Disney’s The Lion King (2019) isn’t quite the live-action adaptation of the animated classics we’ve come to know. Instead, it is a reimagined version that takes the lessons learned from The Jungle Book and uses new tools and technologies to tell a beloved story in an all-new way. Director Jon Favreau takes the helm of what is essentially an old story told from a different technological lens. Using photorealistic technologies, animals in the film come to life. So much so this new Lion King looks like a DisneyNature title.
We sat down with our fellow journalists at the global press conference for The Lion King, where Favreau talked about his three-year journey making the film, how he wanted to pay homage to the animated original, and more. Check out what he had to say below.
Having worked on both The Jungle Book and The Lion King back-to-back for the past six years, Favreau believed he could tell a re-envisioned story of The Lion King because he cracked the code in The Jungle Book. “All the new technology that was available, I had finally learned how to use it by the end of The Jungle Book,” Favreau said. “But really, these are handmade films. There is animators working on every shot, every environment that you see in the film other than — actually there’s one shot that’s a real photographic shot — but everything else is built from scratch by artists. And we had a great team assembled. And then the idea of using what we learned on that and the new technologies that were available to make a story like The Lion King with its great music, great characters, and a great story, it seemed like a wonderful, logical conclusion. And so that was something we set out to do.”
Favreau says the three-year filmmaking process was a huge leap of faith for everyone involved, including the cast. There was also a huge amount of trust from Lebo M and Hans Zimmer, the music composers behind the animated original, that the project would turn out well. But the amount of time it took to make also allowed for some experimentation, especially with the comedy bits. “This isn’t one of these things where I have been toiling away alone,” Favreau said. “A huge raft of artists, people who were involved with developing the musical landscape, doing early recordings and coming in and contributing through improvisation, redoing scenes, rewriting scenes.”
He pointed out that the cast wasn’t there just to record once; they all came in multiple times. “This team here isn’t just a bunch of people that recorded one time at a music stand and come here for the press conference,” Favreau said. “These were all people who were collaborators and filmmakers along with me.”
But one of the key differences between the production of The Lion King and the production of The Jungle Book was the use of VR technology that allowed the cast to get a sense of the film’s setting. The director talked about how they used the “same motion capture technology for performers and cameras as had been developed ten years prior for Avatar” for The Jungle Book, and toward the end of that phase, there were a number of VR technologies that were being developed. So Favreau decided to experiment with those new technologies so that he could use them to tell the story of The Lion King in a new way.
“We essentially were writing code as we were going for a multiplayer VR filmmaking game,” Favreau said. “And that way I could bring in people who don’t have any background in visual effects. We would design the entire environments. We took all the recordings that we had from the actors. We would animate within the game engine. In this case, it was Unity. And the crew would be able to put on the headsets, go in, scout, and actually set cameras within VR. And whenever anybody visited, I would pop them into the equipment.”
Unfortunately, Favreau said that the game was only developed specifically for the film. But he recognizes how craftsmanship in filmmaking and video game development can overlap. “I think the effort here was to keep the tradition, not just the tradition of the film and stage production that came before us, but the filmmaking tradition,” Favreau said. “Often times when new technology comes online, it disrupts an industry. But with just a little bit of effort, we were able to build around the way filmmakers and film crews work.”
Favreau also credits other creative types on his team like Caleb Deschanel, Rob Legato, and visual effects studio MPC, who used this technology to help set up the film’s setting. “We would actually have cameras driven in VR space by a film crew that was in a room about the size of this room with dollies and cranes and assistant directors, script supervisors, set dressers,” Favreau said. “So we kept the same film culture and planted it using this technology into the VR realm.”
So even though everything was virtual in a sense, it allowed the crew to experience filmmaking in a whole new way. “Part of what’s so beautiful about the lighting, the camera work, the shots of the film, was that we were able to inherit a whole career of experience and artistry from our fantastic team,” Favreau said. “And I think that it’s nice to look at technology as an invitation for things to progress and not always something that’s going to change the way everything came before it. I think there’s a balance between innovation and tradition.”
Of course, creating the world is one thing. Having characters with emotions inhabit that world is an entirely different thing. Unlike the animated original, this grounded take could not really rely on the animated expressions that would telegraph a character’s emotions. Favreau said there was a lot of steps in that process in order to overcome those obstacles. And when working with all sorts of animals species, there were a lot of things they needed to figure out.
While it may have started out with pencils and voices, Favreau believes that casting is “the foundation of great cinematic
storytelling.” He cites his background as a performer for having that belief. “I have my foundation of, you can’t compromise one iota on cast,” Favreau said. “You have to get the best people you can. Because they’re the ones who are going to do everything. And we just built off of our cast.”
And that cast got to work with each other in a very unexpected way.
Favreau got the cast that he could to work in a black box theater and treated it like “theater rehearsal.” Here’s what he said about that process:
“It really was like what you would do when you grab the book for the first time and everybody walks around on the stage. And you start to rough in, you start to figure your character out. And I had them all performing together, we would get them in groups, we would have everybody mic’d so that the sound was usable for the film. And we would have them interacting with one another and improvising all the things that they’ve mentioned. At that point, we would take like a radio play that we would cut from that and we would shoot video on long lenses just to have reference of what they were doing with their faces. And we would give that to the animators and the animators would take the choices that they made and interpolate it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do. Because if we just motion captured their face and put a human expression on the animal’s face, I was concerned that that would blow the illusion of it being a naturalistic documentary. We looked at a lot of the work that Hans has done. Like Planet Earth 2. All of those [David] Attenborough BBC documentaries and how much emotion can be expressed without human performance just through music and editorial and the stories you’re telling — and looking at movies like Babe, that was an inspiration for how we did Jungle Book, with how much expression and emotion could come out of those characters without having human performance. And so it really fell on the animator’s hands to try to figure out how to express their preferences through the language of an animal’s emotive language.”
The Lion King opens in theaters on July 19, 2019. Be sure to check out our review of the film, trailers, and more.