The Lion King: Inside Jon Favreau's virtual circle of life

Featuring the voices of John Oliver as Zazu, and JD McCrary as Young Simba, Disney's The Lion King is directed by Jon Favreau. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. null / PST

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“Don’t throw up.”

This is director Jon Favreau’s less-than-reassuring advice as we don virtual-reality headsets and fly over Pride Rock as avatars, hovering above renderings of the crown-prince lion cub Simba and his evil uncle, Scar.

It’s all part of the groundbreaking, virtual-reality technology used on the Los Angeles set of the Lion King, where producers have essentially built a movie studio inside a 360-degree, multi-player, virtual-reality video game. Entering the world is an initially disorienting experience for the uninitiated. Not exactly nauseating, perhaps, but it will have you feeling a bit wobbly as you embark on a virtual-reality trek through the savannah.

This is how Favreau and his team “scouted” for locations. In reality, they were inside this studio. But thanks to VR gaming technology, they were whisked to a crude approximation of the plains of Africa, where they could fly about determining the angles, locations and lighting that would eventually be taken and transformed by animators and a visual effects house into the breathtakingly lifelike characters and environments that appear in the film.

In January of 2018, Disney invited me and two other journalists to the secretive and strangely quiet set of the highly anticipated reboot of the 1994 hand-drawn animated classic.

Housed in a nondescript, purpose-built production facility that is inconspicuously hidden among rows of similar-looking buildings in the Playa Vista region of Los Angeles, there are very few outward hints that groundbreaking movie magic is happening inside.

There are no actors on set today, although most of the film’s all-star voice cast — including Donald Glover as Simba, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, John Oliver as Zazu, Beyonce as Nala — have stood where we are now standing and acted out the entire film under Favreau’s direction.

“I make it very easy, like a theatre rehearsal,” says Favreau. “There’s no crew. There’s six cameras and long lenses. It’s just me and them. We had scripts in hand. They can do the scene two times, three times, improvise, overlap each other and that creates a naturalism. And then they go away.

“Then I have to roll up my sleeves and, with everybody, break it apart and put it together and make it look like animals are doing it.”

Animators base their work on the actor’s performances and real animal behaviour, building both the characters and environments.

On this particular day, Favreau is quietly confabbing with his six-time-Oscar-nominated director of photography Caleb Deschanel. The veteran cinematographer, who has worked on everything from the Black Stallion to The Right Stuff, is a few feet away from where the journalists are playing around with the VR headsets. He has his own. He also has a dolly and short length of track. They are among the proxies for live-action filming being used to make the movement captured in the virtual digital world resemble what is captured on a physical set. 

Featuring the voices of JD McCrary as Young Simba, and James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Disney’s The Lion King is directed by Jon Favreau. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. null / PST

“We are trying to create little microcosms where we inherit all of that creative film culture from live-action,” Favreau says.

The idea is to create the feel of a film crew shooting in physical space, which is unchartered territory for animation that involves recreating what producer Jeffrey Silver calls “the gravity, physics and mistakes, the happy accidents” that we are used to seeing when it comes to live-action movies, even if only subliminally.

Natural is the key word. The Lion King is a continuation of the work Favreau did on 2016’s blockbuster The Jungle Book. As with that film, or James Cameron’s Avatar, it is a “virtual production.” But unlike those films, the Lion King is completely digital. There are no humans for the animated characters to interact with. So making both those animals and the environment they are in as lifelike as possible was paramount, even if the film stays true to the original’s very human, Shakespearean tale of a young lion who fights to regain his kingdom after his family is betrayed by a scheming uncle.

Pre-production involved a trek to Kenya, where Favreau and his team soaked up the look and feel of Africa and studied animal behaviour.

“We organized that to specifically get the vibe of the land,” says VFX supervisor Rob Legato, who won Oscars for his work in The Jungle Book, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and James Cameron’s Titanic. “There’s something spiritual about it. It’s spiritual (in) that it’s the birthplace of humanity and birthplace of life. It’s what inspired the original movie. They went to the real place that Pride Rock was modelled after. It was so when we judge our work, we judge it with the extra harsher eye of knowing what real life in Africa looks like.”

Examples of the photo-realistic animation style are now widespread and are undeniably dazzling. Still, critics are divided on the effectiveness of the approach. Vulture’s Bilge Ibiri wrote that “Jon Favreau’s ‘live action’ remake of Disney’s The Lion King possesses all the immersive detail and tactile immediacy of an unusually good nature documentary.” Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, on the other hand, wrote that the photorealism makes for a “soulless chimera of a film” that unfolds “like the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake.”  

Back in January, Favreau was certainly aware that he was on sacred ground, which may be why he stuck closely to the 1994 original in story, character and music.

“Usually you are trying to make a case why people should care,” he says. “With this movie, they care right from the beginning. Our responsibility is more as a steward of this property rather than for me to put my own spin on it. I’m trying to be invisible.”

The Lion King opens July 19.