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July/August 2019

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Page 16 of 43 15 POST JULY/AUG 2019 summer movies H ow do you categorize Disney's 2019 feature film The Lion King? The African savannahs look photographed. The lions, wildebeests, meerkats, hyenas and other animals look like they stepped out of a BBC documentary. It has a live-action look and feel. And yet, these animals talk. And they and their environments are CG. Disney's wildly-popular and highly-acclaimed 1994 animated feature The Lion King spawned a Tony award-winning musical stage adaptation, theme park attractions, sequels, spin-offs and vid- eo games. But to call this year's adaptation a "CGI remake," although technically accurate, oversim- plifies the filmmakers' accomplishment. One thing is certain: The Lion King 2019 would not have been plausible just a few years back. Disney's 2016 The Jungle Book came close, but Jungle Book and Disney's other remakes that followed starred live-action actors. There are no live-action actors in The Lion King. With the ex- ception of lighting information captured from the real world and photoscans used for some environ- mental models, there are no real-world elements in the film. Modelers referenced photography of the animals in their natural environments as they creat- ed the CG characters, but they didn't scan animals, and no animals were motion-captured. The film was created by hand, by visual effects artists. Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, animation director Andrew R. Jones, and MPC visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez, who received Oscars for The Jungle Book, joined Jungle Book director Jon Favreau for this film. Also returning for The Lion King were visual effects supervisor Elliot Newman (who was a CG supervisor on The Jungle Book), environment supervisor Audrey Ferrara, and many other artists on MPC's crew. "The work all happened under the MPC umbrella," Legato says. Around 1,250 people at MPC worked on post production in London and Bangalore. Of those, 130 animators from 30 coun- tries created the animals. As with The Jungle Book, the crew used virtual production tools and techniques to previsualize the film, but stepped up the game for The Lion King by moving into virtual reality. For this film, the MPC virtual production team joined forces with Magnopus in Los Angeles to design and im- plement a new generation of on-set tools. "The Jungle Book was Version 1.0 of this ap- proach to filmmaking," Legato says. "We skipped over 2.0. The Lion King is Version 3.0. We previs'd the entire movie in VR and then shot it in VR as if it were a live-action film." Virtual Filmmaking The Unity-powered tools allowed several people to be in one virtual world together. MPC and Magnopus artists and programmers viewed the world through Oculus headsets. Legato, Favreau, Valdez, James Chinlund (pro- duction designer), Caleb Deschanel (cinematog- rapher), and sometimes others could view a VR environment simultaneously through HTC Vives. "It was a little weird," Legato says. "You could see someone walking 100 yards away in the en- vironment, but they were standing five feet away. You could click on their monitor and instantly transport to their location and explore. If I want- ed everyone to see what I saw, they could look through my camera from my vantage point." This was true whether they were scouting locations, blocking animation or shooting the film in VR. Jones provides an example of how that worked for the opening Circle of Life sequence. Scar, the villainous lion voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is in a cave when we first meet him. "Mufasa gives him a little flak," says Jones, referring to Scar's brother, the king of the Pride Lands, voiced by James Earl Jones. "At one point, we had Scar exiting through a back entrance of the cave, but Jon [Favreau] thought it might be better to have him come out the front. Jon made that decision while looking at the scene in VR." So, still in VR, Jones moved the lion into the new position, and Deschanel framed a new shot. To make that possible, Ferrara's team modeled and rendered digital sets at a resolution appropri- ate for realtime interaction. The sets provided lo- cations to scout and surfaces on which animators could place animals. A group of animators under Jones' direction created previs-quality animation for the VR shoot. Actors voicing the characters were recorded. "Basically, we do a location scout, and once we figure out where things go, it starts a whole series of things," Legato says. "We might send the loca- tion back to the art department to make a bigger hill, and meantime, the animators are creating the action where it will play. Then, the scenes come back to the camera stage to be photographed. We have recorded tracks of the dialogue, but sometimes use temp tracks — it's free-flowing. As we're shooting, Jon might be recording the actors. It's like we're creating a stage play and then we shoot it. We add the camera moves and do all the things we'd do for a live-action movie. We shoot assets and animation as if it were a live movie. What we're photographing is not photo- real, but it feels so because we can walk around, take a step." In addition to powering a 360-degree view of the location with animated animals, the game en- gine could render shadows and the reflectance of bounce light. Deschanel could move lights within the scene. Africa Before any sets were built or animals animated, in March 2017, supervisors Ferrara, Jones, Legato, and Valdez, along with production designer Chinlund and director of photography Deschanel, spent two weeks in Kenya. "It was an incredible opportunity to see film- makers in their element," Ferrara says. "To see what type of things they liked. When we returned, James [Chinlund] made a selection of locations he liked, and I put together an itinerary with an MPC team to photograph those locations." As a result, environment artists had a library of more than 240,000 photographs and 7,000 vid- eos to reference for the environments. Animators had a total of 42 hours 53 minutes of reference footage captured in the Serengeti, from a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL, and from nature documentaries. "We built 66 digital sets, which is fewer than Jungle Book, but they were so much bigger," Ferrara says. "We have miles and miles and miles of vista for the savannah, and we have no matte paintings. When you have only a few trees, you can tell if you're duplicating trees. So, every tree is CG, even if it's 150 kilometers in the distance. And then we have the opposite. When the camera

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