When an entire herd of wildebeest careen across the movie screen and seemingly real lions converse with each other in the new version of "The Lion King" (in theaters Friday), big questions come to mind.
Such as, how the heck did director Jon Favreau do that?
His remake of the 1994 animated film is an epic visual achievement, with Donald Glover voicing the adult lion Simba, Beyoncé the lioness Nala and the iconic James Earl Jones returning to voice Mufasa in an entirely new, stunning world.
The photorealistic creatures and vast African vistas have even wowed "Lion King" critics. How Disney achieved this is just one of the burning questions we set out to answer.
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So how did they make 'Lion King' so jaw-droppingly photorealistic?
Neither green screen nor motion-capture performances were involved. Everything seen onscreen was created by cutting-edge computer animation in a virtual reality environment, essentially shot in a powerful video-game engine.
"Only a few shots were in Kenya; the rest was shot on a stage in Playa Vista (California)," says "Lion King" director of photography Caleb Deschanel.
This required a blend of traditional live-action filmmaking techniques, state-of-the-art virtual reality tools and the highest level of computer-generated animation, a step beyond the techniques Favreau used to bring 2016's "The Jungle Book" to life (earning an Oscar for best visual achievement).
Favreau and his team donned virtual reality headsets and walked around within the virtual set: setting up shots with low-resolution versions of the characters and choreographing movements while adjusting lighting and sequences in real time.
"You use the goggles to see where the action is," says Deschanel. "Everything was almost exactly like it is when you make a real live-action movie."
Once the scenes and voice performances were captured, animators took on the task of fully computer-animating the scene in the lifelike detail.
Where did they find an elephant graveyard?
In both the original and the new film, evil uncle Scar (now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) entices young Simba to leave the safety of the watering hole by mentioning the "elephant graveyard." It's no place for a young prince, but it's where old elephants go to die, a site filled with bones. Naturally, Simba takes Nala to go check it out.
The "elephant graveyard" concept is a famous myth, the type of tale told by big game hunters dreaming of untold riches from recovering the elephants' ivory tusks.
To visualize the barren wasteland, filmmakers used the porous volcanic tufa towers in Mono Lake, California, and the eerie geothermal pools of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming as visual references.
Is it OK to sing 'Hakuna Matata'?
"Hakuna Matata" is a joyful "Lion King" song, taken from Swahili for "no worries." It describes the utterly carefree lifestyle of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and eventually Simba.
But a debate over the phrase, and Disney's trademark on it for a T-shirt, has intensified after a 2018 column in the Kenyan newspaper Business Daily. The column decried Disney's decision to trademark the term, noting the “pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights.”
A Change.org petition calling upon Disney to drop the trademark has more than 194,000 signatures.
A Disney statement calls the flap a misunderstanding:
“Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase. Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as ‘Yahoo!’, ‘Vaya con Dios (Go with God),’ ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way. In 2018 alone, 638,000 trademark applications were filed.”
What's up with Beyonce's name in the credits?
Beyoncé is part of the ensemble cast. But her full name is listed prominently and second to last, as "With Beyonce Knowles-Carter" – just before Jones. It's a roar of respect for the superstar.
"Getting this honorary 'with' credits designation is usually reserved to honor film veterans like James Earl Jones," says Sean O'Connell, managing director at CinemaBlend. "But from 'Lion King's perspective, Beyoncé is so ginormous and so crucial from a marketing perspective that Disney clearly granted the honor to her."
Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Lion King' remake left you with many questions; we have answers