The Lion King

Q&A with Rob Legato, Production VFX Supervisor

Three-time Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Rob Legato reteamed with director Jon Favreau, MPC, and other filmmakers from The Jungle Book to bring the beloved characters from another Disney classic back to the screen – in a whole new way.


Q - How did you first get involved with The Lion King?

A - I got involved with The Lion King because I did The Jungle Book with Jon Favreau, Adam Valdez from MPC, and Andy Jones – and essentially the whole group was brought back to work on The Lion King.


Q - Can you talk about your role on the project?

A - My role primarily as a visual effects supervisor on this job was to give an analog feel to the photography of the fully digital characters. Part of that was transplanting everything we know in real photography to something akin to it on our virtual stage. So when somebody like Caleb Deschanel comes in to photograph something [on the virtual stage], it's not going to be a completely foreign experience. There’s a camera, there’s a dolly track, there’s a crane – things that we all know.

The VR component we introduced after The Jungle Book allows you to walk in like you would on a real set, put the camera where you want, and the physicality of it helps you to psychologically root yourself. You start doing very natural camera work because you're in an environment that you're familiar with. You know where the light goes, you know where the camera goes, you know where the actors are – and all of a sudden on day one you're off to the races.


Q - What were some of the unique challenges on The Lion King?

A - The incredible challenge is that it's such a loved piece of work – and we are transplanting something people are very familiar with to something that essentially amounts to a brand new medium. And in this brand new medium we can't do some of the things that made The Lion King so endearing. We can’t do ‘squash & stretch’ animation, because it has to be realistic. The characters can't have human-esque faces or turn into anything; they are fairly strict as the type of animals they are. So everything has to be converted to, not a cartoon but a live action film; the kind of film you would make if animals could talk and they were actors that you were filming.

So with that as the ultimate challenge, how do you work within it? Part of the gestalt of the film is, since it’s live action looking, it has to be filmed with a live action intent. And that means there are creative choices that you make only in analog. You don't make them frame by frame, you don't make them digitally; you make them by looking at it and changing your mind and moving your head around – maybe going a little lower or a little higher, moving the light this way or that.

And then you discover as when you shoot a traditional movie, you’re changing the light on every shot, you’re changing the setting pretty much in every shot – for example, a tree is growing out of someone’s head, so you move the tree – and all of a sudden you are converting what would be perfect in the CG world to what would be imperfect in our world when we photograph. We found that to be much better – so that conversion became something we sought after as opposed to something that we tried to eliminate or make perfect. You don't want to make it perfect; you want to make it feel like a human is behind the lens.


Q - The fact that The Lion King is so beloved and so many people have memories of it – was that at all intimidating at first?

A - There are two parts to that answer. The intimidating part is, it's much loved, so what are we going to do that's 1) different, but 2) also feels like it's in the canon of The Lion King, the animated film that also sparked the Broadway play, which was brilliant and one of the best loved shows. We don't want to let that tradition down as we go to another medium to do our version of it, which has to be different enough and similar enough at the same time to please everybody who’s interested in seeing the story again.


Q - The director Jon Favreau wanted to create a documentary-style approach that took audiences to Africa. How did you achieve that?

A - Again, there's two parts to every story. When you photograph animals or shoot a documentary, you have to shoot them in a particular way because there’s the danger of being too close or of them knowing you're there, so you don’t observe them doing the things they normally do. So part of it is just the look; you shoot it in such a way that it reminds you of a documentary, but creatively you're shooting an ‘actor’ in a movie who's not supposed to be aware of you anyway. So it feels like something you've seen before – documentary footage – but we're steering you in the direction of a drama, easing you into it, particularly with the first couple of scenes of the movie, after ‘Circle of Life.’ We filmed it as if it were a documentary, where you're piecing together a story, to lead you into it. Then it turns into a kind of Shakespearean drama scene – and hopefully the audience is with you at that point. So that was the drive behind it.


Q - How did the demands of this project differ from The Jungle Book?

A - That’s an interesting question. With The Jungle Book, since no one had ever quite done what we did before, we were inventing it as we went along and there was nothing to ‘do better than.’

When it came to The Lion King, we had already created a photoreal living, breathing animal that looked like it could be real, and photographed it in a particular way. But this time we wanted it to have the epic quality of a David Lean-esque film, on top of the documentary feel. So you're always trying to do better filmically, cinematically – to photograph something and make sure the light is in the right spot, to tell the story and to please your photographic eye. It is art, and you want to up your game and say, ‘We're making a beautifully constructed, beautifully photographed film to tell this quite magnificent story.


Q - How did the scout to Africa inform the look of the film?

A - The reason we went to Africa on the scout was primarily to capture the spirit of the place – the circle of life as this spiritual thing that nature intended. When you go to the actual birthplace of that, which is Africa, you really see that in action – and you see why people are inspired to create simply by observing it.

It's usually better when you have some kind of sense memory of something, a feeling, especially when you try to transmute it onto film. There is no easy, mechanical way of transmuting your feelings onto film; you just have to feel them and make all your decisions with them in mind. And hopefully the audience picks up on you basically being the vessel to go from one state to another.

