[INTERVIEW] How ‘THE LION KING’ director Jon Favreau captured actors performances in a virtual world

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Crafting the photo-realistic world of Disney’s THE LION KING is impressive, to say the least. It’s an awe-inducing sight. Remaking their record-setting animated classic for modern film-goers took a multitude of collaborators to weave the company’s patented brand of magic, splendor and enchantment into the cinematic fabric. Those hands have fashioned a milestone technological achievement, blending live action reference video with computer animation.

Though it began with the basic steps, creating what audiences see on screen took a lot of effort behind the scenes, said director Jon Favreau at the Los Angeles press conference.

There were lots of steps to this process. That’s why it took so long and that’s part of why it was interesting over three years. It was always different. Each phase in the beginning, it was pencils and voices.

The talented filmmaker credits the cast as being fundamental to the process in helping to bring this complex form of animated technology to new life.

To me, casting is the foundation of great cinematic storytelling. I didn’t come from the tradition of visual direction. I came up as an actor. So when I have my foundation, you can’t compromise one iota on cast. You have to get the best people you can, because they’re the ones who are going to do everything. We just built off of our cast.

The next step was to have the actors perform as cameras gathered information – reference video – that Favreau directed.

It started with us just in a room – like a black box theater. It was like theater rehearsal. It really was like what you would do when you grab the book for the first time and everybody walks around on the stage. And you start to figure your character out. I had them all performing together, we would get them in groups, we would have everybody mic-ed so that the sound was usable for the film.

Simba (JD McCrary), Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) in THE LION KING. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

It was that kind of physical interaction that proved helpful for the actors and the crew.

We would have them interacting with one another and improvising. At that point, we would take like a radio play that we would cut from that. We would shoot video on long lenses just to have reference of what they were doing with their faces.

The following crucial step involved handing that footage over to the animators for them to create their magic.

The animators would take the choices that they made and interpolate it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do. If we just motion captured their face and put a human expression on the animal’s face, I was concerned that that would blow the illusion of it being a naturalistic documentary.

For inspiration, Favreau and the animators looked at nature documentaries and director Chris Noonan’s BABE to figure out how to blend the animal’s realistic movements with the actors’ human qualities.

We looked at a lot of the work that Hans [Zimmer] has done – like PLANET EARTH 2, all of those Attenborough BBC documentaries. Looking at movies like BABE. That was inspiration for how we did JUNGLE BOOK, with how much expression and emotion could come out of those characters without having human performance. How much emotion can be expressed without human performance just through music and editorial and the stories you’re telling. So it really fell on the animator’s hands to try to figure out how to express their preferences through the language of an animal’s emotive language.   

THE LION KING opens on July 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.