When the Lion King invents the virtual film set
The jungle book in 2016, Beauty and the Beast in 2017, Dumbo and Aladin in 2019, Beauty and the Tramp this fall … For three years, Disney has set out to remake its animated films in the form of “live action”, that is to say with actors, in more or less real settings, in any case photorealistic. The Lion King, released in July 2019 and directed as The jungle book by Jon Favreau, is the latest in this trend (check out our review of the film in a previous article in Sciences et Avenir), the film pushing the vice until reproducing the initial 1994 film shot by shot.
The fact remains that the formula “live action”, which is translated as” real shot”, is rather abusive. First of all because these films are packed with sets and characters created on computer. The 2016 jungle book (a first feature film was released in 1994) was shot entirely on a blue background in a Los Angeles studio, with some real-life elements such as a mud floor or trees then encrusted in a synthetic jungle. All animals are digital models. During filming, Neel Sethi, the actor playing Mowgli, interacted with puppets to make his performance more realistic.
Ditto for Dumbo, shot by Tim Burton in the English studios of Pinewood. The circus audience, its marquee, number of extras, New York City and the flying elephant that gives the film its name, all are computer generated by MPC Movie, also involved in The jungle book and The Lion King. During filming, an elephant doll or accessories suspended from cables served as a reference to help the actors and adjust the movements and lighting effects in post production.
Because actors are indeed in the credits of most of these films. The Beast of Beauty and the Beast is a digital creature animated by motion capture, an actor wearing a combination of infrared camera markers. Some of Baloo’s facial movements, in the Jungle book, are those of comedian Bill Murray who lends his voice to the character.
Spotting in Kenya, Namibia and Florida
On the other hand, absolutely everything in The Lion King comes out of the MPC Movie machines : photorealistic graphics, landscapes, animals, their animation. There are no actors in the film, except for the voices, and the film set was a space… in virtual reality (VR).
Jon Favreau’s film inaugurated a new way of shooting. In 2017, a team began filming landscapes and wildlife in Africa, Kenya and Namibia, but also in Yellowstone National Park and Mono Lake in the United States. Other preparatory images were taken at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a zoo created by the studio in 1998 in Florida. All these elements served as inspiration for the sets, the characters and their movements.
MPC Movie created a 360° virtual film set in which Jon Favreau and his team were literally able to go scouting. Immersive HTC Vive headsets, they worked as if pacing a real set for preparatory work, determining where they were going to place their cameras, which ones to use for what types of shots (dolly, crane, steadycam, shoulder camera), with which lenses, calculating the angles of views and choosing the lighting. With, if necessary, the possibility of removing an annoying element of decor (rock, trees), changing the color of the sky, the position of the sun, etc.
Camera movements without camera
However, the actual shooting took place as close as possible to standard practices. The team found themselves in a hangar in Los Angeles where the cameramen, without VR helmets, grabbed the equipment that usually supports the cameras…. but without the cameras on it (see pictures on the site American Cinematographer). Instead, they had a control screen allowing them to see what their device movements were like in the virtual setting. Each of its movements is tracked by the OptiTrack system, used in motion capture and virtual reality, to be accurately reported in the modeled “film set”. Sixty tracking sensors were scattered in the heights of the hangar.
The interest of this method ? On the technical level, being able to easily redo a plan in exactly the same conditions (positions of the elements, light). Aesthetically speaking, getting closer to the visual style of a standard film, as if real cameramen had filmed real animals on the spot. The virtual cameras and their optics were even based on existing hardware, an Arri Alexa with Primo 70 series lenses from Panavision. Virtual reality may never have been so well known.