The Lion King Rafiki

A “Holy Shit” Reaction

While we were on the set, we watched Favreau and his team shoot some of the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” sequence, which featured Simba (Donald Glover) and Nala (Beyonce) walking side by side and singing. But because we were getting such an early look at the process, the animatic we saw was far from fully rendered. We got a sense of the timing of the shots and could see how Simba and Nala were being framed, but, strangely, it felt more like watching a team play a computer game than watching a group of filmmakers making a movie.

But when we visited the screening room a few minutes later, we got a look at a piece of test footage that made my jaw drop. It was a simple shot of Rafiki, the wise baboon who advises Simba, just sitting and looking at the camera. He wasn’t doing anything exciting – he blinked, breathed, maybe brushed a fly away – but it looked so real that it was indistinguishable from an episode of Planet Earth or something you’d see on the National Geographic channel. Rob Legato told us that when they saw that, they knew they had something special on their hands.

“We did stuff that we were really proud of on Jungle Book. And then we saw that and it’s literally, ‘Holy shit.’ And then you start bringing everybody in the room. ‘You’ve got to see this thing.’ And so that’s what we’ve been doing. As soon as we saw it, it wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, that’s an interesting test.’ You might really be like, ‘Holy fuck!’ Because it’s astounding that it got to that level from just a couple of years of technology that we did on Jungle Book.

“And I can’t take any of that credit for it. It’s the geniuses who write all the software and the fur combing tools and all the stuff that I would never even think to even ask about. All the grooming and all that stuff. And every little hair that has a different sort of tensile strength. It’s unbelievable. And then Andy’s animation, and they’ve gotten used to now taking a piece of documentary footage or real footage, emulating it to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell the difference, and they build the model so well. They’ve learned a lot of lessons from Jungle Book. It was a ‘holy shit’ moment, it really was. And we’ve said, if we could make a whole movie that looks like that, we think Disney might be really happy with that.”

The Lion King BTS volume

How The Actors Get Involved

You’ve probably seen footage of actors standing in a sound booth and recording dialogue for animated films. It’s common practice to film those recording sessions to provide the animators with reference so they can incorporate the actor’s personality into the performance – think about Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin. But Favreau didn’t want the actors to be isolated, so he created a space on the volume with reference cameras where the actors could read their lines together, which allowed his team to capture little details they wouldn’t get in a typical solo recording session. For him, capturing the physicality was important: timing for when actors blink, how they turn to each other, how far away they would stand away from each other, even how the actual volume of their voices would change based on the distance between performers speaking to one another.

Animation supervisor Andy Jones explained why having that physical interaction is such an important part of their process:

“An animated animal is more anthropomorphic, and [the original film gave] them a lot more emotion. We’re trying to infer a lot of that emotion through what the animals can really do instead of try to force it. So it’s a big challenge, animation-wise, to get the performances right and keep it subtle and keep the audience still as engaged as you were in the original film. That’s probably our biggest challenge.

“We do have a black box where we’re able to bring some of the actors together where they have a scene together and actually have them be off-book a little, and get some eye contact patterns and certain things that we can use for their performance of the animals to really help…It’s always better when you’re doing something so subtle and so detailed with performance that you’re getting really natural performance timings that are consistent, even though you’re giving the same character to multiple animators. You’re getting consistent performance because they’re looking at the same thing.”

This movie has an incredibly talented cast, but while this group of actors will technically be playing the same characters who appeared in the 1994 animated classic, these actors have a whole different series of challenges to overcome. Most notably, they don’t have the benefit of hand-drawn animation that anthropomorphizes their characters. It’s easier to accept a lion, a meerkat, and a warthog joking around and hanging out in animated form than when they look totally realistic, as they will here. So how will this version of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) be able to pull off the comedy needed from those characters? Andy Jones has faith:

“Comedy’s always hard, and especially if you don’t have anthropomorphic performance, it’s even harder. But Jon has a really good taste for it and a lot of our comedy is coming from charm. We did that with Jungle Book as well. You try to make the animals charming and it kind of makes you laugh and I think that’s what we’re doing with Seth and Billy. We did have good black box sessions with them where they really started to improvise a lot and created some interesting takes that the writers didn’t think about, and we can try and use some of those pieces in the film…I think Seth embodies Pumbaa really well (laughs). In terms of the character, his voice, the tone, and how he performs it. There’s a certain level of charm and kind of innocence to his performance that actually is working really well for Pumbaa. And likewise with Eichner and Timon. He’s got this kind of sarcastic approach that’s working really well, too. And I think those two characters are really fun in the movie.”

The Lion King Caleb Deschanel

The Technology Used On Set

While some of the technology used to make The Lion King existed before, the filmmakers explained that the reason they’re able to make the film at all is because consumer products have improved so drastically over the past few years.

“We’re using the HTC Vive a great deal,” producer Jeffrey Silver said. “We use the Oculus Rift to some extent. Consumer VR has gotten so sophisticated that a year ago [in late 2016], this really wouldn’t have been possible. By the way, we started this a year ago projecting that it would be possible. And we’re getting better at it every day. This has been a ‘laying the track before the train’ kind of a process. So we’re on the bleeding edge of technology in this respect. But it’s thanks to the development of all these consumer-facing products that we’ve been able to make a professional application out of it. But it’s a daily struggle.”

Ben Grossmann described how The Lion King is breaking new ground when it comes to the connectivity of its technology:

“VR, the real-time game engine component to it, little bits and proofs of concepts had existed before, but the software that you see on the stage was pretty much written from scratch. And all of the connective tissue that bridges the visual effects department with the animation department with the lighting team, all of that stuff is the first movie it’s been done on.”

And finally, AJ Sciutto laid out how this film’s tech is different than that of any movie made until now:

“Virtual production systems have been gaining prowess and becoming better and better. Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Jungle Book. Stuff like that. Each version is getting better, and this is leaps and bounds better than anything that’s ever been done before. The ability to move stuff and be in the world and seeing it in 360…your brain kind of understands stuff through a lens, but once you spatialize yourself in the world is when you really start to understand framing and composition. That’s really what’s allowing this to be so much more special than anything that’s ever been done before.”

The Lion King is in theaters now.

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