren’t going to film real lions, they were going to use digital technology to create all the animals, as he did with great success in The Jungle Book. But The Jungle Book is The Jungle Book. This was The Lion King, a remake of an even more popular, culturally resonant film. What would making this movie look like in real life? I was lucky enough to find out.
On December 7, 2017, myself and a group of journalists travelled to Playa Vista, California to visit the “set” of The Lion King. I put “set” in quotes because, really, there were no sets. There was no grass or trees or animals in this building. The building is about three miles from the Pacific Ocean and so non-descript you could drive by it every day for your entire life and have no idea what was going on inside. It could be an Amazon distribution centre or have the Ark of the Covenant in it. You’d have no idea unless you were allowed inside.
This particular building had one purpose only: remaking The Lion King. Every step of the process, from the story, to the design, all the way through the edit, visual effects, sound and more took place here. In fact, 90 per cent of The Lion King was made in this building by about 150 people. (Outside visual effects houses helped too.)
Most of that is easy to picture. Conference rooms with photos on the walls. Giant computers for editing or effects. Normal movie stuff. But it’s the filming that’s so unique.
This is the room Jon Favreau and his team filmed The Lion King in. Here, a steady cam operator is moving through the real world with results in virtual reality.
Filming took place in a large room that felt more like a Best Buy than a film set. It’s mostly empty and industrial save for all the wild tech everywhere. There are 120-inch touchscreen monitors positioned all around. Custom camera rigs for people to use. Wires, chairs, desktop computers and, most importantly, VR headsets all over the place. And that’s where the sets actually are. In virtual reality.
To visit them, the filmmakers either had to put on VR headsets or watch on the screens. Instantly, they’re transported to Africa, where Simba, Timon, Pumbaa and everyone else lives. This is possible with custom software that, in the simplest terms, is basically an elaborate video game you could call “Make a movie.” That’s how Ben Grossman, the virtual producer supervisor on the film, described it.
Grossman works at Magnopus, a company that pioneered a VR system enabling the filmmakers to create the scene they wanted in VR, then shoot it in the real world. Using the Unity game engine (which is increasingly being used for non-game stuff like The Lion King), filmmakers put on a VR headset (primarily the HTC Vive) and find themselves standing on their virtual set. Then, using all the different options in the software, they can put down lights, change the landscapes, lay dolly track, change camera lenses, basically anything someone would be able to do on a real set, but they can do it virtually. Once everything is just right, real film production people, including director of photography Caleb Deschanel (Passion of the Christ), use real cameras hooked into a computer and film scenes in reality with the results showing up virtually.
DP Caleb Deschanel uses a crank to adjust a VR shot in The Lion King.
I know. It’s hard to picture. But imagine putting on a VR headset and then you’re standing in Africa as a huge virtual environment. You start to compose your shot. You pick the area, set up virtual lights, figure out what camera you want to use and how it’s going to move, and then shoot it. This happens around pre-animated animals which, at this stage, are very rough. Those will be greatly improved in VFX later once the shots are locked.
Plus, because the actual filming is in VR, the filmmakers aren’t beholden to any physical reality. Would the shot look better if the sun was in another place? Just move it. Want some trees in the shot? Add them. Should there be a few hills over there? Sounds good. Anything is possible. When we were watching the filming, the filmmakers were working on the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene, with Simba and Nala frolicking in the plains, as the camera swept along the side of them.
It’s all very elaborate and complex. Which raises the question, “Why?” Why develop a whole new way of making movies to make a movie fans have already seen? For Favreau, the question was less “Why?” and more “Why not?”
Three photos of progression making The Lion King. First, a virtual environment.
Second, rough animated versions of the characters. This is the stage the filmmakers make the movie at.
The final shot, combining the two, with all the bells and whistles.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see another animated Lion King, because it still holds up really, really well,” Favreau said back on set. “The challenge here, and I think what we laid out for ourselves as a goal, is to create something that feels like a completely different medium than either [the film or the stage show] so it could stand as yet a third way of telling this story...And also, using these techniques and really making the visual effects department a creative partner from the inception allows us to present visual effects, I think, hopefully, in a way that you haven’t seen it before. So, just the spectacle of it—of if we can present something like a BBC documentary, on top of telling the story, and having those two exist together.”
He’s right. Visiting the set of The Lion King asn’t like any set I’ve visited before. It felt more like what I’d imagine visiting a video game studio would be like than a movie studio. Innovation like that is exciting but, if this was a project that was less well-known than The Lion King, maybe it wouldn’t have taken place. Maybe the fact it is such a popular title is what made it okay to film in such a unique way.
Which, ultimately, could be the legacy of The Lion King. Sure it’s making a tonne of money but more importantly, it could be a movie that opens the door for other filmmakers to one day make their own unique visions using this technique. If that’s the case, the fact that The Lion King is still just The Lion King won’t matter as much. Peeking behind the curtain could give the film an added layer of appreciation.