Justin Cook chats with The Lion King cinematographer Caleb Deschanel…
When it comes to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s filmography, he’s shot a little bit of everything. Throughout his four-and-a-half decade-long career, he’s ventured into the worlds of fantasy and adventure with National Treasure and The Spiderwick Chronicles to adult-focused indie movies like Killer Joe and Never Look Away to action (Jack Reacher) to comedy (Being There) to just about every genre in between. While the Hollywood pro has shot around 30 films, on his most recent project he faced a challenge he hadn’t encountered before — in fact, few people even within his profession have. Deschanel would be shooting a film in virtual reality for Disney’s live-action The Lion King.
Surrounded by a team of talented artists, including director Jon Favreau, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato and animation supervisor Andrew R. Jones, Deschanel had the task of bringing the iconic images from the animated classic, 1994’s The Lion King, to life for a new audience. He and the rest of the team would strap into a VR headset and be transported to the virtual set of the film, where they had the freedom to manipulate the environment around them and practically get any shot from any angle that they wanted.
But despite the technological innovations that made shooting the film possible, Deschanel claims that the experience wasn’t unlike a traditional film set. The six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer talked about that and much more in an interview with Flickering Myth, in anticipation of the release of The Lion King on Digital now and on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD October 22nd.
So on a typical movie set you’re of course limited by external conditions that are sometimes out of your control like the time of day and weather, but on The Lion King, I’d imagine that neither of those were an issue and both of those can be controlled to some degree. So what was it like having that level of control and freedom in creating images, but also in a certain sense losing out on some of the serendipity of a film set?
Caleb Deschanel: I think that’s the thing you miss, not having real live actors who can improvise or come up with ideas along the way, so you definitely lose the serendipity. In terms of being able to control everything, yes we could put the sun and leave it there for the whole scene in exactly the same place, but oddly enough when you’re used to doing a movie where you might have a four-page scene that you do over a period of a whole day where the sun comes up, and then it moves to the south and then sets in the west and you have to shoot in a way that will let it cut together all of the shots that you do over the period of a day with the clouds moving in and out. You just develop this sort of methodology that allows you to create shots that will go together and not look out of place. So you would think that you would put the sun in one place and leave it, but it was never the case. I had a choice of 350 skies from which to choose the right sort of feeling and atmosphere. Whether it’s gloomy overcast or beautiful clouds or a cloudless sky with the sun at its peak like it is in the scene where Simba’s saved by Pumba and Timon in the middle of the desert. So you would have these choices, but when you would do a shot you would lay it out just the way you would on a regular movie, with your dollies or cranes or whatever, but then when you would do the reverse or when you would do another angle, I found the sun was never in the right place if I didn’t move it, so we didn’t move it in the same way that the sun moves across the sky.
The way you would do it on a regular movie is that you would design your shooting so you would shoot in one direction for the morning and then another direction in the afternoon … you would schedule your day around how you wanted to tie everything together, and in this case, you wouldn’t so much schedule your day for that, you would just sort of move where you wanted to go and say, ‘Well this was the shot we wanted to do in the afternoon, so let’s move the sun where it has afternoon light.’ So it was great, and it allowed us to use the atmosphere and the lighting and everything to help tell the story in a way that was appropriate for the film. It was fun.
It seems like so much of your job depends on actors and reading their emotions, gauging their performance, focusing on how they express themselves — so how did you adapt to not having a human actor in front of you [and instead relying on the realism and emotion of the CGI characters created for the film]?
Deschanel: To be honest with you, I mean Andy Jones and the animators — even though what we were filming was not as complete as the final film — I could read every bit of emotion and understand everything that was going on with these characters, so it really made it easy. I think what you’re implying is that with a regular actor you kind of go, ‘He’s so subtle, I need to be in a close-up to understand his emotion’ or ‘He’s really expressing himself with his body language, so I can be back wider,’ or ‘I want to feel like he’s alone in the middle of a big environment, so I’ll even go farther back.’ So you’re using exactly the same tools and to be honest with you, the animation was so well done in what we shot that we really could read it just as well as you could with real actors on a regular movie. The only thing you didn’t have is the surprise of them suddenly on the third take going berserk and jumping up and down and coming up with some new idea about how they should do it. You miss that serendipity, but the advantage was you could repeat things a number of times and find different ways of, either dollying in to emphasis an emotion or pulling back in a way that would make you see or feel their loneliness or whatever it happened to be. Whatever the tools that you always use, you would be able to explore in a way that was fast because you could go back to one right away.
