Most people probably know Jon Favreau as an actor, in everything from his breakout hit Swingers to the redoubtable Happy Hogan in the MCU. But he has quietly racked up a staggeringly impressive resume behind the camera, including the likes of Elf, Made, The Jungle Book, and oh yeah, lighting the fuse on the MCU with the original Iron Man. His exceptional work on The Jungle Book make him the go-to choice for Disney’s newest live-action reboot, The Lion King. He spoke about the project, and some of the technical secrets that went into creating it, during a recent press junket for the film.
Question: The Jungle Book really opened some doors as to how to tell these kinds of stories. How did you apply those lessons to The Lion King?
Jon Favreau: I’ve been working on both these movies back-to-back for about six years. And I had finally learned how to use all the new technology that was available by the end of The Jungle Book. At that point, we had a great team assembled. A lot of attention is paid to the technology, but really, these are handmade films. There are animators working on every shot; almost every environment that you see in the film is built from scratch by artists. The idea of using what we learned on that, along with the new technologies that were available to make a story like The Lion King with its great music, characters, and story, it seemed like a wonderful, logical conclusion.
Q: How long did you work on the film?
JF: I’ve been working about three years on this one, and a lot of cast and crew have been working for the same amount of time. The cast came in back when it was pencils, so it was a huge leap of faith for them. It was a huge leap of faith for everybody. And in many cases, they kept coming back and recording again and trying new things, especially with the comedy bits. This isn’t like one of those things where I’ve been toiling away alone. So this team isn’t just a bunch of people that recorded one time at a music stand. It’s been a huge raft of artists, people who were involved with developing the musical landscape of it, doing early recordings, and coming in and contributing through improvisation, redoing scenes, rewriting scenes.
Q: And you created a VR game? For everyone to sort of play around with?
JF: That was one of the big differences between this and The Jungle Book. In Jungle Book, we were essentially using the same motion capture technology for performers and cameras that had been developed ten years prior for Avatar. But towards the end of that, there was a whole slew consumer-facing VR products that were hitting the scene. We started experimenting with it at the end of Jungle Book and realized that we could build this really cool system of filmmaking using game engine technology and new VR technology. Essentially were writing code as we were going for a multiplayer VR filmmaking game. And that way I could bring in people who don’t have any background in visual effects, who could design the entire environments. We took all the recordings that we had from the actors. We would animate within the game engine (in this case, it was Unity). And the crew would be able to put on the headsets, go in, scout, and actually set cameras within VR. And whenever anybody visited, I would pop them into the equipment, and they could get a look at what we had in mind.
Oftentimes when new technology comes online, it disrupts an industry. But with just a little bit of effort, we were able to build around the way filmmakers and film crews work. So a guy like Caleb Deschanel – fantastic cinematographer who I’ve always wanted to work with – could do a very technically advanced film without any prior background in visual effects. We could just tell him, “hey, we’ll make it so that you could just make a movie as you would have made The Black Stallion.”
We kept the same film culture and planted it using this technology into the VR realm. Although the film was completely animated as far as performances went, it allowed a live-action film crew to go in and use the tools they were used to. Part of what’s so beautiful about the lighting, the camera work, the shots of the film, was that we were able to inherit a whole career of experience and artistry from our fantastic team. It’s nice to look at technology as an invitation for things to progress and not always something that’s going to change the way everything came before it. I think there’s a balance between innovation and tradition.
Q: How did you blend the actor’s reference video with the more animal-like qualities of the final film?
JF: There were lots of steps to this process, which is why it took so long. In the beginning, it was pencils and voices. To me, casting is the foundation of great cinematic storytelling. I didn’t come from the tradition of visual direction. It’s always been about storytelling and performance. I came up as an actor. My foundation is, “you can’t compromise one iota on cast.” You have to get the best people you can, because they’re the ones who are going to do everything. And we just built off of our cast.
It started with us just in a room, like a black-box theater. It was like theater rehearsal: what you’d do when you grab the book for the first time. Then you start to rough in: to figure your character out, and I had them all performing together. And we had everybody miked so that the sound was usable for the film. Then we’d have them interacting with one another and. At that point, we would cut a sort of radio play and we’d shoot video on long lenses just to have reference of what they were doing with their faces. Then we’d give that to the animators, who would take the choices that they made and interpolate it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do. If we just motion-captured their faces and put a human expression on the animal’s faces, it would blow the illusion of a naturalistic documentary. We looked at a lot of the work like Planet Earth 2: all of those Attenborough BBC documentaries and how much emotion can be expressed without human performance just through music and editorial and the stories you’re telling. Looking at movies like Babe that inspired The Jungle Book, with how much expression and emotion could come out of those characters without having a human performance. It really fell on the animator’s hands to try to figure out how to express their preferences through the language of an animal’s emotive language.