THE LION KING 2019: Four Fascinating Behind-The-Scenes Stories


Walt Disney Studios’ reimagining of THE LION KING 2019 boasts an all-star cast helmed by director Jon Favreau (THE JUNGLE BOOK, CHEF). Fourteen talented actors and creators gathered for a press conference held on July 10th in Beverly Hills, and we learned several behind-the-scenes stories. How was this “live action” film created? Did the talented cast record together? What about the music? Let’s delve into these questions.

Moderated by Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley, the press conference included Donald Glover (voice of “Simba”), Seth Rogen (voice of “Pumbaa”), Billy Eichner (voice of “Timon”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (voice of “Scar”), Alfre Woodard (voice of “Sarabi”), Keegan-Michael Key (voice of “Kamari”), Florence Kasumba (voice of “Shenzi”), Eric Andre (voice of “Azizi”), John Kani (voice of “Rafiki”), JD McCrary (voice of “Young Simba”), Shahadi Wright Joseph (voice of “Young Nala”), director Jon Favreau, composer Hans Zimmer and Lebo M (African music consultant /performer).

A VR Game Made a Movie

By the end of filming THE JUNGLE BOOK, Jon Favreau and his team realized that they could build a filmmaking system using VR gaming technology. So when work began on THE LION KING 2019, they realized it would be a faster, smoother experience to completely code and create a “multiplayer VR filmmaking game” in which to create the film.

JON FAVREAU (Director): And that way I could bring in people who don’t have any background in visual effects. We would 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. 

JD MCCRARY (Voice of Young Simba): We put on the headsets, we had these little controller things in our hands, and we could fly. It was like we were Zazu. We saw the Pridelands. We saw Pride Rock. We saw the watering hole. We saw the elephant graveyard. We saw it all, man. And it was so cool, dude. It was so cool.

FAVREAU: We would actually have cameras driven in VR space by a film crew that was in a room about the size of this room with dollies and cranes and assistant directors, script supervisors, set dressers. So we kept the same film culture and planted it using this technology into the VR realm. we were able to inherit a whole career of experience and artistry from our fantastic team. And I think that 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.

The Cast Recorded Together

Due to the nature of this new “multiplayer filmmaking VR game,” actors also entered this VR world as they would on a movie set or sound stage. They hit their marks, moved around and interacted with each other. Usually cast members for animated films stand in a room and record their voices without movement, but not here.

FAVREAU: So it started with us, cast and crew, in a room like a black box theater. We would have everybody mic’ed so that the sound was usable for the film. And we would have them interacting with one another and improvising. 

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY (voice of hyena “Kamari”): It was as if we were being directed in a scene in the play and so everything was captured. And then the subsequent rounds would get a little more technical, when I would be by myself. That refinement is also very fun. 

FLORENCE KASUMBA (voice of hyena “Shenzi”): I was lucky that I got to play “Shenzi” in [“The Lion King” musical in] Germany for more than a year. But this Shenzi is so different. In the film, she is way more dangerous and more serious. I was lucky that my first day that I was in a black box and I was working with Eric Andre, and with JD. And we were very physical, because the guys were so strong, it was easy for me to just be big. Because everybody is very confident, we could just really try out things. We could walk around each other. We could scare each other. We could scream, be loud, be big, be small. It’s like working in the theater, which I love. 

JD MCCRARY (young Simba):  Being in the theater with her was pretty scary. Like she was all up in my grill.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: I’m still scared of her. 

Recording lines with each other really helped Seth Rogan (voice of Pumbaa) and Billy Eichner (voice of Timon) form the necessary Timon and Pumbaa comic-relief.

SETH ROGEN: It was a lot of improvisation with Billy. And we were actually together every time that we recorded, which is a very rare gift to have as someone who is trying to be funny in an animated film, of which I’ve done a lot, and you’re often just alone in there. And I think you can really tell that we’re playing off of each other. It’s an incredibly naturalistic feeling. And they really captured Billy. That is what is amazing. I would say, he essentially played himself on a TV show for years. And this character is more Billy than that character somehow. 

BILLY EICHNER:  Yeah. I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie. The Timon they designed is so adorable. And I think the juxtaposition of my personality in that little Timon body really works. And yeah. I agree with everything that Seth was saying. I can’t imagine now looking back not being in the room together. Being able to riff off each other and really discover our chemistry together in the same moment — you can feel it when you’re watching the movie. 

ROGEN:  The fact that it has like a looseness applied to probably the most technologically incredible movie ever made is an amazing contrast. 

There’s a Reason THE LION KING 2019 Looks Like a Documentary

What would THE LION KING look like if the “live-action” lions smiled or raised their eyebrows? What if a “live-action” meerkat suddenly pulled a face when Pumbaa accidentally lets out some gas? It would look strange.

FAVREAU: Because if we just motion captured their face and put a human expression on the animal’s face, I was concerned that that would blow the illusion of it being a naturalistic documentary. We looked at a lot of the work that Hans Zimmer has done. 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. That was inspiration for how we did “Jungle Book,” with how much expression and emotion could come out of those characters without having human performance.

During our motion capture, we would shoot video on long lenses just to have reference of what actors were doing with their faces. And we would give that to the animators and the animators would take the choices that they made and interpolate it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do. 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.

Every Note of the Score is Special

Over the years, film music concerts have sprung up around the country. THE LION KING 2019 is no exception. According to Zimmer, the first live LION KING concert he and Jon Favreau were involved in together took place at Coachella Music Festival. It moved them both to hear the orchestra and chorus, as well as see the response from the audience.

HANS ZIMMER: So I said to Jon, “Why don’t we do it like this? Why don’t we get all the greatest players, get my band, get the greatest players in the world, make a new orchestra here in Los Angeles, rehearse them for two days, and then really make it as if it was a concept?” And we invited all the filmmakers that never get to come to the scoring sessions, the Director of Photography and the editors and everybody. Got them into the room, sat them in front of the orchestra. And we just went for it. Everybody who played in the orchestra — and it was a very special orchestra — knew the movie. So every note was played with intention. Every note was played with commitment. 

One listen to the soundtrack will prove this is true. I especially hear it in “The Elephant Graveyard.” Both orchestra and singers came together to create an amazing soundtrack that will have you singing for the next week! THE LION KING 2019 roars into theaters July 19th. Tell us how you liked it, and how it compares with the original!

You’ve reached the end of the article, and therefore deserve a special treat! Please enjoy a live performance of “Circle of Life” by Lebo M and the cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway!

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