Of course, the original Lion King is one of the most iconic animated movie ever. How did you decide what to borrow from the film and generally keep the same in terms of framing, camera movement, versus how did you decide which elements you would reinvent for the movie?
Deschanel: The opening obviously is sort of an archetypal opening, so we basically kind of copied or came up with other versions of that, and then pretty much it was complete although I stole something from Fly Away Home in one of the shots and things like that, but once the film starts with the scene with the mouse and the introduction of Scar and Mufasa, we kind of just did it the way we wanted to do it. I’m sure you could go back and say, ‘Oh, here’s a shot just like … ” Well, you know maybe that’s true, but I can’t say we were copying anything at all. We were just looking at the animation that was created and the blocking and Jon [Favreau] and Andy [Jones] would work out a blocking of a scene. And then he would bring myself and Rob Legato and maybe [production designer] James Chinlund in, and then we would comment on it and maybe we would either say, ‘Oh, that blocking’s great’ or we would say, ‘Maybe it’s better if he jumps up on the rock here’ and then they would sometimes reanimate it and then we would get it to where we were going to film it and then we would go in and light it and then we would film it. Really, everytime we got the scene, we would just, it was just a blank slate and we would just figure out the best way to cover it. And because we were filming it like live-action, Jon would get a lot of footage. I mean we would cover a whole scene in one dolly shot and then we would get close-ups, and then we would get the points of view and then we would get the other animals that were walking along with them, or whatever it happened to be. And then all that raw footage would then be edited down and then the way it was finally edited would finally be completed by MPC into the final animation. So it really was like making a live-action movie, it wasn’t like an animated film where you just film a character jumping off a rock and then the reverse, and it’s just cut to cut. It wasn’t like that at all. It was really like live-action footage that you would get the way you would on a regular movie.
And all the tools, by the way, the dolly in virtual reality was tied to a real dolly we had on stage, so you had a real dolly grip pushing the dolly. And the focus was all controlled by a\my regular 1st Assistant, so that you felt the human touch all the time. You felt the human touch was following the action, with a geared head or with a fluid head, and the movement was real Steadicam and all those things.
In your filmography, you have such an interesting mix of films, and you went from Never Look Away to The Lion King in this case. Such a transition from an adult movie to a kids movie, so I was just wondering in general, how do you go about choosing your next project to work on?
Deschanel: I have to say that every once in a while, like when my kids were little I liked doing films like The Black Stallion or Fly Away Home and then Spiderwick Chronicles, and now I got grandkids, so now I decided I had to do a film for my grandkids. I like changing things around. I love Never Look Away, it’s one of my proudest accomplishments. I just really love the movie and love the ideas and love working with [writer-director] Florian [Henckel von Donnersmarck] and the actors on that.
The thing is Jon Favreau convinced me to do this movie by saying, ‘You’re going to be doing the same thing you’ve always done.’ And the tools that were created allowed me to do that. It wasn’t like reinventing the wheel, we were using regular filmmaking tools. It’s just that they happened to exist in virtual reality. I’m happy to take the virtual away from it because as far as I’m concerned when you put on those glasses you were in this film’s reality. And it may not have been as complete as it ends up in the final movie because the computers would crash every five minutes if you tried to do that. But, even the limited animation was good enough to really understand where you wanted to be, how you wanted to move the camera, all those things.
Watch The Lion King on Digital now or wait until October 22nd to pick up a 4K, Blu-ray or DVD copy of the film and see the African savanna come to life in your home.
Many thanks to Caleb Deschanel for taking the time for this interview.