'The Lion King': Answering the Live-Action Vs. Animated Feature Debate Once and for All

Updated on May 10, 2019
Sayan C profile image

Sayan is a film enthusiast and has a degree in mass media from Mumbai University. He is a practicing filmmaker and writer from Mumbai.

The poster from 'The Lion King' showcasing the photo-realistic Simba. Film releasing on July 18, 2019
The poster from 'The Lion King' showcasing the photo-realistic Simba. Film releasing on July 18, 2019

On Thanksgiving Day, Disney dropped the teaser to one of the most beloved classics of all time, The Lion King. Fans have been roaring across the internet with sheer bouts of nostalgia over the fact that the teaser seemed like a shot-to-shot remake of the original 1994 animated musical.

With the full-fledged first trailer released a month ago and the marketing campaign around the corner, Disney is purporting a huge trick up its sleeves.

The film is being effectively billed as live-action rather than an animated feature that most people would associate it with. Even the investors of the Walt Disney Company were assured by CEO Bob Iger himself in a 2018 shareholders’ meeting that they were working on a new live-action remake.

Officially, the film is being produced not by Walt Disney Animation Studios, but by Walt Disney Pictures, which is the branch of Disney film studios that produces live-action films and is being promoted as part of Disney’s ongoing series of live-action remakes.

But many, if not all, are having a hard time terming the practically all CGI film as a live-action rehash of the classic.

Behind the scenes (from left to right): Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Donald Glover (Simba), Jon Favreau (director) and Billy Eichner (Timon)
Behind the scenes (from left to right): Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Donald Glover (Simba), Jon Favreau (director) and Billy Eichner (Timon)

This has caused a lot of confusion and contention as well as rebuttals for any media/entertainment outlet calling it a live-action film.

It is an uncomfortable stand for a production to take (certainly at this point) that appears to have been achieved primarily through established animation and visual effects techniques.

The reason Disney would want this kind of reaction to their new picture is that familiarity breeds contentment. According to Psychology Today, familiar things make us more comfortable. They are also a sign of something being safer than things that are not. If it is easier for our minds to make the association to a live-action feature, it makes crying over a bunch of computer-animated animals all the more acceptable. There is a lot of emotional weight that these creations will carry. They need to be believable. Otherwise, we won’t be able to take that journey.

The Jungle Book: Jon Favreau (director) in conversation with Neel Sethi (Mowgli). The movie released in 2016 to a roaring global success.
The Jungle Book: Jon Favreau (director) in conversation with Neel Sethi (Mowgli). The movie released in 2016 to a roaring global success.

Directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed the 2016 box office winner The Jungle Book, the new film is poised to offer a handful of surprises. There is also some joy to be found in getting reacquainted with the cuddly favorites of the Animal Kingdom as voiced by the likes of Donald Glover (Simba) and Beyoncé (Nala).

The Jungle Book, with estimated earnings of $966 million at the global box office, not only warranted a sequel but also convinced the upper echelon at Disney to give Jon Favreau reigns to one of the most beloved movies of all time—The Lion King. And so The Lion King entered principal photography in summer 2017 and is scheduled to hit the theatres this summer.

The Jungle Book was a template for what Disney was hoping to achieve with this technology. That Disney film would never be as popular as The Lion King will be, but it was a good chance to see what was possible in our modern era.

Now that Disney wants the association of The Lion King as a live action film, it not only places the movie in a familiar collection of films but it's also a testament to the kind of work they are doing.

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios of Motion Picture Productions
Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios of Motion Picture Productions

“[I]t is a new form of filmmaking,” Bailey recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “Historical definitions don’t work. It uses some techniques that would traditionally be called animation, and other techniques that would traditionally be called live action. It is an evolution of the technology Jon [Favreau] used in Jungle Book.”

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios of Motion Picture Productions, sidestepped the issue by telling an interviewer that people cannot label the film either live action or animation.

“[I]t is a new form of filmmaking,” Bailey recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “Historical definitions don’t work. It uses some techniques that would traditionally be called animation, and other techniques that would traditionally be called live action. It is an evolution of the technology Jon [Favreau] used in Jungle Book.

To understand Sean Bailey’s words better, here is an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly that detailed the production process:

"From the very beginning, Favreau demanded the same freedom a director would have on a live-action set in terms of mobility and camera movements. In order to achieve this, the set of ‘The Lion King’ was set up as essentially a virtual reality world that put Favreau and his crew on location. To access the set the crew wore virtual reality headgear, which brought them into whatever location and scene the production was shooting that day, be it Pride Rock, elephant graveyards, or the African savannah. Each set was a 360 degree virtual reality space, similar to a video game in which you can have your character walk around freely. Every crew member was represented in the VR set by an avatar. Favreau was represented by a blue avatar. The technology included a hand controller that allowed each user to walk around the space, but mobility on the VR set could defy gravity. Favreau, for instance, could float in the sky and look down at a setting like Pride Rock."

