'The Lion King' VFX Team Offers In-Depth Discussion of Virtual Production in THR's 'Behind the Screen'

"I don't consider it an animated movie," says VFX supervisor Rob Legato who, with his team, address this debate while detailing how 'The Lion King' was made and how virtual production continues to evolve.
Courtesy of Disney

A new episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Behind the Screen does a deep dive into the making of Jon Favreau's The Lion King and tackles the question as to whether it should be considered an animated movie.

The Disney production involved an innovative virtual production process with elements including virtual reality, a real-time game engine and live-action production techniques to craft a photo-real CG retelling of Disney's 1994 animated classic. Explaining the process, its potential impact on movie-making and how development is continuing are VFX supervisor Rob Legato; VFX supervisor Adam Valdez of VFX house MPC, a Technicolor company; and virtual production supervisor Ben Grossmann, co-founder of Magnopus.

The team also addressed the much-discussed topic of whether the movie should be described as animation. "I don't consider it an animated movie," says Legato. "The term 'animation' has a connotation that is different from what we are trying to achieve. It is a controversial discussion. We set out to make a live-action film. It looks like live-action. It's responding to the intuitive nature of filmmakers." 

He concludes, "That's not really animation in the classic sense."

There was plenty of experimentation during production. "Jon and Rob and [cinematographer Caleb Deschanel] would form an aerial team, and Jon would be the helicopter pilot flying around in VR," Grossmann recalls, explaining that at one point they even took a D-Box chair (a motion seat used for 4D cinema), gave it controls and put it into the virtual production system. "You could sit on the chair and feel like flying a helicopter."

Looking ahead, Grossmann believes the next step could involve "putting the audience into the movie."

Legato earned Oscars for James Cameron’s Titanic, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Valdez also won an Oscar for The Jungle Book. Grossmann won an Oscar alongside Legato on Hugo.

Hosted by THR tech editor Carolyn Giardina, Behind the Screen features interviews with directors, cinematographers, editors and other artists behind the making of motion pictures and series.

Hear it all below on Behind the Screen — and be sure to subscribe to the podcast to never miss an exciting episode.