Director Jon Favreau ditches physical sets in favor of 360-degree virtual environments.
Arriving in theatres July 19th, Disney’s photorealistic CGI Lion King remake is the product of multiple cutting edge technologies. Over the course of his celebrated career, director Jon Favreau has dipped his toes into multiple avenues of filmmaking, never shying away from the adoption of new technologies or techniques; such as his use of mixed reality capture in 2018’s The Jungle Book.
However, whereas his The Jungle Book remake featured a live human throughout most of the film, the upcoming Lion King remake is 100% CGI, a move that has allowed the ambitious filmmaker to abandon the complex and uncontrollable difficulties presented by physical sets in favor of 360-degree virtual environments he and his team can immerse themselves in via VR headsets.
Using a real-time VR renderer built by Disney, the production team was able to develop detailed virtual renditions of all the films locations, from Pride Rock to Rafiki’s Ancient Tree, and film virtual scenes with digital characters using actual camera equipment, such as cranes and dollies, inside a physical space surrounded by multiple 3D infrared sensors; only instead of holding conventional cameras, these devices are instead mounted with tracking devices that serve as “virtual cameras” within the VR experience. Using a VR headset to enter the scene and motion controllers to interact with assets, the production team can adjust camera positions, alter the angle or intensity of lights, and instantly reposition and resize digital characters; saving time, money, and lots of frustration for the crew.
“By removing the one physical element of Mowgli, we were no longer tethered to the fact that we had to have blue screen or an actual set or real cameras, so everything became virtual at that point, states Favreau during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Once that gave us the freedom to operate without actually having to move through physical photography, it allowed us to open ourselves up to a whole new approach, and that’s why it feels different than Jungle Book. We’ve basically built a multiplayer VR filmmaking game just for the purposes of making this movie.”
While on set during the last day of principal shooting, Wired Magazine describes a particular moment of the shoot where a rogue hyena, whose animation course had already been plotted by the animation team, keeps walking through the Steadicams sightline, obstructing a key shot in the process. To rectify the issue, Favreau makes a slight decrease to the size of the overall environment, allowing enough space for the camera operator to get an unobstructed sightline past the troublesome hyena. This kind of instantaneous uncompromised control over the environment is just one of the many reasons Favreau and his team opted for virtual production.
While it’s unclear exactly what equipment composes their realtime VR renderer, based on the images provided by Wired it’s clear the team is using HTC Vive headsets to view the “in-game” footage, which suggest the puck-like trackers they’re using as their virtual cameras are most likely standard Vive Trackers.
Disney’s The Lion King hits theaters July 19th and stars James Earl Jones, Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogan, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan, John Oliver, and John Kani.