EW reporter Marc Snetiker tried out the VR technology, writing, “Using the controller in your real-life hand, you eventually figure out how to fly up and join [Favreau], and suddenly there you are, suspended in the clouds alongside the director, watching a scene play out between two animated lions on the rocky, sun-drenched peak.”

All the scenes were rendered using key frame animation. The scene would then be played again and again, with the freedom of the VR set allowing Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to move around the space with the ‘camera’ and film the scenes from any perspective that they wished to.

Visual effects supervisor (Disney) Rob Legato who won Oscars for Titanic, Hugo and Jungle Book is reteaming with Jungle Book director Jon Favreau on Disney’s live-action retelling of The Lion King, which will incorporate virtual production techniques
Visual effects supervisor (Disney) Rob Legato who won Oscars for Titanic, Hugo and Jungle Book is reteaming with Jungle Book director Jon Favreau on Disney’s live-action retelling of The Lion King, which will incorporate virtual production techniques

"I don’t consider this an animated movie.", Rob Legato told THR, "I consider this just a movie, and this happened to be the best way to make it. We [made] it comfortable for Jon Favreau to come in and be able to direct as if it was a live-action film."

According to Girish Balakrishnan, Virtual Production Supervisor at MPC (one of the key studios involved), a unique form of virtual cinematography was developed in collaboration with the virtual reality studio Magnopus that seamlessly leveraged motion capture and VR / AR technologies to engage directly with the director, cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects supervisor.

Interestingly, one of the visual effects supervisors on this film, Rob Legato, who also worked on The Jungle Book told THR in 2016 that he considers these "virtual productions" to still be live-action: "I don’t consider this an animated movie. I consider this just a movie, and this happened to be the best way to make it. We [made] it comfortable for Jon Favreau to come in and be able to direct as if it was a live-action film."

A rudimentary distinction between live-action and animation (including the use of computer generated imagery and the like) is that live-action uses photography; essentially, in its most basic description, live-action movies are created using cameras. Live-action doesn't only mean humans appearing on-screen; it's an industry term for the process in which a movie is filmed.

A still from 'The Lion King' featuring Timon and Pumbaa
A still from 'The Lion King' featuring Timon and Pumbaa

Well The Lion King may not appear ‘live-action’ in the traditional sense but it has been filmed on the blue screen stage as the case with many tentpole blockbuster movies these days. The movie has been filmed with traditional live-action techniques juxtaposed with computer generated elements.

Disney’s The Lion King will always be celebrated as a grand artistic endeavor. With the ever-increasing boom in technology it is very impressive to see what Disney and its visual effects team has achieved with this film. Now we wait and see how they pull off the Hakuna Matata musical piece!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Sayan Chakraborty

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      • Sayan C profile imageAUTHOR

        Sayan Chakraborty 

        7 months ago from Mumbai

        As of now, with the lines blurring between live-action and animated features, it seems that an on-screen human actor/actress is the only thing that stands in between.

        Everything is being digitally achieved or retouched and those traditional, loose production terms simply don't hold by.

        We need proper cinematic phrases that encapsulates today's 'all-digital' solutions focussing on the approachability to a problem and the final resolution of it.

      • ChrisSawin profile image

        Chris Sawin 

        7 months ago from Houston, TX

        I guess speaking as a critic, I thrive for original storytelling and creativity. I understand the financial decision to remake animated films as live-action ones since people are still paying to see them, but it seems lazy from a creative standpoint. None of the live-action remakes Disney has done has really wowed me or made me want to watch them more than once. And even looking at this year's Dumbo, which entire second half was completely different from its animated counterpart, it under-performed at the box office which only fuels Disney's insistence on not changing the formula too much. Why offer something different when the same thing keeps making money?

        Live-action techniques aside, if a film isn't shot on-location, is done mostly in front of a green or blue screen, and has heavy use of motion capture or CGI then it should be considered animated. Live action films are usually a mix of these things with human actors or aren't entirely created using some sort of animation program. With The Lion King having nothing but a CGI cast, it seems weird to call it live-action. I'm all for animated stuff since I'm a huge fan of animation and this new method of animated filmmaking sounds really cool, but to make the argument that it's not animated is silly to me.

        Anyway, the tl;dr version of this is great article!

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