Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a six-time Oscar nominee, is now 75, so how would he take to using brand new technology to shoot purely digital lions and hyenas in a virtual, photorealistic desert?
Like a duck to water, it turns out.
“I was terrified because it was completely visual effects; how do you do that and still maintain what you understand about filmmaking?” Deschanel says.
But it helps if you work with Oscar-winning visual effects wizard Rob Legato.
“I got together with Rob and this [visual experience] company, Magnopus, in downtown L.A., and I learned that the way the movie works is you create this world in 3-D, and within that virtual world, I have all the tools I’m used to using,” he says of shooting director Jon Favreau’s all-CG “The Lion King.”
What viewers will get right away are the astonishingly photoreal characters and environments, the phenomenal detail in textures in everything from fur to water to reflections of light. That technology has moved forward even since Favreau and Legato’s Oscar-winning achievements in “The Jungle Book.” And with “ray tracing,” computers generate physically, mathematically accurate simulations of light that give filmmakers total control.
But there has been another, even more stunning advancement that viewers will feel more than see: The filmmakers now move about, themselves, within the 3-D, virtual-reality environments of the film. That means they can location scout, block action and shoot live as they would in a live-action movie. Rather than pointing and clicking on a computer screen to direct photography, they move physical cameras in the studio linked to virtual ones and react in real time to what the animated characters do.
“I had [real] dollies, I had cranes, I had cameras, I had lenses,” says Deschanel. “I could hand-hold the camera. We had Steadicam. I took to it so fast, I couldn’t believe it. Normally, with a film this steeped in technology, you’d think it would require some 27-year-old wunderkind. But Jon said, ‘I don’t want you to have to be at a computer and learn to code. I want you to bring the sensibilities you’ve brought to all the films you’ve done, to this movie.’ ”
Legato says of the VR tools, “You walk into the room, you put these things on, you say, ‘Oh, I’m on the set. There’s the rocks, there’s the trees, the sunlight.’ One of the big problems on the previous movies was, even though it was so cool to look through a portal, I didn’t get the chance to absorb the room as I would in real life. To me it felt like if I could provide that for Caleb, he could be instantly comfortable by walking around and feeling, ‘Yeah, now I know where the dolly goes, where the crane goes, where they’re walking.’”
For Deschanel, it feels like any other movie experience. “The sense of reality this movie has comes from ... the animals created by these incredible visual effects, and the environments. But it also comes from the fact that when the camera is operating, you feel that there’s a person behind it. It has the same feel as any documentary or live feature film you’re used to.”
Both men say they hit it off right away, developing a rapport that led to finishing each other’s sentences.
“This happened a couple of times — Caleb would leave the room, I’d critique a shot: ‘Well, the light’s in the wrong spot.’ He’d come back in and go, ‘The light’s in the wrong spot.’ Someone said, ‘Did you guys rehearse that?’ ” Legato says.
It didn’t take long for them to come up with something worth keeping, using the new tech.
“Literally in the offices of Magnopus, we figured out a shot that’s in the movie today,” Deschanel says of a dolly shot with animals coming to Pride Rock with the sun behind them.
Legato says, “It’s in all the trailers. It was an off-the-cuff thing: What if we put the sun back there? That’s kind of the nature of doing this: ‘I have a feeling; I want to try something,’ as opposed to ‘I planned it out, storyboarded it, over-thought it.’”
Yes, they moved the sun at will. After so many years of dealing with unexpected clouds, the fleeting minutes of magic hour or actors dropping lines, Deschanel finally had godlike control over every element. How do you celebrate that? If you’re Deschanel, you insert imperfections.
“When I’m lighting something, I’ll always put a bit of sunlight out of the way or overexpose something slightly — you always want to feel there’s something a little bit out of control in the frame. ‘Oh, they must have just grabbed that,’” he said.
Legato notes, “In live action, you live with what’s the best-performed take. Do we wait another six takes to get it? In CG, everything is perfect, but you don’t want it to be, because it doesn’t have soul. So we created these analog input devices.”
“You don’t realize how much your feeling in a movie is guided by human hands and by human movement,” says Deschanel. “You realize there was something about the take where you missed the lion jumping out of the frame and then you caught up with it.”
But although the tech may be awe-inspiring to those who use it, it’s the reactions of viewers that really matter.
“Let’s face it, we really made it for — I made it for my grandson, who I took to see it when he was 7,” says Deschanel. “We went to see it in Imax 3-D at Universal. I spent most of the time watching him. It was the most delightful experience. He was just amazed. It was great.”