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.
MPC’s Audrey Ferrara discusses her role as Environment Supervisor and their world-building mission.
Q – As Environment Supervisor, what was your mission on The Lion King?
A - Our mission was to have the audience let go and really believe they were in Africa on the Savannah. For me in charge of the sets, the main challenge was to replicate nature while not diverting attention from the characters and the action, unless it was warranted. You want it to be realistic and not grandiose. You want the audience to appreciate the backgrounds and the sets, but without thinking about it too much or analyzing every frame.
Jon wanted to replicate a realistic movie with a realistic style of CGI, with a team of traditional filmmakers used to live action. [They know] the perfect shot – the perfect camera movement, the perfect light, etc. – doesn’t sell reality.
Q - How did the experience of traveling together to Africa inform the making of the film?
A - Traveling to Africa was a defining experience but it was also important as a common experience. Because everybody was part of this trip, it really unified the team and we felt we were all in this together from the start.
If I didn’t have this incredible opportunity to be with everyone there, I wouldn’t have understood exactly the vision of James Chinlund [production designer] and what he wanted to achieve in terms of sets and environments.
The trip built a common memory of spaces.
So when Caleb [Deschanel, the cinematographer] said, “Remember when we took the helicopter and stopped halfway up Mount Kenya and shot this and shot that?” …everybody remembers that day and knows exactly what he is talking about – space-wise, light-wise, etc.
It was an amazing and intense two weeks traveling all over Kenya, seeing the country for the first time. Visually, it’s something else, the light is different, you can feel it. It’s kind of paradoxical, because it’s a harsh environment, but there’s also such beauty in the landscapes. It’s totally hypnotizing, but everything can change so fast. You could have peak sunlight one minute and then five minutes later, storm clouds are forming and everything gets dark.
So we were able to witness all that, document it and shoot tons of references. We put together a reference shoot plan and sent the MPC team back over there. The content that MPC shot in Kenya was used by the art department, and the artwork was sent back to us, so it was a constant exchange between VFX and the art department – building little by little all of the elements that we needed.
Q - Can you talk about the methodology and the pipeline, which has been described as a communication or “translational system” between planning and previs on the front-end, and visual effects and animation on the back-end?
A - That was part of the success in terms of being able to deliver a movie like this. We did it to a certain degree on The Jungle Book, where MPC was included early in pre-production; and though we were not in charge of the previs then, I was in direct contact with the production designer and the art department. It really helps to understand the process, to understand the vision, and then to carry it through to the very last day of post-production.
On The Jungle Book, and even more on The Lion King because it was just MPC, we've been part of the process since day one. So you’re not redoing things multiple times before it goes to post-production – because post-production is involved at the beginning of the process. They’re part of the thought process, part of development, part of everything along the way with the filmmakers – and it’s a much smoother way to approach post-production.
Q - What was it like working with the same team from The Jungle Book, where you already had established relationships?
A - The genius of Jon as a director is that he assembled a team of traditional filmmakers used to live action, the same approach he used on The Jungle Book. And it was a great advantage to have all the leads from Jungle Book working together again. Everybody knows the drill, and all that knowledge trickles down so that everybody knows what to do. It creates efficiency and eliminates confusion. Instead of multiple iterations before you design something right, you get it the first time around and then you have more time to spend polishing it and making it even better.
My greatest joy on this movie was when showing shots to Jon Favreau and the team – and getting very little notes about the environments. When we’re experts on the environments and they don't have to worry about it, they can focus on the storytelling, the action and the performances.
Because it was the same group of filmmakers, the relationships were already there. They knew how I worked, and I knew already what they liked or didn’t like. Though it was a different movie, the intentions were the same. The great exchange we already had on The Jungle Book carried through to The Lion King – and it’s that much easier for everybody involved.
At the same time, there’s a new vision coming to this movie which makes it look different and we weren’t just doing the same thing over.
Q - You also worked closely with production designer James Chinlund, who was new to the team. How did that relationship differ?
A - With James, it took time to get to know him, to understand his taste and what he was trying to achieve [first on the trip to Africa]. It was beneficial for me to be included since day one, because I could work with the art department and James directly – for an entire year before coming back to London for post-production.
I was in charge of the virtual art department during previs, who were building simplified versions of the sets for the shoot in VR. As we were doing this, I was sending them to my other team in London, so you really had continuity in terms of sets between previs and post. Everything was already resolved in previs, so the team in London could focus on improving instead of thinking about spatial problems or where a certain tree goes. That’s very unique.
I see myself as the guardian of the rules, the visual rules of the environments. Meaning I learned all the rules that James Chinlund put in place in the art department. What type of trees, plants, rocks, etc., to use – and where to use them. I learn all of those things to the point that it's in my bones – and then I go back to the team in post-production and start to teach everybody else. You spend some time building a library of elements, the greens, the rocks, etc. But everything else has been set up and all the questions and issues resolved in previs – aesthetically and spatially.
So you have the two phases: the concept/research phase, where everything gets resolved, and then the production phase, where there are so many shots, so many elements, and all the environments populating all the shots. It's a system that really worked on Jungle Book, where we were trying to understand the pipeline and the workflow. The Lion King is version 2.0 – everything that we came to understand and learn on Jungle Book, the same team now made even better.
Q - What was it like working on a project as iconic as The Lion King?
A - Personally, I grew up with The Lion King. I remember going to the theater and being blown away by it. So I really wanted to be a part of this. I couldn’t bear for it not to be done right.
I couldn't have had a more invested team. Everybody loves the movie so much, and they went above and beyond. For many of them, it’s an important memory from their childhood.
Now we’re responsible for a new generation because the original movie is so powerful in terms of the story. It touches people. And I think with this photorealistic version of it, it's going to be even more powerful.