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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

Dynamic Duos: DP and VFX – Caleb Deschanel and Rob Legato

By IAN FAILES

The Lion King Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC, left, and Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Legato, ASC, right, during a reference photography trip in Africa. (All images copyright © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

On a traditional effects-driven film, a cinematographer and a visual effects supervisor might tend to collaborate predominantly on set on individual visual effects shots, and rarely into post-production. This was the reverse on Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, a photorealistic, computer-generated re-imagining of the classic 2D-animated Disney feature, where Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC and Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato, ASC worked together on every single shot of the film. Such a collaboration was possible owing to the virtual production nature of the shoot, in which virtual cameras and equipment (which matched real-world versions), real-time rendering, motion capture and virtual reality (VR) scouting and reviews became the filmmaking tools.

Deschanel on location for the Africa shoot.

GOING VIRTUAL

Over several film experiences, including on Bad Boys II, The Aviator, Avatar, Hugo and The Jungle Book, Legato (a three-time Oscar winner and five-time nominee) has been a pioneer in the use of virtual production techniques. It was something he looked to take to a new level on The Lion King.

“I wanted to make sure,” says Legato, “that the working environment that we were in was collaborative enough that Caleb could say, I have this crazy idea, I want to do this, let’s go do that. As opposed to saying, ‘It can’t be done.’ All of a sudden, in my experience, you will find a shot that’s even better.”

“What made it really easy for me,” comments Deschanel (a six-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer for films including The Right Stuff and The Natural)”, “was that Rob and the people at Magnopus [the studio behind the virtual production tools] designed things that were so much like what I’m used to. I didn’t need to reinvent things that I didn’t know. It was lenses, it was dollies, it was cranes. The two of us could then just concentrate on thinking, ‘How do we tell this story?’

“And the great thing about the world that we were in, this virtual world, was that, you could try infinite things,” continues Deschanel. “You didn’t have to wait for the wranglers to take the wildebeest back to the first position, because you just pressed the button and they were there. So this really gave us a lot of freedom that really made it much more exciting than I expected it to be.”

The intention of those tools was to replicate the kind of spontaneous filmmaking that occurs on a live-action set and ultimately produce a closely-followed template of action and lighting for editorial and for visual effects studio MPC to complete the final shots. The result was that The Lion King could be shot with all the principles – and restrictions – of live-action filmmaking in mind, but without having to train animals or film in challenging environments.

“It was quite a bit different than I expected it to be,” Deschanel says of his The Lion King experience, which involved collaborating with Legato and the filmmaking team largely on a purpose-built capture stage in Playa Vista. “I guess I had really no idea what I was getting myself into. It turns out it was like making a regular movie in the most wonderful way, without the dangers of being attacked by lions or getting heat stroke or any of the other things that are the by-products of shooting out in the real African savanna.”

Legato notes that one of the key areas of collaboration came from being able to scout proxy landscapes and shots in VR. This could be done with multiple people donning VR goggles at the same time. “We could go into VR, take a quick peek at the environment, and then as we were operating the camera or making suggestions, we’d know where we were because we’d seen it.”

The Lion King director Jon Favreau, Deschanel, Production Designer James Chinlund, Animation Supervisor Andy Jones and Legato discuss the film.

CINEMATIC SOLUTIONS, VIRTUALLY

The new virtual production paradigm gave Legato and Deschanel ample opportunity to make scenes that followed traditional cinematography techniques, or use them in different ways. One example was being able to experiment with virtual Steadicams, or even repurposing pre-animated characters in the scene as ‘cameras’ themselves.

“The big thing in making the movie was the fact that the tools were very familiar and were designed to mimic a hundred years of filmmaking and all the things that we’ve learned over that period of time to make movies,” outlines Deschanel. “Beyond that, it was up to your imagination to see how you could piece those things together in interesting ways to go beyond that and get out of your comfort zone and try different things. And if it failed, it didn’t matter because you could press a button and start over again and try something else.”

