After a mere twelve days in release, Disney’s The Lion King blew past a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. The success must be gratifying for director Jon Favreau and his team, led by director of photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, ASC. The trio pushed virtual filmmaking to new heights with the film, working with VR headsets while providing a comfort zone for Deschanel, a six-time Oscar® nominee who brings old-school chops to the undertaking.

What follows are excerpts from conversations with Deschanel and his use of the ARRI ALEXA 65 to capture the live action plates on Codex media in ARRIRAW and looking back on the experience of working at the intersection of high technology and cinematic storytelling.

“I really liked The Jungle Book – I thought it was amazing. What got me excited about The Lion King was Jon’s idea of bringing my expertise of shooting live-action films over the past 40-some years. They had designed the tools to be very similar to what I’ve been used to all this time. We had dollies and cameras and lenses – everything you’d expect on a regular movie. The locations only existed in virtual reality. You put on the glasses and you’re in Africa. Jon worked with the animators for performance, and got the performances from the voice actors. So in a way it was sort of pre-blocked. Early on, we would have animals walking through rocks and things like that, but as time went on, they perfected it. Eventually you could understand the animals’ emotions and really get what was going on.”

“Honestly, I was worried about having to become a tech nerd or something in order to do this. But it was so beautifully designed by Rob and his team. They made me feel very comfortable and made it very easy for me to just drop right into this kind of filmmaking – and have a good time doing it. It’s tech nerdology to the extreme – and it looks beautiful. It’s really remarkable, but you don’t realize the incredible amount of mathematics behind it to get to that point. I was always good at math in school, and I loved it. But the stuff these guys are dealing with is beyond anything I could imagine.”

“Jon and the animators would block the animals, and Rob and I would make suggestions on how to improve it to simplify it or make it better for the story. We’d get the re-animated files on set, and I would light it with my lighting director, Sam Maniscalco. We’d pick one of 350 skies based on the time of day and the particular feeling, and we’d put the sun where we wanted it. Even though we were not following the sun across the sky the way you do on a real location, we did not leave the sun in one place, but moved it on almost every shot. In virtual reality, we had the computer team lay the dolly in the virtual world, and then connect it to a real dolly on stage. We then had a real dolly, and a dolly grip who would follow the “actors” the way you would on an actual location.”

“The movie feels real because of two things. One, the animation is phenomenal, and the sets are phenomenal. The backgrounds and the trees and the vegetation and the rocks – everything is so beautifully done. But another thing that adds to the reality is the feeling that there is a person behind the camera, operating it – the way you do in a regular movie, where the camera is being operated by a human being. And that gives it another sense that is important for the audience to feel it’s a live action film. The one thing I missed with the process was the serendipity of what happens when a storm rolls in unexpectedly or an actor comes up with some new idea while he’s performing that surprises you. But we were able to make up for that because we could repeat actions any number of times. It was easy to move a hundred wildebeests back to one by pressing a button. You didn’t have to wait for the wranglers to go track them down at the end of the gorge and drive them back to the beginning position.”

“No matter how advanced the technology becomes, you’re really always telling a story. If you don’t tell a story that compels the interest of the audience, then you really haven’t done anything more than show off some technology. It’s what we have always done: tell stories – live action or not.”

Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA 65
Camera Rental by: ARRI Rental
Director:Jon Favreau
Director of Photography: Caleb Deschanel, ASC
Digital Intermedia: Company 3 – Stefan Sonnenfeld

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Behind the scenes images courtesy of American Cinematographer. All other images courtesy of their respective owners.

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