Rob Legato uses Blackmagic Design to create virtual production for The Lion King

Photo credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato used a wide variety of Blackmagic Design products to create the virtual production environment for the live-action version of Disney’s The Lion King. The film, which was released in July this year, was directed by Jon Favreau and features the voices of Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

With the technology available today, producing a 3D animated feature film doesn’t have to be a process of waiting for test animations from an animation team. Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, an Academy Award winner for films such as Hugo and The Jungle Book, wanted to take the technology to a new level, and create a space where traditional filmmakers could work in a digital environment, using the familiar tools found on live action sets. “The goal wasn’t to generate each shot in the computer,” said Legato, “but to photograph the digital environment as if it were a real set.”

Bringing beloved characters back to the big screen in a whole new way, the story journeys to the African savanna where a future king must overcome betrayal and tragedy to assume his rightful place on Pride Rock. Like the original 1994 movie from Disney Animation, which was for its time an amazing accomplishment in 2D animation, the 2019 version pushed the abilities of modern technology once more, this time utilising advanced computer graphics to create a never before seen photorealistic style. But beyond the final look, the project embraced new technology throughout, including during production, utilising a cutting edge virtual environment.

The production stage where The Lion King was shot might look strange, with unusual devices filling the main floor and an array of technicians behind computers around the perimeter, but these were just the bones of the process. To begin shooting, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel wore headsets that placed them in the virtual world of Mufasa and Simba.

Rather than forcing the filmmakers to adapt to digital tools, Legato modified physical filmmaking devices to work within the virtual world. A crane unit was modified with tracking devices to allow the computers to recreate its motion precisely in the computer. Even a Steadicam was brought in, allowing Deschanel to move the camera virtually with the same tools as a live action shoot. The goal was to let production create in a traditional way, using standard tools that existed not just on a stage but in the computer. “In traditional pre vis you would move the camera entirely within the computer,” said Legato. “But in our virtual environment, we literally laid down dolly track on the stage, and it was represented accurately on the digital set.”

Blackmagic Design was not simply a part of the system, but the backbone for the process, providing the infrastructure for the virtual world as well as the studio as a whole. “We used Blackmagic products first as video routing for the entire building,” said visual effects producer Matt Rubin, “and at every stage of handling video, from capturing footage shot by the team using DeckLink cards, through Micro Studio Camera 4Ks as witness cameras, Teranex standards converters and various ATEM video switchers such as the ATEM Production Studio 4K and ATEM Television Studio HD.

Editorial and visual effects were networked together via Smart Videohubs routers to allow both departments access to the screening room, as well as act as sources to the screening room for shots. During virtual production, as the computers generated the virtual environment, DeckLink capture and playback cards captured the footage and played through a video network, feeding into a control station and recorded on HyperDeck Studio Minis.