Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is a revolutionary bit of filmmaking just in being an animated film meant to look hyper realistic – but it’s not only in the finished product where you can see the next level thinking, as it was also a big part of the work behind the scenes. As part of the development for the project, a special virtual reality program was created that allowed key members of the cast and crew the ability to figuratively step inside the world of Pride Rock and get a sense of the setting as though the production was shooting on location.
Based on the commentary surrounding The Lion King both prior to and following its release this past summer, the virtual reality program was apparently a major boon to the filmmakers working to make the feature the best it could be – and what’s extra fascinating is that the concept isn’t simply limited to the specific kind of animation accomplished by the Disney blockbuster. According to VFX Supervisor Rob Legato, it’s something that any production could use advantageously.
Walt Disney Studios held a special VFX press day on their lot in Burbank, California last week, and it was while sitting down with The Lion King’s Rob Legato, in addition to fellow VFX Supervisors Elliot Newman and Andy Jones, that I inquired about the potential future of virtual reality in live-action filmmaking. It was an idea that Legato was enthusiastic about, saying,
Surely one of the biggest hurdles for any blockbuster in pre-production must be the difficulty that comes with planning cinematography and production design prior to any kind of construction being done, which is where virtual reality can become incredibly useful. While it would obviously take some work for artists to create digital versions of planned sets, once that work is done filmmakers can start thinking about their work in entirely new dimensions, and have the ability to change key things without spending a dime.
Having previously worked with genius directors including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron, and Robert Zemeckis, Rob Legato knows a thing or two about the limitations that can come with working in live-action, and sees how virtual reality can solve those issues:
Once set construction starts, things start to become more permanent, and there is less latitude available to change things on a whim. As described by Rob Legato, virtual reality has no such limitation, as there exists the possibility to cycle through multiple options in a matter of seconds, and exploring them is far cheaper than demolition and reconstruction. Said the filmmaker,
To that last point, all that needs to happen now is for more blockbusters to start experimenting with using virtual reality during pre-production. There is certainly the possibility that Jon Favreau will continue to use it as he moves to whatever his next project winds up being (likely The Jungle Book 2), but it would also be interesting to see some of the writer/director’s colleagues over at Marvel Studios give it a whirl. Once word of mouth spreads, and people start to see legitimate benefits, a whole new trend could begin.
Whether or not that happens we’ll just have to wait and see. For now you can enjoy the final results of the process used on the set of The Lion King, which is available for Digital purchase and is now on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD. For those of you looking forward to streaming it on Disney+, the title will be available for subscribers starting at the end of the month on January 28th.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.