Award-winning cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has been working with Technicolor since his earliest films in 1979, including The Black Stallion and Being There. Here he talks about joining director Jon Favreau and the team on Disney’s The Lion King – including VFX Supervisor Rob Legato, Animation Supervisor Andy Jones, and Technicolor’s MPC – from location scouting in Africa to virtual production in VR.
Q - How did you get involved with The Lion King and what attracted you to it?
A - Jon Favreau called me about shooting The Lion King and I really loved a lot of his movies, especially The Jungle Book; and I also knew him because my daughter [actress Zooey Deschanel] had filmed a movie with him years ago, Elf (2003). I really wanted to work with him and I love this story of The Lion King. It's such a mythic story, and I thought it would be great to retell it in a different way and bring something new to it.
My big fear was that it was going to be immersed in all this technology, but Jon reassured me that it would be like filming a regular movie. He said I'm hiring you because you've shot reality for 45 years and you know what that should look like. We want you to bring that knowledge to the film.
The team created these tools that made filming in this environment very much like the kind of filming I've always done. Once we got involved in it and I saw the possibilities I thought, wow, this could be incredible. And it was the most exciting filming I've ever done.
Q - As a filmmaker and cinematographer, what was it like working in the virtual reality world? Was there much of a learning curve adapting to the technology?
A - The learning curve was realizing the extent to which you could use the technology, and in the computer you can actually repurpose any tool. You could repurpose a dolly to move the animals, or you could repurpose the pan head to lift the camera up in the air.
I found it totally freeing. When you put on the goggles and go into virtual reality, you can get rid of the virtual part and just consider it reality, as far as I am concerned. It’s a real space, and you are there, on a set, and the set is Africa. You have animals moving along and you can walk around them and fly over them. You can do anything you want, get anywhere you want to, with all the tools they made available. You could set a camera in a certain position and dolly track from here to there. You could line up shots as if really going to Africa and following the animals around.
We had a real dolly, with a real dolly grip who would follow along with the animals. So it gives it a real human feel to it; not only the camera movement but the way the cameras panned and tilted. We did all sorts of incredible things that you're not aware of, [but] you're always aware that it's a real person behind the camera filming what's going on.
You realized the possibilities, but we didn't do things just because we could do them, anything too fanciful. We wanted to keep it within the realm of what we consider to be regular, live-action filmmaking, and that's part of what adds to the reality of the filming. We didn't want it to feel like an animated movie; we wanted it to feel real.
Q - What were some of the unique challenges of this project versus live action movies that you’ve worked on?
A - Early on with some of the set you might have animals suddenly walking through rocks and things like that, that had to be ironed out. But Andy Jones, the Animation Supervisor, and Jon would sit and figure out the blocking of the characters. Then after they got to a certain point, they would bring Rob Legato and some of us in to look at what had been done.
After we made our suggestions – to simplify the blocking or to have characters move in a certain way, etc. – the files would be finished. I would start lighting it, then send it to the set, and we would film it the way we'd film a live-action movie.
It is probably as close to filming live-action as possible. Other than the fact that you're dealing with really dangerous animals, but they're not dangerous to you; they're only existing in virtual reality. That's the one part I’ll actually consider virtual: the fact that the animals were not as dangerous as they are in real life.
The real challenge then was to keep yourself focused on creating reality, and reminding yourself of what it would be like if this was happening for real. The trip that we took to Kenya and all the filming we did there, that was always in the back of our minds reminding us what it was really like – and what the filmic reality should feel like.
Q - Was that your first trip to Africa, and how did the scout to Africa inform the look of the whole film?
A - No, I'd been to Africa before a number of times. I'd been to Kenya and spent a lot of time in South Africa. I had been on safaris and a lot of these wild areas. So it was not new to me, but it was great to be there with Rob, Andy and the people who would be involved. It solidified in our minds the kind of feeling that we wanted to have in making this film.
We got really close to the lions and hyenas; it is really remarkable how close you can get to them and that informed us as well – because our initial impression was to film it to feel like one of those old-fashioned documentaries, where it's all super long lenses following the animals around.
Not only were we able to film very close to the animals there, be we really got a feeling for the heat and the environment and the look of everything – the grasses and the rocks and the trees. To this day it informs me as to what it should be like and I see it very much in the movie now that it's finished.
It was probably the most magical trip I've had, because we had such great access to all these amazing animals in all these different areas in Kenya – including Mount Kenya, which was the inspiration for the area where Pumbaa and Timon live.
Q - What technological innovations did you find helpful on this project?
A - One great thing was that they could record what we did and then we could play it back. So if, say, the focus was missed but everything else was great, we could play it back and then redo the focus. Or if I liked the way the dolly moved but wasn't happy with the way I operated the camera, we could redo it. That was really valuable; also the fact that you could choose the lenses.
