The Lion King VFX secrets: how virtual reality created a ‘live-action’ animation

We visit special effects house MPC to get the skinny on how the Disney remake's incredible photoreal visuals were achieved

The stunningly photoreal re-render of beloved 1994 animation The Lion King has been a huge success since its release – at the time of writing, it has made over $1 billion at the worldwide box office and is looking likely to dethrone Beauty And The Beast as the highest-grossing of the Disney remakes so far. But it has also won tons of plaudits for its incredible VFX work – and its innovative filming techniques – engineered by effects house MPC. 

“What’s significant for us as a studio is this is our first fully created animated feature that we’ve done,” says MPC VFX Supervisor Adam Valdez. What he means is that, while many of today’s CG-heavy blockbusters are worked on by several visual effects companies, The Lion King was a solo effort. As Valdez puts it when Den Of Geek catches up with him in the swanky screening room of MPC’s London headquarters, “every pixel came out of our little house.”

The studio, which has worked on everything from Harry Potter and James Bond to the Hunger Games franchise and the DCEU, is clearly proud of its achievements – the reception area of its Soho base is emblazoned with huge digital portraits of Simba and his pals. And Valdez – who won an Oscar for his work on 2016’s remake of The Jungle Book – is clearly stoked that his team’s hard work has paid off. He’s happy to admit, though, that the prospect of bringing The Lion King back to almost-real life was a daunting challenge at first.

“At the beginning of these projects, you can’t really estimate what the journey is going to entail or how you might finish it,” he says. “You kind of have to take a leap of faith. And we knew that this was inordinately more complicated than The Jungle Book, creatively and technically. So there was a little trepidation. But that’s a healthy thing.”

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A new (virtual) reality

The Lion King has been grouped, along with other recent reimaginings such as Dumbo and Aladdin, under the banner of Disney “live-action” remakes. But if every landscape and character are created digitally, how can that be? Well, it has something to do with the way The Lion King was captured on camera – an innovative technique that Valdez and his team pioneered, centred around the use of virtual reality (VR) and owing a lot to modern-day video game technology. 

“I wanted to improve on the experience of The Jungle Book and give Jon [Favreau, director] and the other filmmakers a more hands-on, consistent, interactive approach to making a film,” Valdez explains. This involved creating a roughly animated virtual environment that Favreau and co could port themselves into – via HTC Vive headsets – and actually direct/shoot the action. “What we created for them during that first phase of shooting was a lot like a video game. You have to imagine instead of carrying a gun, you’re carrying a camera; instead of monsters coming at you, you’re watching animated performances.

“Every person on the shooting stage was like a player of the game – any of them could pop on virtual reality goggles at any time in order to jump into the world. And not just be somebody operating a camera from the outside, but actually be standing inside that virtual space – seeing the characters, seeing the savannah, seeing where the light is coming from. And that allowed everybody to use their usual skillset as a live-action filmmaker. That’s why this film fits into the ‘live-action remake’ bracket, even though clearly everybody understands that it’s an animated film. It’s really a meeting of people and approaches. That’s what Jon wanted to do and so that’s what we built for him.”

Gaming the system

What the filmmakers were seeing through their VR goggles wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the finished product. But as a tool to help them realise their vision, it was invaluable. Whereas most films of this size would be mapped out on roughly animated “pre-vis” storyboards, giving the filmmakers a rough idea of what the animation would look like before shooting the action in-camera, MPC’s method essentially amalgamated the two. 

“All of this work that’s generally called pre-visualisation, in this case, you were really creating the shots,” says Valdez. “It wasn’t a sketch or an idea for a shot you might film later. This was the filming. It was rough-looking content – the environments and characters didn’t look photorealistic. It’s not like you were staring at the real world. Even in expensive, triple-A video games, that’s hard to create for people. So the mission was less to create a completely believable world and more to create flexibility. You know, ‘I don’t like where that tree is.’ ‘Well, let’s move it.’ ‘I think the lions should walk from here to here, not over there.’ ‘Okay, let’s alter their path.’”

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Just like playing a game, Faverau, director of photography Caleb Deschanel and the camera crew used Vive handles, but “instead of a gun or a tennis racket or something, we put a camera on them,” according to Valdez. “You point the camera, hit record, and you’re recording – it’s really that simple.” But, just like a regular soundstage, the crew also had access to specially adapted camera rigs, cranes, dollies and wheels, giving them all the same options for capturing motion that they would usually have on set. 

“There’s this term ‘virtual production’ that you hear, and the way I define it is really whenever the computer side meets the physical world,” Valdez explains. “Bringing those things together allows live-action filmmakers to be super involved in creating animated content. We’ve seen different flavours of it, with motion capture and the like, but this was a pretty new thing.”

It’s all in the detail

After all the work of pitching and developing the technology, researching the real-world inspirations (Valdez and his senior team spent two weeks in Kenya studying and photographing the animals and landscapes there), designing all of the critters and virtually shooting the movie, the MPC crew were only a little over halfway through the production. The next step was to execute and render an entirely photorealistic, feature-length animation containing around 1,600 VFX shots. In layman’s terms, that’s a helluva lot.

“One by one, we just had to very carefully build every part of the world itself, and then animate every character and light every shot,” Valdez recalls. “We did all the simulation of the physics on the water and the grasses and the wind and the trees. It’s hundreds of people, each with incredible talents and specialties, that just jump in. We were also reacting to what Jon was thinking as he saw the film resolve into its final form, and making adjustments as we go.”

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So, in a film stuffed with huge challenges, what was the biggest? Valdez laughs. “Building Kenya,” he deadpans. “It’s a lot to create – 30 square kilometres of different terrains in such high detail, all the way to the horizon. It has to look beautiful, but also in the context of the story, it needs to have a certain power of its own. It’s an amazing country, and we were lucky to go see it firsthand. Jon really wanted to honour and stay true to the African source of the original story. So it was pretty important – and an enormously difficult thing to do.” 

The entire production of The Lion King ’19, with all its many phases, took almost three years and demanded an almost Herculean effort from Valdez and the team at MPC. The finished product, meanwhile, represents the pinnacle of cutting-edge digital moviemaking – a feat that the VFX supervisor says wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago, when he worked on The Jungle Book. “To create an entire savannah – I don’t think we could have done it back then,” he says. “All of our key technologies are advancing year on year; on every movie that we do, something new becomes possible.”

The Lion King is out in cinemas now. Check out our review of the film.