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Inside the virtual production of ‘The Lion King’

TechnologyInside the virtual production of ‘The Lion King’

Scar is still easy to distinguish from the other lions.

You can see this commitment in the characters, too. They’re emotive, but not to the same extent as the original movie. “If anyone had actually seen us over-animate these characters or over-design the worlds and the characters within them… I think it’s a very fine line and you produce something that just looks very strange if you push any one aspect of it too far,” Newman said. That doesn’t mean the animals are static, though. After the opening number, for instance, the camera lingers on a mouse that scratches its cheeks and scrambles up a rock — first unsuccessfully, then in a moment of understated triumph. It serves no narrative purpose — the sequence is merely visual fodder to sell you on the live-action illusion.

Other pieces of animation show the characters’ personalities. Scar slinks around to reflect his devious mind, for example. Pumbaa, on the other hand, trots around with a visible spring in his step — a clear nod to the character’s blissfully ignorant and happy-go-lucky attitude.

But there’s restraint. MPC trusted that the film’s documentary style could still engage the audience and make them feel for the creatures on screen. When you watch Planet Earth, Newman explained, there’s a ‘story’ that’s conveyed through careful editing and narration. That, combined with the beautiful cinematography, makes you care for the animals and their fate. A good example, he said, is the viral sequence from Planet Earth II that shows snakes chasing iguanas. “You’re still connected to that character,” he said. “You feel like you want that lizard to make it. You don’t want to see it [get] eaten by the snake. The lizard is not running around with a sad face or a panicked face. It’s still a lizard, but you’re still very much engaged, emotionally, in following the story.”

To make it work, the team needed large and incredibly detailed environments. Every location, including the Elephant Graveyard and Wildebeest Valley, was painstakingly realised and, more importantly, placed within a larger world map. “We always said we didn’t want to use back paintings in the background,” Newman said. “We wanted to try and ask: ‘How far can we push the environment into the background? How far can we extend the world?’ So, a lot of what we did was 3D, it was a full 3D environment. Just a lot of asset building. a lot of trees and plants and grass models were built, and we extended the world really far.”

The Lion King

Restrained skies made the movie more believable.

Some viewers have criticized the lack of emotion in the film. They miss the bright colours and surreal visuals that accompanied musical numbers like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in the 1994 original. Others, like British film critic Mark Kermode, have questioned whether live action — or rather, the illusion of live action — is the right medium for a story that is, ultimately, fantastical and filled with singing.

Traditional animation allows characters to have a special elasticity. They can grin, twist and jump in ways that wouldn’t be possible in real life. Disney and Pixar have, of course, made films with stylized CG animation. Favreau had a vision for The Lion King, however, and ‘over-animating’ would have betrayed the movie’s documentary style. “As soon as you see an animator use a brow up shape to convey sadness, it’s like, ‘No, it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work for what this movie is. Let’s dial it down. You don’t need it,'” Newman explained. “Its a strong sort of storytelling and a lot of that was conveyed through more subtle animation that was in keeping with the documentary style and the realism that we were going for.”

For some, the original will always reign supreme. Others will prefer the Broadway version. But many have, and will, appreciate the new Lion King for its stunning visuals and commitment to a single, distinctive style. It is, if nothing else, a technical triumph. And whether or not you like the end result, it will go down in history as one of the first ‘virtual productions’ with a Hollywood budget. One that proves the potential of VR as a way to make movies.

Images: Disney/MPC Film

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