Here’s How VFX Brought The Lion King To Life In 2019
The Lion King (yes, the one with Beyoncé) comes out on Blu-ray this October 22, with the HD digital version available a full 11 days earlier. In advance of the release, which includes more than an hour of extras deep-diving into how this feat of visual effects was accomplished, we chatted with the film’s VFX Supervisor, Rob Legato (Apollo 13, Avatar, Titanic) about the challenges of recreating a story in which fans are already so deeply invested. Here’s what he had to say:
CTV Sci-Fi: Looking at your past work—Apollo 13, Avatar, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone—these were all movies that didn’t have a history on screen going into the project, whereas with The Lion King, a lot of fans already had concrete visuals of what that world looks like. Were you under any extra pressure to make a movie just as beloved as the animated original?
Rob Legato: Well, there’s the external pressure, but my internal intuition was to ignore it and just make the best movie one can make with the material at hand to keep it fresh and not be influenced by it. I think when you get influenced—like, does this vary too much from, or is it too much of a copy—if you get into that, you start intellectualizing your decisions and it does get in the way of the work. For me personally, I watched the animated movie once. I was trying to come up with my own version of it.
You know, Jon [Favreau, the film’s director] had the biggest burden of how much do we imitate, how much do we originate? But I’m pretty strict about not having other influences because it just gets in the way of your intuition, the sum total of everything you’ve ever learned and ever seen that says, ‘I think I should shoot it this way. I think I should light it this way. I think I should stage it this way’ and not quarrel with your intuition. The audience who’s going to say whatever they’re going to say—it’s really hard to predict what they’re going to feel.
What about the long-running Lion King musical? Visually, did you pull any of your inspiration from that?
I saw it. It was incredible. I never would have predicted that they could pull it off. How do you translate an animated film from [a] Broadway stage? What a weird idea that is. Then I went to see and it was like, ‘Oh my God, Julie Taymor!’ It’s just a miracle of staging and imagination. I use that as a barometer that we hopefully can do the same thing by creating a totally different medium than the original animated film, than the Broadway play. The underlying material transcends how you tell that story that resonates with audiences.
Speaking of the play and how powerful it is, did the music, which is also quite powerful, inspire your work?
Yeah, because it does take the project to another level that the visuals alone can’t do. When the audience, especially those familiar with the material, hear the music for the first time, they’re already in the mood. The music does so much work, and it’s so iconic. Every time we would shoot these scenes, we would put the score in and it affects how you film, too. It really affects your choices of camera placement and movement and things like that. It’s very powerful. Music is a very powerful part of filmmaking.
You worked on The Jungle Book as well—did that prepare you in any way for this job?
Absolutely. We all got better at it, having been with the same crew who did Jungle Book. It definitely prepared us. We would never have made the leap that we made without having done Jungle Book first.
Which aspect of the film was the most challenging to work on for your team? How did you find a solution?
I think for me [it] was…I’m also doing the wide landscapes that have tremendous power in the way they look. If you pull it off right, if it looks real, it becomes moving. If it doesn’t look real, it’s like an illustration of something that doesn’t emote, it doesn’t stir anything.
We’re going to get to see the way some of your work comes together on the DVD and Blu-ray release—can you tell us a bit about what to expect in terms of the technology used?
This is what I like about it as a viewer: when I’ve been totally fooled by something and I see the magic trick behind it, I appreciate it more as opposed to it ruining it for me. So I think you’ll see how every blade of grass, everything in the frame was meticulously placed there to look like it was random. And I hope that you’ll appreciate the artwork that so many of our artists had a role in producing. I like to think it’s pretty magnificent looking. It’s because of all those people. That’s what I hope that you’ll see in the behind the scenes—how much work it takes to make it look like it was effortless.
The Lion King comes out on 4K Ultra HD on October 11 and on Blu-ray on October 22. Check out the trailer below.