Lion King Robert Legato interview

Exclusive – Bringing THE LION KING to Life: A Chat with Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato

For decades Rob Legato has been at the forefront of creating magical images on screen. The four-time Oscar nominee began his career on Television with Twilight Zone, yet became a nerdy household name to a generation of Trekkers for his work on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He followed that with mega-productions such as Apollo 13 and Titanic, and has worked on everything from Harry Potter and Cast Away to several of Scorsese’s productions.

His latest partnership has been with John Favreau, helping to bring the photoreal characters of Jungle Book and now The Lion King to life. With social media teasing notions of “digital fur technology” it’s easy to lose track of just how the technology has matured to the extent it has, leaving questions about what should be done trumping what can be accomplished using contemporary tools.

That Shelf spoke prior to the release of Lion King on Blu Ray, discussing how this billion-dollar smash came to life.

That Shelf: Can you talk about bringing the lions to life while ensuring that you have both reality and the characters trending through?

Robert Legato: We had some experience doing it in Jungle Book, where we had to do kind of a similar thing. When we embarked on doing this one we wanted to make it even more naturalistic and making every moment of the background and the foreground and the staging feel like it becomes invisible. You just now watch the story that has transcended itself over the years, from Shakespearean plays to the animated movie to the Broadway play to now this live action depiction of the same material. The striving part was, like you do in all good movies, is to suspend disbelief – you believe that what you’re looking at is real, it’s not an actor, it’s not a set, it’s not a costume, it’s not any of those things. It’s telling me that it’s real so I can now disregard it and just watch the story unfold. That’s the challenge of doing something like this, and if there’s a misstep in there, the audience will perceive it. The constant guiding shot after shot after shot to make sure it passes that kind of test. It was really difficult to do, but rewarding when you pull it off.

The danger, then, is to get caught in the technical execution over the needs of the scene or film

You don’t want it to be a visual effects film. It’s a film, it’s a movie. You shouldn’t know the technique that was used, and the better you are at it, the more invisible our work is. I’d like it if somebody had no idea that we filmed the movie the way we filmed it – They would think we went out on location, got real animals, either trained them to open their mouths, or did some sort of vague treatment on top of it [ed. like Babe], and did it convincingly enough that it looks like it’s a real movie, as if we e magically found the right takes when they looked like they were behaving properly, like when you normally shoot an animal in a film. That was the goal, that you forget that it’s a visual effect.

Is there any photography in the entire film that has not been manipulated?

There’s no plate photography. There’s actually one real shot in the movie, which is the opening shot in the film, which is the sunrise. There were a couple of shots that we used – it’s very hard to shoot a moon and not make it look fake, so the easiest thing for me to do was to have that real moon shot, and have all of the spherical aberrations that are associated with a long lens, but the foreground is of course composited on top of it. So there’s only one shot that is totally intact – there are no other plates, no landscapes that are used in the film at all. Some skies that are real, a percentage of them are real, but no physical landscapes. Everything was created for this.

What is the advantage of doing it this way? Is it simply control or is it also aesthetic?

I think that it’s intangibly all of a piece, all in the same environment. Even when you do a composite shot with a different camera, slightly different lens, different time of day, different lighting, and the sum total of all of those makes a successful or not successful composite. With Lion King everything is totally created through the same prism, and so I think you believe it more. It would be an interesting test to intercut some of our stuff – forget the talking portion for a second, and cut side by side with an absolute real shot in Africa. You may sense the difference between the two of them, that we’ve suspended disbelief enough for you to believe it, but now compared to the grittiness of real Africa and the grittiness of the animals and all of the various things, would you believe it more or less? In our case, I think that we totally recreate the world and everything that’s in the world shot from the same prism, it looks like it’s all of a piece. I believe it’s more successful that way.


You and your team obviously have to obey the strictures that are brought by the director and their team. There’s a balance between wanting these characters to live vs. suspend disbelief when an animal starts singing, and also the technical and aesthetic challenges of creating as we said that reality. Was there a thought of maybe dialing back some of the photorealism in order to inject some of the more cartoonish elements that made the original so beloved?

Once you go down that slope you have to then alter the way you view everything. We decided that the movie we’re making was as if it were real. What would it look like if we did not exaggerate performance or jaw movement, because then, how much of that do you do and not do? Then you’re trying to imitate the magic of the original, without all of the original’s artifice of colourful backgrounds and things that your brain says well, it’s not real, so anything goes. When 99% of it’s real, but yet you’ve exaggerated one element, then you don’t buy any of it.