The most important thing I felt going into virtual reality [was being able] to see where you were. Because if you didn't go into virtual reality first, you could find yourself setting up a shot and not really understanding where you were.
The one thing that you don't get is the kind of impression you get when you look through a different lens. In other words, this feels like a 300-millimeter lens or this feels like a 20-millimeter lens, you don't get that same feeling of depth.
Q - How did you and Rob Legato work together on this?
A – Part of the great experience on this movie was the opportunity to work with Rob. The thing about Rob is, he is really smart and knowledgeable about all the technical things, but he's also an artist. He's really creative, and so enormously talented. I think everybody knows that, but I can reiterate it. He has great ideas for telling stories and he's such a great person to work with that I would do it again at the drop of a hat.
He and I became this incredible team. We just worked really closely together bouncing ideas off each other. Anytime I couldn't figure something out, technically, Rob would have a solution or figure out a solution. He was the best partner to have on this movie. He's a great technical wizard and understands all these different programs – he's able to go into the Avid and use Cinema 4D and show you something, rather than just describe it and have you [try to] imagine it.
Q - How was it working with Jon Favreau on his film?
A - Jon Favreau is like a ringmaster in a ten-ring circus. He was keeping track of so many different things.
He didn't just record the actors doing their parts by themselves. We actually set up the stage with six cameras and boom microphones and the actors were playing off of each other. You really see it in a lot of the movie, particularly the comic parts where there is a real great interplay between Pumbaa and Timon and Simba. It was a real eye opener and a real learning experience for me to see the way he worked.
Jon is one of those people who creates an environment in which everybody can do their best work. Everybody working on the film was really talented, and he always ensured that they had respect for each other. It was wonderful to work in that environment, a great time.
Q - What about your collaboration with MPC – what did they bring to the project?
A - MPC did incredible research and had incredible files of what reality was in Africa. They would create the characters, and then every week or so I would sit in reviews and look at Scar or Mufasa or Rafiki – one of the first characters that got finished – and you could not believe how realistic it was. They would open their mouths and the teeth would be perfect, the tongue, the color of the gums, the hair and everything.
It was pretty amazing to see the kinds of things that they do. When you create an animal in that way, they're starting with the bone structure, the skeletal structure; then they add the muscles, the skin, and the fur. They actually build into the files an understanding of what the color is of the animal's fur. And they created the color of the fur based on the melanin, so that when an animal moves, the light moves on it the same way it would in reality.
One thing that was really important was creating what it is like when the wind hits the mane of Mufasa and Simba. There's this great scene on top of Pride Rock in the beginning when Mufasa is talking to young Simba and giving him a lecture about the circle of life and the wind is blowing in his fur and it's really remarkable. You just take for granted that it's real. But in order to create that, somebody has to write a program that understands the physics of blowing wind and how it affects the hair and everything. For that to exist in the reality that we've created, it needs to be a program of such incredible detail to understand how that works [and] to get it to look natural.
Q - Can you comment on how far technology has come since your earlier movies?
A - I generally don't do big special effects movies. But every movie I've done in the last 15 years – no matter how steeped it is in old-fashioned movie making with actors playing characters and telling a story – every movie has more and more special effects in it. Whether it's to correct something; fix a background; film in a street where there are too many modern buildings, and it's 1937 so you have to get rid of them.
It's gotten so prevalent, visual effects are an important part of movie making. In this case, it's totally visual effects; but every movie I've done has at least a couple of hundred visual effects shots in it – even movies that you don’t think have any visual effects, that just seem like movies about characters and situations. It's pretty amazing what you can do, and it's just become part of the everyday life of movie making, whether you're aware of it or not. You're obviously aware of it when you see the Avengers or Spider-Man, but every movie you see is a visual effects movie to some extent.
Q - You're known for beautiful, naturalistic films like The Black Stallion. Is there a commonality in your approach to those type films and The Lion King?
A - I've always been attracted to stories that are somewhat mythological. Every film I do has a certain mythology to it. I think it’s something in our psyche that we are attracted to, that we can't quite explain, but somehow it has life for us. Hopefully when you make something that has this mythology in it, it will communicate to people and sort of elevate them. You hope in a way that it will create more good in the world, doing what we do. Sometimes I wonder but you keep trying anyway.
Q - What do you hope audiences get from The Lion King?
A - I hope the audiences who see The Lion King just lose themselves in the story and forget about the technical things that went into it. Every couple of years when my kids were little, I wanted to do a film for them like The Black Stallion or Fly Away Home. And now I do it for my grandkids. So I'm really excited for my grandkids to see this movie and to be a part of it because I think that an important part of our legacy is to communicate with all different ages. It's always great to go from a serious adult movie to something that's for kids – because there's nothing more exciting than to sit in an audience with young kids and have them experience something for the first time and get so excited about it. It's just the best.