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. Legato, who has three Oscars on his mantle, built on his impressive accomplishments with Favreau in 2016’s The Jungle Book.

What follows are excerpts from conversations with Robert Legato, ASC and looking back on the experience of working at the intersection of high technology and cinematic storytelling using the ARRI Rental ALEXA 65 and Capturing on Codex.

My background is in cinematography, so the live-action sensibility is naturally what I bring to visual effects as a matter of course. After The Jungle Book, we came up with a new way of creating virtual reality tools that allows you to put on a visor, and see and feel a semi-realistic live action simulation. It becomes the next best thing to being there and sometimes even better than being there. Almost immediately, your instincts kick in and you’re crouching behind a tree or rock and looking for that interesting angle. You don’t have to think about it. It’s not a technical exercise. You’re looking at what it will be, and you’re thinking of how to create that perfect shot instinctively. The thing that makes it so accessible is the real-time analog feedback nature of it. You start to feel like you’re just making a movie, and stop thinking about the technology behind it.

On a real location scout, you always have to try to communicate with the production designer, cameraman and the director, to discuss what the location might ultimately be once the VFX are added, but in VR you have many more options. You can make a suggestion right then and there, for all can see and collaboratively embellish the concept in real-time. “What if we put this stream further to the right, add a few trees over here, and shoot in later light?” – that sort of thing. The director can weigh in as he or she sees the alterations take shape, which might alter their blocking, or the vision of that particular scene. We can also preview a Steadicam, crane, dolly or handheld right there on the scout to really preview the finished result. The result is a much more thought out and fleshed out concept at the very beginning stages of inception. The outcome is far more evolved as a result.

Specifically Henry Tirl had a sensor on top of his rig, which was appropriately weighted to mimic a real camera, so Henry could instantly feel comfortable and translate his genius for choreography and composition as though he was on a real set. In The Lion King, you get a sense that it’s a conventionally filmed movie because in essence, it is. And that enhances the believability of the imagery. You feel the soul of the operator because he’s always behind the camera making subtle adjustments as you do in a real live action film.

Instead of making it technically easy for VFX, we made it easy for live action filmmakers to use all their analog skills, and that’s different. Others in VFX might try to make it perfect because they can, but we didn’t really want perfection. In the real world, you try to make it perfect and it never is, because there are just too many factors fighting against you. In the computer world, everything’s perfect, but you don’t want that. It’s too sterile and mechanical. So we mix the two together to create the illusion that we must have waited for the right time of day to film that scene, for example. We might also re-block a scene to make it a little more interesting once we have seen an edit on the set, and then have another crack at it to create a filmic shortcut that tells the story in fewer, more elegant cinematic shots. We never have to worry about missing that opportunity because of fading light. It is much easier to be a genius in hindsight.

We shot reference material in Africa with an ALEXA 65 was to get the soul or the spirit of the place. You do feel some spiritual essence that comes from the land and the animals and the ecosystem, how it’s been perfected over millions of years. I would have liked to root the visual effects with this same sense of spiritual reality, but I couldn’t this time because there are no actual live-action plates in the film. So we shot reference material that captured that soul in spades. I loved working with the A65 because you’re shooting high dynamic range raw with the largest format possible. There’s a beautiful epic film quality that you get from having so many more granules or pixels to resolve an image from a large sensor. That actually helps with the lighting and makes for softer roll-off in the blacks because there’s so much more resolution. Our thought is that if we actually shot this practically, this would be the format and camera we would use. We mimicked the 65 mm film-back in the computer as well, so that that the lenses and the depth of field feel the same. That’s subtle stuff, but I like to think that the audience picks up on that even if they don’t exactly know what we were doing. I always use ARRIRAW. It’s easy to work with and I always have the best version of the film captured. I can get any format and resolution I want out of it. I pulled the ARRIRAW Africa footage at the beginning of our process and looked at a 4K DCP at IMAX in 1.43:1, just to get the gestalt of what it feels like actually filmed live.

It was just so fantastic-looking – the exact quality we were hoping for. What’s the point of not shooting with that extra resolution that the ALEXA 65mm gives you? I grew up thinking that the very best and highest quality movies were shot in 65. You do absolutely sense and feel it. It does something intangible, at least for me. If you’re going to go for it, go for the best you can get and you will never be disappointed. The footage is gorgeous – spectacular.

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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