Was that a deep discussion that was had? Or was that a decision already made by the producer/director?

We all had discussions how much are we going to vary from [the original], including camera movement and lighting and not making overly dramatic skies and various things like that. We were all in complete collaboration, and we’re all making the same movie. It’s John’s pick – he could have chosen to do something else, but he wanted to task us with the idea that we’re making a totally realistic film. You stretch it a little bit with the singing part – the talking part we sort of buy that scenario with Jungle Book and other films that we’ve seen talking animals in, it’s a convention you kind of get away with – but the singing, not so much. Dancing, definitely not! We were curbing the over-the-top nature of it on purpose. We were not trying to animate or create the illusion that it was animated, we wanted to create the illusion that it was real.

Often what you do, the magic that you and your team does is invisible in the true sense, yet as much as you strive for reality your work is completely exposed here. You’re right that many people will not be able to delineate between a real lion and a not real lion, but as you’ve mentioned, practically every frame of this film is fully exposed to the work that you and your team are doing.

You have to appreciate what movies really are. They’re not real life, they’re cinema life. They are totally conjured up to create the illusion that it’s real with totally artificial moments. That includes live action stuff – There’s no real difference between our conjured world and the conjured world that’s built on the set, with a 12k shining through the window to look like it’s real light, and all of the various things and the costumes. It’s artificial, all of it’s fake. It’s the quality and the coalescing all of these elements that make you say, all right, I’m going to suspend that that’s what I’m looking at, and believe what I’m seeing is real. Ours is no different, so I don’t view it quite differently than making a regular movie. If you film it with the idea that you’re making a movie, and not a visual effect, you are imitating the same conditions with VR filming and everything else, and same opinions of what a shot should be or shouldn’t be. I’m recreating what it would be like if I was doing it on a set – I’m not recreating real life, I’m creating what a movie life is. I have a camera, I shoot five takes, I like the fourth one more than the first one, and the fourth one goes in the movie, and oh, by the way, the first one’s, this moment looked a little better than the fourth one, so let’s put that in. That’s how a movie is made in live action or otherwise, so we did the same thing.

So the same techniques, but simply using new tools?

Real film is made with artificial elements. On a good day we’re doing no less and our ability to judge it is not what real life is but what movie life is. Does that shot move me? Is there a reason why I put that shot right next to the other shot? Am I advancing the story or am I not, as opposed to am I impressed with my visual effect work, or my seamlessness? All of that kind of goes out the window when you’re making a movie – it’s is it a good shot or a bad shot, does it fit the bill or does it not fit the bill. Every time we watched the movie and I judged a shot, I put it in the context of the movie to view if it’s working or not as opposed to in the traditional visual effects where you look at it in and of itself and describe or tear down the merits of the shot. Here it’s about whether it emotionally works – you drop it in to the film, with music, sound effects and the rest and colour correct it so it feels cohesive with the rest of the film. It’s totally embracing the live, intuitive, iterative context of filmmaking and not the kind of more intellectually based version of a computer generated image or a visual effect image. It’s changing the technique of how we view and shoot and create these images, using intuition as the guiding light, not the intellect.

The Lion King Feature
Are the tools now available for you to do anything you want?

The storytelling’s always affecting the technology. You come up with the story, and then you figure out a way of filming it. The tail that wags the dog is the technology, but the dog is the story, and that’s all that we’re doing. The taste level of the person who’s driving the show makes the tool work or it doesn’t work, a good cameraman uses the same camera, uses the same film, uses the same lights, it’s just the taste level of the person who’s doing it advances the art form more than the technology advances the art form.

Are there still tools, are there breakthroughs and groundbreaking elements that you think or is it more iterative now?

It’s more iterative now. I think that you can do anything and you now have to adhere to just what entertains people more than, and move away from the box that created it because that doesn’t really do anything. A piano is inert, it just is waiting for input to make music, and it’s the caliber of the musician that brings it to life and makes something entertaining out of it. The advancement I think is the artist more than the technology, but we are capable of recreating anything. It has to be worth creating though! Everybody wants to know about making a digital human – yeah, you can make one, but they have to be Marlon Brando, they have to entertain, they have to be that you can’t take your eyes off of them. Although we can make the image of one, you don’t necessarily make a movie star out of it, and they have to act, they have to behave, they have to tell a story, they have to do all of these various things. Yes, we can convince your eye, before they start speaking, that it’s real, but the rest of it is the art of acting and storytelling and why are we doing it in the first place.