The Lion King

Q&A with Holly Aldersley, MPC Stereo 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 campaign – through location scouting and virtual production and on to responsibilities for all VFX and Animation.

Holly Aldersley is a stereo specialist who’s been at MPC nearly a decade, working on such groundbreaking features as The Jungle Book and The Martian, and now most recently The Lion King.


Q - As MPC Stereo Supervisor, what can you tell us about the 3-D version of The Lion King?

A - We delivered The Lion King in 3-D and 3-D IMAX, and it was the most enjoyable as well as longest show I've worked on – nearly two and a half years, from beginning to end.

3-D films show no sign of slowing down; in fact, quite the opposite, particularly in places like China and India where 3-D films are huge. It’s really cool that you can still surprise people when they see a film in 3-D. I'd love for people to see this Lion King in 3-D and get that “surprised kid” reaction.

It gives the story some added dimension. You can really see every blade of grass, every bug flying around. It adds to what you see in the 2-D film, things you may miss because there's so much going on in a shot. But as soon as you put the film into 3-D, it jumps right out at you – floating pollen, the rain, things of that nature show up extremely well.


Q - What was your directive from the filmmakers?

A - They wanted to give people the closest experience they could to actually being in Africa. So it was very important from the beginning for this film to be as realistic as possible. We've gone for a similar approach with the 3-D; that element of realism where you suddenly feel that you’re in Africa with these characters. That you’re on Pride Rock, or you’re in the middle of that climactic fight sequence, amidst the flames and the smoke. It really draws you into the film and the story even more, because you feel like you are a part of it.

That’s true of the different landscapes as well. When you put them into 3-D, you really feel the scale of everything; you feel like you are stepping right into it.


Q - Why were you involved so early in the process?

A - One of the great things about this film is that they knew there was going to be 3-D right from the beginning. And it's a full CG film. Normally you’d be restricted by what was shot on set. But with Rob Legato (VFX Supervisor), they were setting shots up with 3-D in mind, which is not the norm in a lot of films.

In this film, 3-D was a huge part of what the film was always going be. You had Rob as the visual effects supervisor and the stereographer making creative decisions around it – maybe this plant will be a problem in stereo, so we can move it over here. All of those decisions really became a big part of the storytelling process. For example, if you want Scar to feel very powerful, he can come off the screen more and be very imposing. While young Simba is often more behind the screen and much more reserved.

Rob was really keen on using this as a big storytelling tool – to basically shape the emotion in a shot. How are the characters supposed to be feeling? How is the audience supposed to be responding to these characters and how they feel?

It really starts showing in the sequences when you see them as a whole. You can feel this extra sense of ‘imposing’ from the characters, when they're coming off screen, or when you've got Zazu flying off screen. Or even looking at Pride Rock [that same sense of ‘imposing’]; it's huge and expansive, like looking out through a window at it.


Q - How was working on The Lion King different from other films you’ve worked on?

A – Rob did Hugo and the 3-D on that film worked so well. He set a high-water mark and that was almost 10 years ago. But this is the first time I've done a film in this way, where from the original layout stages, we did a very rough, quick look at what it was going to look like in 3-D. And I think that really shows in the final product. We got an early heads-up on what shots were going to be problematic. Even if it was just a case of rearranging a couple of plants, or a blade of grass that you weren’t expecting to be suddenly up in your face.

Having that early kind of insight into what it would look like or seeing a very early edit in 3-D really helped to shape the end result. Normally, we don’t see it until the very end, and then you have to make whatever you get work in 3-D.

Right from the beginning, Rob wanted to use 3-D to make it even better. This was great from my perspective, because we got to work with Rob on what the shots would look like from a creative standpoint.


Q - Can you explain a little about the rendering process itself?

A - Rather than making the 3-D version at the end, the post conversion stereo, it's basically as if we’d taken a huge stereo camera rig, gone out on-set and filmed a native stereo experience. So what you see and what you get out of the camera is stereo. It's more natural in terms of what the depth should be and what it looks like. You don't get things like stretching or warping edges. The hair, fur, whiskers – all of that fine detail – could possibly be lost in something that's been done afterwards.

But that sort of thing comes out a lot cleaner in what I call a ‘native stereo project’ where it's rendered in stereo with two separate eyes as you would see it naturally, one image from the left eye and one from the right. That's how you know where everything sits in depth perspective. We’ve essentially rendered a left eye and a right eye as if we were looking at the scene standing right there in the environment. And that's what gets put back together at the end to make the final stereo 3-D.

You get a better result so it's worth putting in that extra time and effort in the rendering stage to get that really natural kind of stereo feeling at the end.


Q - Did you have any favorite shots?

A - We had to get extra creative with a few shots, such as the iconic scene where Simba sees his father Mufasa in the clouds. It’s a huge moment when he appears and tells Simba to ‘remember who you are.’

We spent time to get it looking just right. It's an incredibly tricky moment with huge effects, cloud simulations, and so on. You see Mufasa in the clouds but at the same time you’re still trying to make it look like this documentary.

It's one of the more magical sequences, that we still needed to make look realistic – walking that fine line to find the perfect blend between fantasy and documentary.