By any measure, Jon Favreau has had a very good year. But visit him at his Playa Vista studio and he’ll tell you he’s much more interested in what 10 years from now will look like in Hollywood.
The technology deployed on his photoreal retelling of Disney’s The Lion King, which he directed and produced, helped it earn $1.65 billion at the worldwide box office. More important to Favreau, however, is the tech is at the heart of his new venture, Golem Creations, which he says is designed to advance the virtual production systems he took to new levels on Lion King and the Disney+ flagship Star Wars series The Mandalorian (which introduced the world to “Baby Yoda,” now melting the internet). The tech allows filmmakers to use virtual sets and real-time rendering to “shoot” on location in far-flung areas of the world (or imaginary universes) without leaving a soundstage. It has broad implications for the future of filmmaking, impacting everything from storytelling to budgets. Favreau says his pals at Marvel already have come calling to explore its possibilities.
This year, Favreau also indulged his love of food and cooking — he made 2014’s Chef — as creator, producer, writer and director of Netflix’s The Chef Show. And he found time to reprise his role as Happy Hogan in Spider-Man: Far From Home and Avengers: Endgame, which together grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide.
Favreau, 53, recently sat down with THR to discuss the future of entertainment, how he divides his time among writing, directing and producing and why Baby Yoda dolls weren’t available when The Mandalorian premiered.
Let’s start with your virtual production process for The Mandalorian. How did it grow out of work that you did for The Lion King?
In The Lion King, we built a tool set, basically a “multiplayer VR filmmaking game,” using the Unity game engine. We built a bunch of tools working with [lead VFX house] MPC and [tech developer] Magnopus and Unity, and we developed a way by which you could actually create environments and set up cameras and shots within VR. In The Mandalorian, we used a lot of the same tools to plan the entire production, working with the Unreal engine [from Epic Games]. But Lion King was a much different production because there was no actual photography. For Mandalorian, we take that cut, and instead of going right to animation and render like we did on Lion King, we build sets and a digital environment that we project onto a video wall. We partnered with Unreal and [VFX house] ILM and put together this system for The Mandalorian. All the people that we worked with then took that technology, and they’re doing their versions of it. They’re all slightly different, but basically we did research and development for The Mandalorian, and now everybody is building on the innovation that we collectively did and making that available to other people who might be curious about this process as well.
Didn’t production for The Mandalorian take place at Manhattan Beach Studios?
It’s on a large soundstage with a full ceiling and a 360-degree view. We change the environment every day. Sometimes it’s a spaceship, sometimes it’s a desert, sometimes it’s in ice or in mud.
There’s limited location work [on the series], but it’s all within the L.A. area. But we also go all over the world, like Iceland and Chile, and we actually shoot assets that we put into the layers of the video wall. So, there is real photography being incorporated, but the actors aren’t brought on location. The location is brought to the actors.
Can you describe your plans to extend your capabilities?
Now that I understand what our needs are, we’re building out facilities that are more geared toward what we need for virtual production. I’m also using a very similar process to what we did on Lion King for the documentary series I’m doing with Apple. I’m partnered with the BBC, and it’s called Prehistoric Planet. We’re using all the tools that we built and the same partnerships that we had for Lion King … except we’re putting dinosaurs into a combination of virtual and practical environments. I want to have a place that can be a real incubator for new technologies and people who are curious about pushing the limits of what you can do with storytelling. What draws me to [new technology] is that it allows you to tell stories in a way that you haven’t been able to before, and whatever you can imagine, you can bring to audiences.
Will you be bringing these tools to Marvel any time soon?
Yeah, they come visiting all the time … and from not just Disney productions. We really try to be helpful to whoever wants to learn from what we’ve done. I couldn’t be doing what I was doing without people like James Cameron or George Lucas being very inviting to people who want to follow and learn from what they’ve done. So we try to do the same for others. Also, a lot of people who are partners — whether it’s ILM or Unreal or MPC — they’re all building their systems out, and we’ve been allowing them to show people what they’re working on and what our tools are to see if it works for them. There’s a lot of exchange of information.
How do you decide which projects you’re going to direct?
In television, being a writer and executive producer is the job that allows you to be the storyteller. And to me, it’s all about telling stories. If you’re doing a film, being the director is the position that gives you the most impact as a storyteller. In the case of television, I could write a lot of different episodes and collaborate with a lot of other great directors, and there’s a scaling that takes place because there’s a division of tasks that are different than on a movie. For The Mandalorian, it was fun for me to come in and direct an episode this year [for season two] because I wasn’t able to do any of them last year because of my commitment to The Lion King. I found that I love to direct, but I really have more fun working with other directors, working with a lot of newer directors and directors with experience who haven’t worked with technology like what we’re utilizing. To be honest, at my age, it’s really nice to work with younger people who are excited to learn. This is a way for us to innovate together and for me to experiment with pushing the medium forward and working with people who learn these techniques. It forwards the innovation of filmmaking and visual storytelling. And to me, that’s part of what’s fun about this.
