Disney’s Lion King remake celebrates VR in Filmmaking

Director Jon Favreau ditches physical sets in favour of 360-degree virtual environments.

Recently arrived at the big screen, Disney’s photorealistic CGI Lion King remake is the product of multiple cutting-edge virtual reality technologies. We got a taste of Favreau’s use of mixed reality in 2018’s The Jungle Book.

The Lion King remake is 100% CGI, a move that has allowed the Favreau to abandon the complex and uncontrollable difficulties presented by physical sets in favour of 360-degree virtual environments he and his team can immerse themselves in via VR headsets.

Using a real-time VR renderer built by Disney, the production team was able to develop detailed virtual renditions of all the films locations, from Pride Rock to Rafiki’s Ancient Tree, and film virtual scenes with digital characters using camera equipment, such as cranes and dollies, inside a physical space surrounded by multiple 3D infrared sensors; only instead of holding conventional cameras, these devices are instead mounted with tracking devices that serve as “virtual cameras” within the VR experience. Using a VR headset to enter the scene and motion controllers to interact with assets, the production team can adjust camera positions, alter the angle or intensity of lights, and instantly reposition and resize digital characters; saving time and money for the production team.

Director Jon Favreau and his team immersed within their virtual set. // Image Credit: Wired
Director Jon Favreau and his team immersed within their virtual set. // Image Credit: Wired

“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,” states Favreau during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Once that gave us the freedom to operate without 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.”

While on set during the last day of principal shooting, Wired Magazine describes a moment of the shoot where a rogue hyena, whose animation course had already been plotted by the animation team, keeps walking through the Steadicams sightline, obstructing a key shot in the process. To rectify the issue, Favreau makes a slight decrease to the size of the overall environment, allowing enough space for the camera operator to get an unobstructed sightline past the troublesome hyena. This kind of instantaneous uncompromised control over the environment is just one of the many reasons Favreau and his team opted for virtual production.

While it’s unclear exactly what equipment composes their real-time VR renderer, based on the images provided by Wired it’s clear the team is using HTC Vive headsets to view the “in-game” footage, which suggest the puck-like trackers they’re using as their virtual cameras are most likely standard Vive Trackers.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel making some slight adjustments to the scene. // Image Credit: Wired

We’ve received a surge of virtual and augmented reality projects in the property industry in the last couple of years. Think of the power of transporting someone into any proposed or built space, from anywhere in the world, so they can freely tour the building and even feel they are in that space through the VR capabilities. We’d love to hear about your project.