We are days away from the release of Disney’s newest live-action remake, The Lion King and still; people can’t seem to agree if the film should be classified as a live action movie or an animated one. The movie follows the life of Simba – the prince of Pride Lands – and his eventual rise to power, no doubt an ambitious project for Disney because the movie does not have human characters.
Assuming that the remake would be 100% faithful to the 1994 classic, all the animal characters are 100% computer generated. Fans are conflicted over the classification of the film because it’s not a traditional animated movie and all the talking animals meant that it’s not a live-action one either.
Not a Traditional Animated Movie
When asked about what to call The Lion King remake, director Jon Favreau said the movie is neither live action nor animated.
“It depends what standard you’re using. Because there’s no real animals and there’s no real cameras and there’s not even any performance that’s being captured that’s underlying data that’s real. Everything is coming through the hands of artists,” Favreau said.
However, Favreau stopped short at calling The Lion King remake as an animated film. “To say it’s animated I think is misleading as far as what the expectations might be,” Favreau said. “And it also changes the way you sit and watch it.” Favreau adds, “I think calling it live-action is also not appropriate either.”
He explained that unlike traditionally animated movies, the visuals of The Lion King remake are not stylized the same way as cartoon characters. Instead, the visuals look exactly like real-life animals. The Jungle Book director added that his vision was to make The Lion King remake look and feel like “A BBC documentary.”
So what constitutes as an animated movie? A key point in the 90th Academy Awards rules is that “animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time. In addition, a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines an animated film as “a motion picture in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of the two general fields of animation: narrative or abstract. The definition also outlines the techniques used for animating movies such as hand-drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutout animation, pinscreen, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects created frame-by-frame and drawing on the film frame itself.
Interestingly, Disney won’t be campaigning The Lion King in the Best Animated Feature race for the 2020 Academy Awards, focusing instead on the best visual effects race.
No Performance Capture During Filming
No performance capture was used in the remake. According to Favreau, the movie was shot using keyframed traditional animation.
To achieve photo-realistic results, Favreau shot the scenes in a soundproofed stage. The actors performed “while standing up, almost like you would in a motion-capture stage — except no tracking markers, no data, no metadata’s being recorded, it’s only long-lens video cameras to get their faces and performances.” Favreau explained that the standard motion-capture approach did not make sense because he wants the actors to “overlap and perform together and improvise.”
Favreau added that the scenes were shot in a “virtual Serengeti,” working alongside cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to build the digital equivalent of the Pride Lands using real-world production elements like dolly tracks and lights. They also used Vive VR headsets to explore the digital Serengeti using their iPads to adjust certain elements of the scenes to make the final product as life-like as possible. The adjusted scenes are then shot using a virtual camera.
“Between the quality of the rendering and the techniques we’re using, it starts to hopefully feel like you’re watching something that’s not a visual effects production, but something where you’re just looking into a world that’s very realistic,” he continued. “And emotionally, feels as realistic as if you’re watching live creatures. And that’s kind of the trick here, because I don’t think anybody wants to see another animated ‘Lion King,’ because it still holds up really, really well.”
Although Favreau has done his best to explain why The Lion King is neither a live action nor an animated movie, the man himself is unsure what to call it.
“I don’t know what we’re gonna call it,” he said. “I don’t know. But remember, things have to sort of fit into one clickable headline, so it’s hard to have the nuance.”
Favreau likened the filming process to another Disney live-action remake he directed, The Jungle Book. “By removing the one physical element of Mowgli, we were no longer tethered to the fact that we had to have blue screen or an actual set or real cameras, so everything became virtual at that point,” said Favreau.
“Once that gave us the freedom to operate without actually having to move through physical photography, it allowed us to open ourselves up to a whole new approach, and that’s why it feels different than Jungle Book. We’ve basically built a multiplayer VR filmmaking game just for the purposes of making this movie.”
Virtual Productions: The Future of Cinema
Computer animated movies continue to blur the lines between traditional and non-traditional animated productions. The term “virtual production” is the most accurate term used for a new class of movies that are heavily dependent on virtual effects such as Avatar, The Jungle Book, Ready Player One, and The Lion King remake.
Virtual production is a new filmmaking technique that’s similar to traditional filming techniques such as stop motion, hand drawn, cinematography, etc. The technique utilizes digital tools such as Previs, techvis, postvis, motion capture, VR, ar, simul-cams, virtual cameras, and real-time rendering, etc., to visualize complex scenes or scenes that cannot be filmed in real life. Virtual productions are comprised mostly of CG but filming still involves live-action production techniques.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, Rob Legato, the multi-awarded VFX supervisor of The Lion King remake said, a lot of VR tools were used to film the remake and sets were built so the actors could walk into a scene, interact with other actors or objects, and get a realistic sense of the environment because of the 3D element of the movie.
“The ability to re-create anything and re-create it faithfully is the future of cinema,” he said. “You shouldn’t be aware that we were using a computer to make the movie.”