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Nala and Simba in The Lion King 2019

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,

I think Jon [Favreau] coined it, 'you made a game called filmmaking and you're able to walk through it.' But even for me, I use it a lot of times to figure out if I were to shoot this on stage with all the artificial things, here's a screen, here's a light, there's a thing – what would it feel like before I actually step onto it, and what mechanical rig would be necessary to create this illusion? Well, now I can not only create the illusion, but I can create the set and walk around and go, 'Oh, now that I see it, too close to the wall, the light is not high enough.'

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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:

All of a sudden things become clear, and you answer a lot of questions. So when you show up on a stage, you have answered all these questions and are now at the next level on day one, as opposed to... because when it gets physical and you go, 'Oh shit, the set is too close to the wall,' it's a deal to move it. So you get all that. It's really great.

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,

It's really great to share an idea before you actually cement it. Even in artificial terms, it's like, 'You know what? Let me show you something else. I'll move the trees over here; what do you think of this?' And it doesn't really cost you anything, and you get to experiment and continue to iterate and make better. Really, I think it's here to stay. It's definitely here to stay, and every filmmaker I show, they're like, 'Holy shit, this is great. This is a powerful tool.'

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.