So the idea of going to Africa was to get the vibe of the place and hopefully get inspired, which we did. It's pretty incredible, especially if you've never been, to go there and see all of God's creatures in the wild, all the different varieties of creatures and how they maintain their lives. The fact that they're part of the food chain and that's just the natural order of things. It's kind of a miracle and you do get moved by it – and hopefully that translated to the screen.


Q - How has technology changed since The Jungle Book in 2016 and how has that impacted what audiences are going to see on the screen?

A - The technology is along the same idea, but it’s just reached another level of perfection on top of what it was. When you see this movie, the animals that MPC created, you'll see a pretty magnificent translation of what that animal really looks like. All the different types of hair, the different lengths of hair, the coarseness – everything is just so, and when that's all applied correctly, with the muscles and everything else, it just comes to life. With the animation, which is really great, and making it photoreal, and with the Tech Anim pass – all of a sudden it goes from being an animated object to a real, live breathing being.

So the technology, the closer it gets to imitating real life, becomes real life. It's kind of magical when you see it go from one state to another and it just leaps off the screen. What MPC has been able to do is a quantum leap even over what we did on The Jungle Book.


Q - Tell us a little more about the process. What was the average workday on this film for you?

A - Depending on which portion of the film you're talking about, the average workday was when we had Jon Favreau and Andy Jones working out the mechanics of a scene – the rough blocking and the rough animation. When that was done, it would come to the stage for us to photograph it. Caleb would then take over and I would help him stage the camera. Then he would work with Sam Maniscalco (Lead Lighting Artist) and they would light the scene for each shot.

So our workday was basically shooting dailies; shooting the same action from however many different angles, whatever the demands of the scene were. Then there was a lot of back and forth with Adam and Jon, and James Chinlund the production designer. And it just keeps evolving and evolving until we get to something that we like. Then of course we start editing it, even on the day that we're shooting, just to get the feel of it – what are we missing, what do we need to capitalize on, what do we need to rework. Sometimes you need to rework the blocking of a scene. And then from there, that typical day might suggest to Jon the rerecording of an actor to get a funnier line reading, or a different type of read on it.


Q - It sounds like no two days were the same. You’ve also said that this project was the height of collaboration. What did you mean by that?

A - This film in particular is like all movies when they're done really well; the cooperation between everybody all melds together and everybody is making the same movie. The ‘movie’ becomes invisible to the viewer. You don't see an actor in a costume, acting. You don't see a set instead of a real place. You don't see lighting – it all just comes together, because every step of the process is in lockstep with all the other steps of the process…everything works in concert with everything else. That doesn't happen on every movie, but it happened on this one. There's no one star, everyone's the star because they're all making one collective piece, and that’s the heart of cinema. Cinema is all of the art forms coming together to make a new art form, which is the movie.


Q - This is your second movie with Jon Favreau. Can you talk about your working relationship?

A - Jon is an incredibly charismatic person, on top of all the other gifts that he has. He's very inclusive, he'll come up with an idea that’s pretty much what we want to do, but he’ll ask what you think and you're always free to say something or add something. He'll take it under advisement, and whether he's going to use it or not, he's always very gracious about it. It’s never about eliminating anybody else's thoughts but his own, there’s great collaboration.

We also have a very similar view on what real life looks like, so we know when the camera starts to look like a magic CG camera instead of a real life camera. We went to great pains to satisfy both of ourselves in terms of it looking like it could have been conventionally photographed – and also sometimes not conventionally photographed, as you do on live action movies when you build special rigs or use drones to get the camera into places that are not the usual – to come up with an unusually interesting cinematic moment.

Having the similar taste factor, that I learned we had on The Jungle Book, was very helpful. When you don't have that in working relationships, sometimes you're at cross purposes. But with Jon, that’s one of his gifts – as he does with Andy Jones and Adam Valdez and Caleb Deschanel and I'm sure with everybody – he has you all feeling like you're on the same page as him.


Q - Could you talk about working with the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel?

A – For me, I studied cinematography in film school and I shoot a lot of second unit. When you do that, you have heroes – who photograph things the way you would like to do it if you had that ability. And Caleb is one of my heroes. So to work with him and to realize that we have similar viewpoints – about how things should be lit or shot, or what's a good composition, what's a bad composition – was a wonderful gift for me. I got to work with somebody I really admired and discovered that we had some similar traits. He's got a spectacular eye that I wish I had, but when we judged something, we both might say the same thing at the same time, [because] we had the same idea.

The relationship with him was very warm, he's a lovely guy and incredibly smart. Every day was a fun journey and he was open to suggestion…I was very lucky, not only that when you meet one of your heroes, you're not disappointed. But in fact, you're quite impressed by them – and their genius for filming that shows up on the screen.


Q - Can you talk about your partnership with MPC? What did they bring to The Lion King?

A – My relationship with MPC is, first, we had such a great time and a huge success with The Jungle Book. They have this ability to bring all these various departments together to create all these different assets that, when gelled together, create something that is photoreal. They have incredible technical creative knowledge on how to do things and how it’s going to look when rendered. It's very difficult in CG to make up something that looks like it could be real, to keep scraping the surface until you get something that has the patina of real life – and they are gifted at doing that.

