October 21, 2019

DP Caleb Deschanel Explains the High-Tech Process of Shooting 'The Lion King'

How one legendary DP embraced the unknown and shot the movie like it was any other (only in VR).

Caleb Deschanel is one of the most accomplished living cinematographers. He was in the inaugural class at AFI, went to USC, and has lensed 30 some features, being nominated for six Oscars throughout his career, as well as countless other awards. 

Along the way, he's crafted a few of the most iconic shots. The low-angle of Roy Hobbs rounding the bases, the deep-focus of the Mercury Astronauts walking towards the camera, to name but a few. 

Because Mr. Deschanel is so associated with the film part of filmmaking, it came to many as a surprise that he would be shooting Disney's live-action Lion King, which would be created entirely via VFX, and 'shot' within a virtual world. 

"...it was as close to real live-action filmmaking as you could imagine, without all the dust and heat and rainstorms suddenly arriving."

We relished the opportunity to speak with him about the project, how he was a unique fit for it, and what it was like to shoot a project under these circumstances. We also get his takes on where the tech is headed, and what it may be able to enable for future and present filmmakers. 

No Film School: What is it like to shoot this kind of movie? It's different than anything else. 

Caleb Deschanel: Well it's funny, but when I first talked to John Favreau about the movie, I was a little concerned because I'm not really big on technology, although you kind of have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things if you're going to be a cinematographer now. And a lot of movies, even the most conventional movies, have a lot of visual effects in them now, whether you'd know it or not. Except maybe a Quentin Tarantino movie.

But John wanted me to do the movie because of my experience shooting live-action for so long and he wanted me to bring that reality to it. And to be honest with you, all the tools that were developed by Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor, really were able to sort of translate into the virtual world, all the tools that I would normally have.

"...all the things that you would normally use in making a movie I was able to use, but it was in virtual space..."

I had dollies and cranes and a steady cam, and I had a camera and I could choose lenses, and I had gear heads and fluid heads, and all the things that you would normally use in making a movie I was able to use, but it was in virtual space. And to be honest with you, our virtual world was complete enough that it really felt like you were there.

Caleb Shoots Lion King
Caleb Deschanel shooting 'The Lion King'

So, you would go into this virtual world and you would look around and you would sort of figure out where you wanted to put the camera and where you wanted to move the dolly. Then you would mark with a flag that you would have tools, that you would have a flag that you could set and then move across to somewhere else and set the flag and say, "Okay, I want the dolly track to run between these two flags." And it'll all be set up. And then you step out of virtual reality and you'd be standing there at a gear head and a monitor that would see what the camera was seeing in virtual reality. 

And you had a dolly grip who would push the dolly, and I had my assistant following focus and it was as close to real live-action filmmaking as you could imagine, without all the dust and heat and rainstorms suddenly arriving and that sort of thing.

NFS:​ You didn't have to check the gate afterward or anything, right?

Deschanel: (laughs) No, no gate checking.

Lion King DP Shooting in VR
'The Lion King' DP Caleb Deschanel shooting in VR

NFS:​ So it was like stepping into shooting a movie under any other normal circumstances... only in virtual reality?

Deschanel: Yeah. It was surprising. I assume every other cinematographer would have had the same experience. Although you never know. I took to it really fast and I really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the freedom of being able to fly myself around in the set and end up half a mile away in three seconds, and suddenly be at the bottom of a canyon and then zoom up to this top of the Canyon and look over and figure out where to put a lens. I took to it really fast and had a lot of fun doing it. It was a great experience.

"I enjoyed the freedom of being able to fly myself around in the set and end up half a mile away in three seconds."

The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King (2019)

NFS:​ Did you find that, in this virtual experience, all of your experience and knowledge from shooting "normally" became practical here? Or did you find that it was like shooting in a different language? 

Deschanel: We wanted it to feel like it was a real movie and that there was a real person behind the camera. That the dolly was being moved by a dolly grip, and that the focus was not mechanical. That it always had a human touch behind the camera. That was really important. That's part of the reality of the movie. Obviously, there was the incredible animation of these characters, but it's also the fact that you feel that it was filmed live by real people, setting up cameras and shooting in a very conventional way.

NFS:​ It's a live-action version of an animated movie... but it's visual effects and animation. Were you the live-action component?

Deschanel: Yeah. And it was live-action from that point of view. Even though we could repeat the action by pressing a button over and over again, there were times when we would make little mistakes and the animal would jump out of frame because he jumped too quickly or something, and we would oftentimes perfect it and then go back, "No, no, take three where we screwed up a little bit actually feels better," because it really does make you feel like they were real animals and that you didn't get a chance to do it again. So, it's a little bit of second convolution thinking. It's like, "Well what feels more real? The mistake or perfecting it and not having the mistake?"

The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King (2019)

NFS:​ What was the research process... I know you went to Africa. Can you tell us about how that informed you and what it was like?

Deschanel: Yeah, we went to Africa for a couple of weeks and, initially, Jon [Favreau] had sort of talked about it [The Lion King] being like a documentary because we wanted to feel absolutely real and we would use long lenses, and the kind of conventional old fashioned documentaries that you would see back in the fifties, where they would have long lenses on a lion taking down a zebra or something.

But then we went to Africa and the damn lions would come so close to us. We were saying, "Oh my God." At a point where the assistant was not following focus, I said, "Tommy, Tommy what's going on?" He said, "He's inside minimum focus." So you knew they were really close.

But it was a great experience. Number one, we got to know what it really looked like and were able to really experience it. Having that in our memory when we were filming the film was valuable. But also, we came to sort of love it in a way that we really wanted to pay tribute to it in making the movie. And the other thing was that the idea of the long lens, we couldn't really tell the story that way. We really needed to get in close to the animals. We wanted it to have weight. We wanted everything to have a sense of what would be real if we were using the real tools in a real live-action movie. So, that was our guideline.

The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King (2019)

"...the idea of the long lens, we couldn't really tell the story that way. We really needed to get in close to the animals."

NFS:​ Technology is obviously changing. What you did on The Lion King is at the very fore of it. A lot of us wonder about the future for cinematography. Do you think it's going to be this type of production? A fusion of this and the traditional methods? What are your thoughts on where we're headed?

Deschanel:​ It's funny because you use this technology and you get used to it, and you make this movie and... you're not really focusing on how it can be used in the future.

There's no question that all these tools are probably going to make it possible for us not to have to go off to all these exotic environments as much. Yet if you look at some of the old Elvis Presley movies where he's supposedly in Germany, they would have these wide shots with a double of Elvis Presley in the real location. And then you'd cut and he'd be on a stage, which was really obvious: there's the real Elvis Presley and not the double for him. A lot of movies never went to these locations. They would just send off a crew to get the scenery and everything. 

"A lot of technology gets used for the sake of the technology when it first comes out, and it doesn't necessarily represent, the perfect artistic utilization of it."

The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King (2019)

I think, certainly for any live-action movie that's real, with real actors and everything, there are huge advantages that you can go back and re-shoot something if you have plates of the location now, for example. Certainly, for re-shoots and all sorts of other things, all these tools will be valuable. But it's really up to some artists to find a way of using it in a way that is of real value. A lot of technology gets used for the sake of the technology when it first comes out, and it doesn't necessarily represent the perfect artistic utilization of it. And I think it's going to take somebody just sort of looking at it and saying, "Oh my God, I could use this for something like this and then tell a story that way."

But I have to say, along the way I was always focused on making The Lion King and I never was thinking about the future of this technology.

NFS: Probably for the betterment of the movie, right?

Deschanel: Yes. Hopefully.     

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