Is Disney's New 'Lion King' an Animated Film?

Mufasa and Simba, The Lion King Still - H 2015

Mufasa and Simba, The Lion King Still - H 2015

Is Disney’s retelling of The Lion King live action or is it animated?

It’s a question that was raised once again on Wednesday after the studio announced the voice cast for Jon Favreau’s adaptation. But frankly it’s a question that isn't new in the animation and visual effects community.

Once upon a time it was easy to distinguish between live action and animation. But as digital visual effects become more sophisticated, an increasing amount of live action motion pictures are now created in a computer.

This became particularly apparent in 2002, when Stuart Little 2, which starred a CG mouse in a live action-set story, qualified in the category for the Academy Award for an animated feature. It didn’t go on to earn a nomination, but it generated plenty of debate. As digital techniques have continued to grow in sophistication and realism, it has only blurred the lines further.

In the 90th Academy Awards rules, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines an animated film as “a motion picture in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of the two general fields of animation: narrative or abstract. Some of the techniques for animating films include but are not limited to hand-drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutout animation, pinscreen, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects created frame-by-frame and drawing on the film frame itself. Motion capture and real-time puppetry are not by themselves animation techniques.”

A key point is that “animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture's running time. In addition, a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.”

The branch is very much aware of the blurring of the lines. In fact, the animated feature rules even state: “If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action.”

Under these guidelines, arguments could be made that certain films including Avatar and The Jungle Book could have been submitted for animated feature Oscar consideration. But the studios didn’t enter these films in the category. James Cameron and Jon Landau have asserted that Avatar is not an animated film, and they are among other filmmakers that share the same view.

These days, the term “virtual production” is commonly being used to describe films such as The Jungle Book, Avatar or Robert Zemeckis' The Walk. These are films in which a large amount of the final film is CG, but these still involved live action production techniques.

The Lion King’s VFX supervisor Rob Legato (who won Oscars for The Jungle Book, as well as Hugo and Titanic) has often said that production of The Jungle Book felt like a traditionally shot live-action movie, though it was filmed entirely on a bluescreen stage and only live-action element in the movie is Mowgli and whatever small piece of set Neel Sethi stood or climbed on. The rest is a photo-real CG jungle, and in the action sequences, the viewer is running or swinging alongside Mowgli thanks to cinematographer Bill Pope’s kinetic camera.

As to why Jungle Book took the virtual production route, Legato said at the time, “photographing a kid in the jungle and on a limited schedule is very difficult. A live-action shoot would be difficult, it wouldn’t look as good and It probably would be more expensive. With blue-screen, you are well on your way.”

But the techniques have been advancing at breakneck speed. Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters Show last spring, Legato asserted that the virtual production process used to make The Jungle Book is “so outdated” from what they are doing on The Lion King.

“The ability to re-create anything and re-create it faithfully is the future of cinema," he said. "You shouldn't be aware that we were using a computer to make the movie.”

While many details about how the The Lion King is being made are still under wraps, Legato offered at NAB, "We are going to use a lot of virtual reality tools so it feels akin to what you are looking at [if you were on a real set]. You can walk around the set like a cameraman. [Wearing VR headsets] the actors can now walk into a scene and see the other actors and trees … and because you are in 3D, you get a realistic sense [of the environment]. That’s what we are incorporating in the next version of this.”

The first clip of The Lion King — the opening sequence — was screened last summer exclusively for attendees at Disney’s D23 Expo, and the audience went absolutely wild. It featured jaw-dropping photo-real shots of African landscapes and many types of animals. It ended with the iconic moment in which Rafiki introduces young Simba on Pride Rock as "Circle of Life" plays.

You would be hard-pressed to looked at those African vistas and realize it wasn't shot on location. But should this be considered an animated movie?

It’s a question The Hollywood Reporter asked Legato when The Jungle Book opened, and without hesitation, he said no. “I don’t consider this an animated movie,” he said. “I consider this just a movie, and this happened to be the best way to make it. We [made] it comfortable for Jon Favreau to come in and be able to direct as if it was a live-action film.”