Posted Jun 04

The building blocks of life: achieving photorealism in ‘The Lion King’

by Joe Beedle
The building blocks of life: achieving photorealism in ‘The Lion King’ by Joe Beedle

In December 2019, Siggraph hosted a sold out event, also sponsored by Foundry, at the luxurious May Fair Hotel, where MPC VFX Supervisor Elliot Newman shared how a team of 1,200 visual effects (VFX) artists alongside director Jon Favreau brought Disney’s The Lion King to a new generation. In this look-back piece, we highlight key points from the talk.

As the sole provider of the visual effects and animation for this film, the MPC team was led by VFX Supervisors Adam Valdez and Elliot Newman, who worked closely with VFX Supervisor Rob Legato and Animation Supervisor Andy Jones, crafting every photo-real frame of the movie. Newman noted that The Lion King largely “came off the back of The Jungle Book”, an earlier Disney remake to which the MPC team contributed 1,200 shots of VFX and further broke ground in the industry.

For The Jungle Book, MPC needed to render 400 different species of animals, 500 species of plants and trees, and do so across 58 different sets. Moreover, the team did not have a pipeline in place to handle the complexity of the dynamic environments in the movie, and so had to build one from scratch.

The Jungle Book itself was a huge feat in VFX, but also was a key platform that enabled MPC to develop their knowledge and tools to innovate new workflows and pipelines for The Lion King, arguably their largest and most extensive work to date.

Now, unlike The Jungle Book, the only plate available to build on in The Lion King was a blank blue screen on a computer.

“[Nearly] every pixel was generated by a render,” Newman said.

Whereas The Jungle Book was shot on sets and stages in Los Angeles, The Lion King made no use of practical photography, bar the opening shot of the sunrise, which was actual footage from the Kenyan savanna. 

Instead, The Lion King was shot on a virtual stage where the MPC team utilised virtual reality tools and monitors to simulate similar filming processes used on a traditional set. This was a completely new process, which allowed members of the team who were used to live-action work, such as Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to artistically apply similar live-action methods to the full CG project.

To achieve the impressive photorealism in the film, the MPC team wanted to build from accurate references in the real world. The movie was also filmed in documentary filmmaking style, which brought the team to Kenya, where they thoroughly documented the landscape, nature, and animals of the savanna to build an extensive portfolio from which to refer to when sculpting all the wildlife in software.

(WATCH: Scar comes to life in this VFX character breakdown)

Newman noted that when developing real-time skin and rig workflows – working together to build on top of previous systems – a lot of the time was spent referencing footage shot in Kenya. This is in addition to documenting high-resolution images of the sun, which would allow the team to accurately emulate the intensity, brightness and the colour temperature of the sun during the animation process.

The team also visited a zoo, where they had a multicamera setup that allowed them to closely monitor animal behaviours and mechanics, such as muscle, fur and skin movements. Newman showed presented animation examples of background animal characters, contrasted with clips of their real-life counterparts, and the similarities were striking. 

Check out the full visual effects breakdown reel for The Lion King here plus a breakdown specifically for the film’s environments here. –

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