It’s hard to think of a remake of one of the most successful animated features of all time as an “experiment,” but in a lot of ways that’s exactly what The Lion King is. Like director Jon Favreau’s previous live-action redux The Jungle Book, and more recently, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, the film doesn’t merely aspire to replace cartoon characters with real people, but to breathe new life into its classic story. But the two big challenges faced by Favreau and the team at MPC Film on this summer’s blockbuster remake were creating a photorealistic environment that recreated the sun-dappled vistas of its African locales, and then populating them with animals that were not only as believable as their surroundings but expressive enough for audiences to care about what happens to them.
MPC Film CG Supervisor—and eventually, Lion King lighting supervisor—Julien Bolbach worked with Favreau and the rest of the team to pull off this tremendous feat, which involved creating 17 hero animals, 63 unique species, more than 650,000 bugs, and more than one billion blades of grass in a virtual space larger than 150 square kilometers. Nerdist spoke with Bolbach to discuss the process of transforming an animated film into something resembling a live-action nature documentary, and the ongoing obstacles that challenged his team as they recreated the 1994 film’s iconic sequences in a new way for new audiences.
The opening scene premiered at D23 two years ago. Was that the first scene you worked on?
I arrived just after they finished that piece for D23, and then the first sequence we started with was the wildebeest stampede, so obviously it was pretty vivid in our minds. But we had a lot of good references from the canyon that they chose as the real location. Our mandate was: How can we make that sequence look as beautiful as possible with lighting that looks real. And then there were all of the technical challenges of how are we going to make our cast look real, and it’s a lot of action so lighting can show a lot of things but it can also hide a lot of things. So it was this balance between what you want to see and what you can hide and what you want the audience to focus on. So that was a big challenge to get that right—all of the dust accumulation and the hundreds and thousands of animals moving around.
That was also interesting because the beginning of the sequence is Simba trying to find his roar, and you get pretty intimate with him. And that’s why we spent a lot of time trying to find the right design for the animation, but also then how do we get the fur right, and how do we get the lighting to fall on both characters in the right way. And then we went into the stampede where it’s a lot more hectic and a lot of animals, and the death is a big factor of how the action develops into that sequence. We ended with Mufasa’s death, and that again goes back to a very intimate sequence, so it’s how do you convey that sense of emotion in that moment. So that was a journey throughout that sequence that engulfed a lot of the work that we do on this kind of project.
How tough was it to create the verisimilitude of a photorealistic environment and at the same time something that was expressive?
The main thing is that we had a lot of references. We all knew the movie pretty well—it’s all in our memories. And then we also knew references that were shot in Africa, which was the end goal. So the big challenge was how to reproduce that complexity in the characters first, but also in the environments. I was a little less involved in the character work, but I worked closely with the environment team to create the savannahs and the jungle—a jungle that goes way beyond what they did on Jungle Book, which was quite contained in the sense that a few meters away from the camera, it was pretty enclosed. And here on the savannah, we need to see miles and miles away. So the challenge was to create something that looks as real as possible, but also within the technical constraints we had, how much we can fit into a computer to be able to render a truly beautiful image.
So would you say your responsibility was more technical and logistical than maybe artistic?
Some of my work is that for sure. Like, how do we execute the work? But when I got the lighting supervisor role, it was more about how do we take the mood of the scene shot by the [director of photography] and the crew on stage and convert that into a realistic image. So that was a more creative and artistic role at that point. There were lots of challenges converting the original one, like you go from a cartoon, which is 2D, to something that needs to look real and could have been photographed but still needs to look beautiful and compelling. So it was a big challenge to convert that into an image that looks believable and real.
How influenced were you by the original film to recreate the environments in a way that mirrors the look and locations, but also the expressiveness of the characters – and how tough was that balance to strike?
We all had it in our mind pretty strongly, and we all know the songs. We all know the story, we all know the way it looks. But throughout making this movie, we rarely went back to watch it. It was more the memory of it that was strong and that was kind of our legacy. We knew the sequences, but it was more about [doing] a different version of it in a way. But because we had those memories, we would remember all the important moments and tried to do a version that fulfills the vision of the director. So we’d say, how did they overcome that challenge in the original, but it would rarely be matching exactly the shot. But it was tricky. But the mandate from Jon Favreau was really interesting, because it recalled the way Walt Disney started with Snow White and was taking stories that everybody knows and used technology to tell the story in another way. And that is what’s happening with this one. While we have this great technology now, let’s do a new take on the same story in the same way that the Lion King musical was another take on the same story.
Was there a scene that was the most difficult to achieve because of the iconography of the original movie or the emotionality of a certain moment or just the visual complexity of something?
The death of Mufasa was a scene where we knew we had to strike a strong moment. For all the emotion, but also visually, we wanted to add something that was strong. And we spent a lot of time on the lighting and adjusting the environment to make these scenes iconic and pay tribute to the original and make sure that the emotion was there. That was one. But a lot of sequences had their own challenges. Mufasa in the cloud was challenging because it was a balance to strike between realism and something a bit stylized. But Mufasa’s death was one of the big moments that we especially wanted to get right.
At this point, how easy is it given the technology that you have for Jon Favreau and the filmmakers to go out and actually photograph and environment and then for you to put characters into that as opposed to creating both the characters and the environment from scratch inside the computer?
Well, environments are very hard, especially when you talk about vegetation and an ecosystem that works together with trees and bushes and grass. It’s not something you can easily reproduce in a computer with just reference [materials]. There’s a lot of work that’s been done recreating each species of grass, of trees, based on those references. But it’s still manual work to recreate the shape of the trees, the texture of the bark, all the leaves, and then make them also move through wind movement and all of that. And then it’s about how all these plans fit together in the environment. What kind of bushes grow next to the trees? What kind of grass grows in that dry environment, or in a more lush environment? So the references that the team shot at the being of the movie were very helpful to recreate them, but they were more like a guide for how it should look.