Q - Can you talk about your working relationship with MPC and how it evolved from The Jungle Book – to working together again on The Lion King?
A - I worked with MPC – a visual effects house based in London although they have branches all over the world – originally on Jungle Book. Adam Valdez was the visual effects supervisor from MPC on that project and on Lion King as well.
We work in partnership. They helped build the tools for virtual production, which is a technique that we innovated for this particular project, along with a company called Magnopus. And these new consumer-facing VR hardware products led us to the opportunity of using a gaming platform to emulate live action film production in a VR space – even though the film is completely digitally rendered, every environment is made digitally by the artists at MPC, and every character is keyframe animated.
So it's a completely animated digital movie, but it should hopefully appear photoreal and live action in the way it's executed.
Q - What were some of the unique challenges that MPC overcame in crafting the VFX and animation for The Lion King.
A - MPC was very innovative in their approach to what we were able to accomplish here. Some of it was building on the success of the collaboration that we had on Jungle Book. But it was also incorporating new tools and working within a different set of parameters that we placed upon this particular project because we wanted it to feel very different from a cartoon, even though it was completely animated.
We wanted to give it a live action aesthetic and we also wanted to make it feel like it might have been shot as a documentary. We looked at a lot of BBC documentaries like Planet Earth, and all the Attenborough documentaries. Because we committed to doing all of the work with one vendor, we were able to dedicate resources towards research and development for different simulators, for different fur tools, etc. So a lot of the things that most audiences might not consciously understand, but inform the photo-realism of it, were innovations that were developed through the research of MPC.
Q - You went to Africa for research. How important were those trips for you and for MPC?
A - We took trips to Africa, both myself and the crew separately. MPC went there a lot. A tremendous amount of research goes into creating these digital environments. Things like, recording everything that you can; research through still photography; and also high dynamic range photography, to understand how different surfaces react to light. A lot of the geometry is texture mapped with real textures that were inspired by what they saw in Africa.
The key to creating something that's not real is to look at a lot of examples of when it's real and comparing them side by side. As we built each asset, each animal, each creature – we would look at the real thing and we would look at the research and we would look at what was being generated by the artists.
Q - How did Adam Valdez pitch on the power of virtual production for The Lion King? Can you describe that process and how that collaboration with you, Adam, Caleb Deschanel, and Rob Legato evolved?
A - Rob Legato, myself and Adam Valdez had worked on Jungle Book and towards the end of Jungle Book some new VR hardware like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift had come out. We started playing in post-production with the idea of using VR as a way to immerse ourselves into the environment.
We presented what we were coming up with to MPC and what we wanted to try to achieve. They partnered up with Magnopus and together we all came up with a set of parameters that we wanted to have available to us to make it as user-friendly for our cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and a live action film crew.
What we were trying to do using VR is develop a way to look at an environment as though we were tech scouting it in real life and to have tools by which we could lay cameras and dollies and lights down into this virtual space and emulate live action production.
Adam Valdez and the team went to work to help build these tools and to help create a toolkit in partnership with Magnopus. So that when we were there in the VR space, we would have the hardware that was available to us and to any gaming consumer. But then build on top of it using the Unity game engine:
- A way to be able to look through a viewfinder, by holding up the control wand;
- A way to lay down dolly track that would correspond to real dolly track on the set – so when we push the dolly in real life it would push the camera in virtual space;
- A way to view those screens both inside VR or outside if we looked at a monitor – so if you came to our set, it would feel like you were on a live action set, and you could look at monitors and see what was being filmed.
Those tools were being refined constantly. We'd have code dumps on a regular basis as we came up with new tools that we wanted or new pieces of camera equipment that we wanted to encode. It's a real learning process all the way through. And now MPC has a suite of tools that are available to any filmmaker based on the innovations that we made on The Lion King.