Jon Favreau Brings the Lion King to Live Action(ish) Using VR

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I saw the Lion King last week. Let’s just say:

I felt the love tonight. 

Director, Jon Favreau’s live action(ish) remake of the Disney classic was magical. Literally, Disney magic! Not a level of enthusiasm I would’ve expected from myself, to be perfectly honest.


I’m skeptical of all of these Disney live action remakes. Upfront, I’ll say that even Lion King is not something I see the point in tackling. As much as I liked this remake, I just felt like I was watching the exact same movie as 94’s Lion King, the only difference being how it looked. As many agree, it was almost shot for shot the original, just with real looking lions. I still haven’t bothered to see Aladdin nor Beauty and the Beast, the latter of which I’m only slightly intrigued by. I disliked Jungle Book so much that I admittedly turned it off early on and never returned to the jungle. And, by the way, Jungle Book happens to be directed by our boy from Lion King, Jon Favreau.

This one, though? Lion King? Favreau absolutely crushed it visually. And, to be clear, this is not a review of Lion King or Disney live action remakes. Rather, I’m focused here on the cutting edge VR technology that made the animated, yet live action looking Lion King come to life.

Look back to my dislike for Jungle Book. It was the visuals. I couldn’t get past the way they placed the live actor for Mowgli into the CG jungle and supporting CG animals. Frankly, I was confused at the time as to how the man who made Iron Man could make a live actor look so weird? And, now, after seeing Lion King, I was extra confused now that I know what’s possible for a movie starring jungle animals.

Well, I got my answer a few days ago, listening to Favs on the Empire Film Podcast. The eclectic filmmaker is currently on a world wide press tour for Lion King, stopping in London to talk with the folks at Empire. In terms of production and visuals, Favreau explained the sharp production distinction between Lion King and Jungle Book.

THE LION KING – (L-R) Jon Favreau, Caleb Deschanel, James Chinlund, Robert Legato and Andy Jones. Photo by: Michael Legato.
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

From the Empire Film Podcast:

Favreau: When you get to visual effects, it’s about this attention to detail, and the tediousness of the process over many years, where you have to keep everybody focused and you have to keep your standards high. But, when you pull it off, it creates this grand illusion that we achieved to some extent with the Jungle Book, but when you see Lion King, you really get to see the level of refinement that I haven’t seen before. And, this is a moment where we get to own this space, because we’re the first film to really push the limits to this extent…We get to see the audience experience something that appears completely real in some cases, but everything, every environment is completely generated by computer, every performance is animated using keyframe techniques, just like Bambi–with new tools. But, ultimately it is the hands of the artist behind this artificial environment together, and when it works well, it appears effortless and natural, as though it was just footage that was shot in a natural environment.

Chris Hewitt (Empire): There are moments in the Lion King where I thought, “Well, that’s it, he’s just filmed some lions” (Laughs)… it is that photo real. 

So, here’s where virtual reality comes in.

Favreau: You have a live action film crew that uses VR to go into a completely digital environment and set cameras in a way to help emulate photo realism. And, having Caleb Deschanel, our cinematographer who has no background in visual effects, but understands how to shoot something like The Black Stallion or Fly Away Home, and understands framing and lighting and nature and imagery, and telling a story emotionally through composition. And to build a set of tools so that he can operate with a film crew in this environment, and I can sit by his side as a director and scout it out as though it were on a real location.

THE LION KING – (Pictured) Caleb Deschanel. Photo by: Michael Legato.
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

On the specific VR and gaming tech Favreau used to make Lion King:

Favreau: The idea of now pulling out the one and only human character out of Jungle Book, and what could you do if you were not confined to a physical production with lights and cameras, but instead, you could do everything virtually. And, then all of this VR hardware was coming online, this consumer facing VR hardware that was at a much lower price point. And, we could use the game engine platforms, like Unity in this case, to build out a multi-player VR filmmaking game, constantly doing code dumps, updating the tool set, encoding new pieces of hardware to help emulate a live action production.

animation magazine
Photo: Animation Magazine

How’s the king of the jungle doing at the box office?

From VarietyDisney’s Lion King roared past another box office milestone, crossing the billion dollar mark after less than three weeks in theaters. 

The movie joins Avengers: Endgame, Captain, Marvel, and Aladdin as the fourth Disney title to surpass $1 billion dollars in global ticket sales this year. 

So, with Aladdin and now Lion King, it doesn’t seem like Disney will be stopping the live action remake money train anytime soon. And, if you’re like me in reaction to these remakes in the first place, then, at least we’re getting sweet new filmmaking tech out of it!

I’d tell you to go see Lion King before it stampedes out of theaters. But, who am I kidding? It’ll probably be in theaters until the next remake.

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