The Lion King

Q&A with Adam Valdez, MPC VFX Supervisor

Technicolor’s MPC Film was a creative partner with the filmmakers of The Lion King from beginning to end – from when VFX Supervisor Adam Valdez first pitched a methodology to Disney and director Jon Favreau in October 2016 while they were still wrapping up The Jungle Book – through location scouting and virtual production and on to responsibilities for all VFX and Animation.


Q - After discussing methodology early on, what was the mission brief you got from director Jon Favreau? What was the experience he wanted to bring to audiences with The Lion King?

A – What’s different this time around is that there’s no live-action actor as in The Jungle Book. We would be doing every shot – but Jon wanted to create an experience where “you forgot you were watching something created.” He wanted it to have the signature of a movie that the audience knows and loves – while creating a new connection to the story through a sense of reality, one that doesn’t feel abstract or stylized.

To accomplish that, we set out to make a movie that would be true in terms of representing Kenya, the light there, the flora and the fauna. And giving it enough detail that you just start to fall into the movie and get into that magical sweet spot between ‘I know this isn't real’ but somehow ‘I believe it.’ And that was our mission.


Q - What did you hope to see and learn by traveling to Africa? How much did it inform your representation of Kenya on screen?

A – We first went to Kenya as a team with the filmmakers in March 2017 to do location scouting (a second trip would add more reference photography and data capture). It was important to see and learn about Africa firsthand, if we were to be true in representing this world in all of its complexity. The experience would inform how we did character and world-building, as we sought to represent the landscape, the light, and the natural environments of Kenya.

Going to Kenya was about getting what you can’t get from only seeing pictures of it. From a helicopter over a period of two weeks, seeing it from the air and then dropping down into a tiny patch of it and then going back out again over and over – you just get this meta understanding of it, of the changes in the landscape, the variety of tones, what the light feels like, what the vistas feel like.

Representing the truth of a place is really hard to do from references alone, because you’re imagining so much of it. Going there was about being very specific, to the expansive vistas, to the colors and the diversity of the landscape, to the way the vegetation grows. Jon said he wanted it to feel like a documentary, and we did everything we could to make it feel real and true to Africa.


Q - Virtual Production began in June of 2017. How did that work out with traditional filmmakers like Jon Favreau, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and VFX Supervisor Rob Legato, who called this the most collaborative production he’s worked on?

A – On The Lion King, we used the Technicolor Virtual Production Pipeline, which is a means of combining virtual production and game technologies with a fully tracked system where we can keep a database of everything we do. [So for example] every tree on the savannah was laid out by our artists and brought to the stage where we did a virtual shoot of it. And that’s how we allow live action filmmakers like Jon and Caleb to come in and basically create what really feels like a shooting stage in live action.

Not only do you get to invite live action folks into the process and let them drive it, but you’re really building a bridge to their skills. You’re letting them enter the virtual world where they get inspired by what they see; they get new ideas and they change the action or the staging, or they might change the lighting or the camera itself. This was a real first in the industry to do something where we’re combining all these new technologies in this way. So it was very exciting to watch the filmmakers take to it.


Q - The world-building and character-building that started in virtual production – how did that facilitate the VFX and animation and crafting of the performances?

A - What virtual production does is take the creative choices and decisions made together on set (the virtual set) and bring them through to the end. It’s a bridge that underpins everything from start to finish – a way to capture the work of Jon, Caleb, Rob, and all the filmmakers, and make it live on. We all learn together what works, and what doesn’t work, because it’s all captured and carried all the way through.

So we start learning the rules together; and if we need to go off plan: what were the lessons learned from that? For example, how do you light a lion? That depends on what angle you’re talking about. Is it facing the camera? Is it a body silhouette? There are different rules, and it’s not all figured out in previs. You can figure out during post what works best. Everybody learns the lessons and we internalize that as a team.

Technology is the tool for doing this, but it’s the people who bring the passion and make the art that transcends craft and technique. Someone like Caleb brings all of his instinctual skills that he uses out in the real world. He makes certain choices and it’s captured ‘in the rough’ – and then we put a lot of work into it, to break it down and understand it and then to fully realize it. You show them your interpretation of it – the real subject on the real set – and you continue to collaborate from there.