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Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato on Creating a Photo-Realistic ‘The Lion King’

Disney’s “The Lion King” remake, which won outstanding visual effects in a photoreal feature and putstanding virtual cinematography in a CG project at the Visual Effects Society, was a game-changer when it came to filmmaking. Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato and the VFX team took elements from live-action filmmaking, mixed in virtual reality technology and gaming technology to bring it all to life.

“When we did ‘Jungle Book,’ the question mark was whether we could pull it off and make it look real enough,” he says — and they did. This time around, it was about making everything look real enough and advancing the art form.

It helped that it was the same team working together on both “Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.” Legato likens it to the heyday of the studio musicals. “They had the same people do each and every new movie; the same musicians, dancers and directors. They perfected their art form, and we think of VFX like that,” Legato says.

Animation supervisor Andy Jones took what they had learned from “The Jungle Book” by going to Africa and going on a two-week-long safari.

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The team developed software to build the environments, since the pride land was gigantic. On “The Jungle Book,” the team had to fake the grass in distant shots, but the new software allowed them for further refining and capturing. “We couldn’t render them because there was no computing power big enough to achieve that,” Legato says. “There were miles and miles of open savanna with foliage, grass, trees, plants, rocks and life in the individual little stains and twigs of leaves on the ground.”

They mimicked animal behavior and studied real lions in the wilderness and captured the footage they needed. Rather than put their footage through the normal animation pipeline, “We did it in 360. We could place the camera anywhere on the set and just photograph,” Legato explains.

Rigs were constructed to behave like the real creatures. When an arm moved, the rig moved a muscle or the relevant part of the body. The safari footage allowed the team to replicate those movements on those rigs with precision. “We looked at the muscle movement, weight of distribution and lighting. It was all based on simulation, mimicking the physics of real life,” he says.

Lighting advances allowed them to simulate the way light reflected and bounced off things. “Shadows contribute, colors contribute and where the brain is used to seeing that reflection. It looks real because your brain thinks it looks real.”

Aside from mimicking the animals and getting as close to the real thing as possible, Legato and the team also observed the actors’ behavior.

The actor performances were shot in a black box theater. Legato created the behavior that matches both voice and character. Jones would capture that, infuse it into the animals and animate it, “within the realm of it being real. It can’t be overly animated because that would change the concept of the movie.” Legato says.

“What (director) Jon Favreau did really well was create animal behavior, combine actor behavior and make it all a unified effort,” Legato says.

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