How did famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel handle his first virtual shoot with Jon Favreau’s all-CG version of “The Lion King”? By leaning on the naturalism of “The Black Stallion” and “Far Away Home.” “I love nature and mythmaking,” said the six-time Oscar nominee, who has also dazzled with “The Right Stuff” and “The Natural.”
It was like shooting a real movie, only in Virtual Reality in the 360 volume stage at Playa Vista, donning the VR headset, scouting locations throughout the Pride Lands and planning shots with a customized virtual camera toolset. “Except for the fact that you weren’t being attacked by lions,” said Deschanel. The shoot turned out to be a comfortable fit for him, collaborating with high-tech vets and the fearless Favreau, who was intent on breaking new ground with a virtual live-action version of the celebrated Disney animated classic.
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“The most important thing was to create a reality to the filmmaking in terms of shots and lighting,” Deschanel said. “Jon didn’t want perfection. There were a lot of rough shots. But it’s not totally like a documentary, because in a documentary, you can’t get close to lions this way. And every animal movement and gesture was something that they can do in real life.”
The Oscar-winning crew was led by VFX production supervisor Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book,” “Hugo,” “Titanic”), with MPC Film (“Blade Runner 2049,” “The Jungle Book”) not only creating the amazing life-like animation for the characters and environments, but also the special pipeline and workflow for the virtual shoot, powered by the Unity game engine. In the end, the creative back and forth greatly contributed to the final result: a tactile, narrative NatGeo doc, recreating the actual landscapes and skies of Kenya, where they soaked up every distinctive rock formation, watering hole, and vegetation.
“The animation was limited for the first month,” Deschanel said, “but by the time we got into shooting, it was sophisticated enough that you could read the character expressions and really get the feeling of what they were going through. Jon cast the characters and one of the great things he did, particularly with Pumbaa and Timon, he put Seth [Rogen] and Billy [Eichner] together so that they were actually interacting with each other and riffing off each other.
“It created a wonderful life to the characters and then [they were] animated. Their actions were laid out so we could figure out how to set up the dolly and the camera angles we were looking for,” said the cinematographer, who riffed on the great deep focus mirage shot from “Lawrence of Arabia” when introducing the comedic duo. “And occasionally it got really complicated…and we’d sit down with [everyone] and Jon would have them go another way. And we’d complete the file and [replay it] before it went on stage. And then we would sit down and choose a sky and place the sun, and it would be in different spots throughout a scene, just like a live-action shoot.”
The experience was definitely a photoreal version of “The Circle of Life” and a love letter to the beauty of Kenya. Actually, the first major decision was how large to make Pride Rock, with everyone huddled around the virtual structure with their headsets on. “I think we actually ended up with two different sizes of Pride Rock,” Deschanel said. “If we were far away, we could use one Pride Rock and if we were closer we could use the other. It’s funny, we were in this place in Kenya that claimed to be the original Pride Rock, but it’s nothing like the one in the movie, which is real distinctive.”
“The Lion King” was like shooting one day after another, with the time of day often determining the look. That is, except for the villainous Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was always in shadow. “You have the sun rising and you get into the middle of the day and they’re singing, ‘I Can’t Wait to be King,'” Deschanel said, “and you get into later in the day and you’re in the Elephant Graveyard and it starts having lots of shadows with the introduction of the hyenas, and they go into the caves, which is like a womb. And then the terrifying encounter with the hyenas and being saved by Mufasa [James Earl Jones], and then we introduce the stars and it’s nighttime, and Scar, again, is in the dark, plotting with the hyenas.”
The thrilling wildebeest stampede was a real delight for Deschanel, who studied actual stampedes before capturing a lot more virtually. “One of the things I was thinking about was if you were doing a real live-action stampede, it would be hard to get all of the wildebeests,” he said. “But you would set up as many cameras as you could and each of those cameras you’d want to be in a really good place to get what you want. And it would be limited, and you’d have to maximize each shot, and it would take two hours to get all of the wildebeests back.
“But you’d miss out on some great shots, getting low on one of the hooves, or Simba [Donald Glover] running and hiding behind a rock. You’re missing those special shots and the serendipity of an actor surprising you or the weather changing. But what we were able to do, because we could repeat the action so easily by putting the wildebeests back at point one, was get the best angles. And sometimes the best angles were not as revealing and what you’d discover by moving the camera around and letting them jump over us and run away. Plus, if you wanted to lay dolly track 50 feet in the air, you could.
“You could totally believe everything and yet it’s expressive,” Deschanel added. “Jon’s approach was being used as a tool to communicate with the audience in a very specific way.”