Another example was sun position, something that could have always been kept in a realistic spot between different shots. But, notes Deschanel, “we literally moved the sun in every shot. What I discovered was that if you just left the sun in the same place, you’d come around to a different angle and it would never feel right. So we would adjust the sun in every shot to feel like the other shot. It was never to destroy the sense of reality, but it was actually to enhance the sense of reality.”

A further discovery was the importance of realistic focus pulling and dolly moving in the virtual cinematography. Although those kinds of things could be achieved ‘in the computer,’ Deschanel and Legato ultimately sought to have them done on the capture stage with trained focus pullers and dolly grips. It also ensured that seemingly simplistic filmmaking methods prevailed, despite the fact that the camera and characters could literally do anything in CG.

“For example,” describes Legato, “there’s an early introduction of Scar that I particularly liked where the staging is outrageously simple. It’s a mouse on a vine and Scar just walks forward. But what makes it magical – what makes it cinematic – is depth of field. Scar is merging from dark to light and the light hits him exactly right. The focus being pulled at exactly the right time creates this piece of cinema that belies the simplicity of the staging.

“Here, the operator is the audience, the focus puller is the audience, the grip is the audience,” attests Legato. “If the filmmaker is doing it correctly, you automatically look where you’re supposed to, even if it feels invisible. It’s an intangible thing that you see in good movies with good filmmakers.”

This also played into one of the duo’s goals for The Lion King – to try and avoid the perfection that could easily be achieved in a CG film. “In fact,” says Legato, “whenever you’re shooting something, you try for perfection and you can never get it. The sun might not behave or the actor might miss their mark or the dolly grip might be a little late. But that’s human and that’s life. In the computer, you get everything perfect, but you don’t want it.”

So, the idea of the virtual camera tools on the stage was, in part, to provide for the ‘happy accidents’ that happen on a real set. Even though the filmmakers could do multiple takes to try and get the best shot, they invariably would return to the take that felt the most natural.

“All those elements added to that feeling that the film was handmade,” suggests Deschanel, “that the focus was there and the decisions were made based on what you’re seeing on the screen and not just based on some computer deciding that, okay, now it’s time to switch to the next character.”

“The big thing in making the movie was the fact that the tools were very familiar and were designed to mimic a hundred years of filmmaking and all the things that we’ve learned over that period of time to make movies. Beyond that it was up to your imagination to see how you could piece those things together in interesting ways to go beyond that and get out of your comfort zone and try different things. And if it failed it didn’t matter because you could press a button and start over again and try something else.”

—Caleb Deschanel, ASC, Director of Photography

Young Simba, Timon and Pumbaa. Deschanel found new ways to film some of the scenes with these characters virtually.

Scar gets a visit from Mufasa and Zazu. Key lighting decisions were made during the virtual cinematography stage.

MPC’s final elephant graveyard shot.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I’m still learning from the masters how to light something, how to compose something, how to shoot something, how to operate something and how to create an emotional effect with cinematography. So with Caleb I could be a student, and I’m a collaborator at the same time and appreciate both spectrums. It was a perfect storm for me.”

—Rob Legato, ASC, Visual Effects Supervisor

At right, Deschanel and Legato review using Magnopus-built tools to capture a scene.

The Lion King director Jon Favreau, right, with Director of Photography Deschanel.

Deschanel grips a hand-held virtual camera on the shooting stage.

LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER

Both Deschanel and Legato say they were able to push each other further as filmmakers during the making of The Lion King, both in a technical and aesthetic sense.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I’m still learning from the masters how to light something, how to compose something, how to shoot something, how to operate something and how to create an emotional effect with cinematography,” says Legato. “So with Caleb I could be a student, and I’m a collaborator at the same time and appreciate both spectrums. It was a perfect storm for me.”

Deschanel returns the sentiment. “Part of what makes Rob amazing, aside from his visual sense and wonderful sense of storytelling, is also his understanding of all the tools and all the things that we use to make movies. It just became this wonderful, embryonic fluid of creation. It was really amazing. It was really a lot of fun.”


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