What can you tell us about the creation of Baby Yoda?
He’s mostly a puppet. When it’s CG, we try to make him obey the same physical laws that he would if he were a puppet. I think a lot of times CG makes itself too obvious where you don’t create parameters creatively that allow the character to keep the same identity and charm. … We’ll learn more about him over the course of the season. I think what’s great about what George created is that Yoda proper, the character that we grew up watching, was always shrouded in mystery, and that was what made him so archetypal and so mythic. We know who he is based on his behavior and what he stands for, but we don’t know a lot of details about where he comes from or his species. I think that’s why people are so curious about this little one of the same species.
You worked with Disney to keep Baby Yoda out of the prerelease marketing and the initial wave of toys. How did you manage to pull that off and why?
I think that part of what people really value is to be surprised and delighted, and I think that’s becoming all too rare. It’s very difficult to keep secrets about projects you’re working on. By holding back on that one product, we knew that we may have had the disadvantage of not having toys available day and date, but what we got in exchange was an excitement surrounding the character, because everybody felt like they discovered him together. That emulated more what my experience growing up was like.
So Disney was on board?
Yeah, they understood the value of it. I felt that if we really wanted to connect with the Star Wars fans, we had to let them discover the story as it was unfolding. The marketing team and the leadership were all supportive of what my instincts were, and I think it paid off really well because now people are excited to tune in every week to see what happens.
Will some of the characters or stories that come from The Mandalorian make their way into Star Wars features or additional Disney+ series?
There’s definitely the opportunity to explore these characters beyond what we’ve presented on the show. There’s a very fluid line between what’s in the movie theaters and what’s on the screen at home. It’s very exciting for me because I get to tell stories over the course of several hours and not just within the footprint of one theatergoing experience. I think it’s only a matter of time before we cross paths the other way.
And looking ahead?
I’m putting a lot of effort working with Dave Filoni to figure out what the overarching story is and the storyline for all these characters and what the world is like. We want to make sure that we have a road map, because we’re also a puzzle piece that fits into a larger Star Wars universe that has a lot of other movies and a lot of other projects, and we want to make sure we’re consistent with them. We have a good 25-year patch of road [in the Star Wars canon] that nobody is exploring right now, and it’s the most interesting time for me as a storyteller to explore — the time after the fall of the empire and before the resurgence of the darker forces.
So between new technology and the opportunities available by streaming services, you’re able to tell a broad range of stories in different formats and lengths, right?
There’s a market for shortform content out there. People are watching stories being told in many different media, whether it’s on their phone or tablet or the back seat of the car, on television, in movie theaters. The time people spend watching stories unfold on screens is much greater. And because of that, there’s a lot of investment and there’s all sorts of new streaming services. That is allowing opportunities for people to get stories to be told that they normally wouldn’t have in the past. It’s really an exciting time.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
BLOCKBUSTERS, BABY YODA AND BURRITOS: FAVREAU’S BIG YEAR
The Lion King
To create the virtual reality environment for The Lion King, VFX house MPC produced an estimated 58 square miles of CG landscapes. Additionally, 63 unique species in 365 variations were conceived for the film.
The Chef Show
A spinoff of Favreau’s 2014 film Chef, this Netflix cooking show, in which the director and celebrity chef Roy Choi whip up comfort food like Cubano sandwiches and breakfast burritos, debuted in June.
While no viewing numbers are available (yet), the highly anticipated Disney+ Star Wars series has nevertheless accomplished the feat of impacting the zeitgeist, in no small part because of the introduction of Baby Yoda. According to Axios, in the week following its debut, the little green one drove twice as many social media interactions or news stories about it (1,161) than any Democrat running for president.
The Marvel Universe
Busy as he is, Favreau hasn’t abandoned his on-camera career — he appeared as Happy Hogan in two Marvel blockbusters this year: Spider-Man: Far From Home and Avengers: Endgame (which he also executive produced). So, combined with The Lion King, Favreau had a hand in nearly $5.6 billion in global box office in 2019.
On the Way
His upcoming projects include the documentary series Prehistoric Planet, a virtual production featuring CG dinosaurs in a collaboration with the BBC for Apple; a Gnomes + Goblins VR experience, in partnership with WEVR; Micro Mayhem, a series of stop-motion animated shorts with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios; and a stop-motion Netflix special called Alien Xmas, done with the three-sibling stop-motion specialists the Chiodo Bros.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.