Adam Valdez in particular has a great gift for figuring out the technical and creative aspects of it so that what he delivers back is pretty similar to what you had in mind. It's like composing music with a really great musician. They add their technical acumen to it and when they deliver something, you're judging the music; you're not judging the mechanics of how it came together, how it's orchestrated. You're judging the results and making adjustments, fine-tuning it up several levels. The Jungle Book was one level – and when you get to do it again from everything you’ve learned, it becomes the level of The Lion King.


Q - You've worked with MPC since Harry Potter (2001). How have they grown as a production partner?

A - At the time it was very interesting. Los Angeles was the big sort of mecca for doing visual effects and everybody was eager to learn the things that we were doing in L.A. MPC were eager participants and wanted to do it better. By the time they were doing the second and third [Harry Potter] movies, which I was not involved in, they had become a really gifted visual effects company. There was a difference between the first Harry Potter movie when they were just starting to learn the craft to when I worked with them again on The Jungle Book – and now they've surpassed everything that we did there.

If you want to get the best work, you go to MPC. I can't imagine anybody else doing what we did on The Jungle Book, and then they did all of The Lion King. There's no contest in that regard.


Q - What was the role of virtual production, including virtual location scouting and visualization?

A - The whole concept of virtual production and virtual cinematography is about imparting your analog live choices that you make on the spur of the moment, and believe those to be the correct ones, not the studied ones, not the ones that we have to think about for a long period of time. So you want to have something that you have instant feedback on. If you line up a camera and something moves in the background, you might change your composition based on live input – that you react to immediately without having to think about it.

The art portion of it, for Caleb or myself or other people who’ve filmed things for a long time, is that you react to what you see, that's your daily job in traditional production. In CG production, it's not that way, it's protracted, you're not seeing something in real time, you're not reacting in real time, and you have too much time to think about it, so everything becomes more intellectual.

So what we're trying to do is tap into your gut level response to things, your instantaneous art choice – what happens if I pan over here and then, if I move a light over this way, and put that rock there – and you don't even know what you're doing intellectually, you're just tapping into something – like musicians riffing off of each other and all of a sudden some very unusual, unplanned but beautiful music comes out of it.

So in trying to tap into that, everything is designed to be done in real time, including location scouting, where you can have multiple people talking about a shot or a scene, and it becomes a live collaborative input arena. You need live input to do it, and that's the virtual part of it. When we're in VR, which is different from what we did on The Jungle Book, the VR experience gives you the visceral feeling of being there, of being up high or at a faraway distance, all those various things, you feel it.

So Jon, Caleb, James Chinlund, Andy Jones and I could all walk in together as a group of filmmakers, a group of collaborators, and see things for the first time, look at things from different angles. Caleb might have a better idea to shoot something to take advantage of a sunset that's happening, and again it’s like music, where you're bouncing off of each other. And when you're done it’s a very successful location scout that otherwise you could never have done together in a CG world. But in the real world, or in our case a virtual world, we all can share in it and we all can respond to what we're looking at – at the same time.


Q - What were some of the challenges of creating the various versions of this film. There’s the regular theatrical release but also IMAX and 3D.

A - We have multiple viewing versions of The Lion King, and each one has to be successful on its own – not co-dependent on the other ones. So we did this in native 3D, which quite frankly – and I've done this before – is the best 3D film I've ever seen or been involved in. The optimal viewing of this is a laser projection, high definition, high dynamic range, and in 3D – that’s the full experience and it’s really quite something.

Then we have the IMAX, and we decided to do the action scenes and the songs and various things, not in IMAX as it exists today, but as it used to exist in the 1.43:1 square aspect ratio. What we have done is [take] the normal aspect ratio you see modern films at, and then all of a sudden it just rises up and you're now seeing something really special. It’s a type of showmanship where we present to you this big extravaganza of a scene. I'm pretty sure we're the first movie made in the digital age that created from scratch a 1.43:1 version of a film – in trying to create that experience of the first time you saw an IMAX movie and it was pretty spectacular.

At the same time we're filming the IMAX 1.43:1 version, we're also filming the version that the majority of the audience is going to see, which is the 1.85:1 aspect ratio version. We have to make it just as thrilling in 2D as we believe it is in 3-D. So that's what we've been doing around the clock, seven days a week, for the last two months – producing these versions that are optimized for every screen that you're going to see them on. It's a huge challenge where we've had to devise how we're going to pan and scan the film to fit into the various aspect ratios – for something like 8 or 10 different versions of the film.


Q - Final question: what do you hope the audience member sitting in the theater gets from this experience of The Lion King?

A - That's an interesting question. You want them to be transported and just get melted away into the movie and suspend disbelief. From the first moment, when you see someone talking, it’s so well done that you just say, ‘Well, animals talk I guess.’ And when you’re interested in the story and you don't see the work anymore, you just see what's in front of you, which is the actors and the dialogue and the story unfold, that's the moment where you know you’ve achieved something. So I hope what happens is that you get taken on a journey where you don't even know how you got there, you just enjoyed it and your memories of it are rich.