From a technological standpoint, Jon Favreau’s THE LION KING is potentially a revolutionary film. The visual effects being employed in the film are unlike anything that moviegoers have ever seen, with realistic animal characters presented on screen in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Naturally, being able to make the feature required specialized advances in existing practices, but what you might be surprised to learn is that a key part of the innovation included a whole new application of virtual reality in the filmmaking process.
This was a topic that Jon Favreau discussed at length earlier this month during the global press day for THE LION KING in Los Angeles. Specifically asked about the use of VR in the making of the new movie, the director explained that the development of the technology was something that was noticeably coming together as he was finishing his 2016 adaptation of THE JUNGLE BOOK. While that film primarily made use of techniques that were first popularized by James Cameron’s AVATAR, Favreau started to see other opportunities to build stunning, realistic worlds.
Towards the end of THE JUNGLE BOOK, there was a whole slew of consumer-facing VR products that were hitting the scene. We started to experiment with them in the jungle, and we realized that we could build this really cool system of filmmaking using game engine technology and this new VR technology. And so, we essentially were writing code as we were going for a multiplayer VR filmmaking game, and that way I could bring in people who don't have the background in visual effects.
Using an engine called Unity, Favreau and his team were able to build a virtual-world version of the African kingdom featured in THE LION KING, and its primary purpose was to help the crew involved with the making of the movie more comfortably transition to a whole new way of doings things. They were asked to do the exact same job they would do on any film; however, the big difference was that everything was digital, and the VR helped them better visualize that world.
The director specifically highlighted the contributions of Academy Award®-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who prior to the making of the Disney remake had never worked in animation before. His experience using virtual reality helped him approach the project as he would any of his most famous movies, including THE RIGHT STUFF and THE PATRIOT. Favreau explained:
Oftentimes 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. And so, a guy like Caleb Deschanel, a fantastic cinematographer I've always wanted to work with, it's inviting him to do a very technically advanced film without any prior background in visual effects and just saying, 'Hey, we'll make it so that you can just make a movie as you would have made THE BLACK STALLION, and let's bring you in.'
Jon Favreau was on stage with his LION KING cast during the press conference, and many of the actors chimed in, noting their positive experiences using the specialty virtual reality software that had been created. By far the most vocal, though, was JD McCrary, who plays young Simba in the film. Attempting to describe what it was like for the audience full of press members, McCrary said,
It's like watching your favorite movie, but like you're in it. You're in the movie. That's exactly what it was. [Jon Favreau] did an amazing job with this.
So, when will this experience hit stores as a video game that fans everywhere can purchase? While Jon Favreau said that there were discussions about public exhibitions of the technology, he also provided a simple explanation as to why a “game” version will likely never happen: "It's a very specific VR game that only works for making one movie."
THE LION KING, starring Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner and more, is now playing at an AMC theatre near you.