Interview: VFX Supervisor Rob Legato On Creating Authenticity in ‘The Lion King’

© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The art of visual effects has been through many phases in its evolution. From the early days of fishing wire and stop-motion to today’s almost magical new worlds, VFX is the one area of filmmaking that never stops looking for new innovations.

VFX Supervisor Rob Legato has spent more than 25 years in the world of visual effects. He helped literally build worlds around the universe in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” before helping Tom Hanks and friends get stranded on the way to the moon in “Apollo 13.”

Legato won his first Academy Award for “Titanic” in 1997, an honor he shared with Mark A. Lasoff, Thomas L. Fisher, and Matt Sweeney. As he will tell you, these projects require a huge team and plenty of collaboration to gt it right.

Such was the case on “The Lion King,” his latest endeavor. The new, photorealistic version of the 1995 hit gave him a chance to reunite with director Jon Favreau. The two previously worked together on “The Jungle Book,” which was when Legato won his third Oscar for Visual Effects. “The Lion King” also gave him the opportunity to work again with his winning partners, Adam Valdez and Andrew Jones.

Legato was drawn to the project because it was his kids’ favorite film. “Something magic happened when they watched this Shakespearean story,” he told me over the phone recently. He was “excited and thrilled” to work on the new telling of the story because, “These elements are universal. The themes are universal and needed.”

For a story that has been told in animated form and also on Broadway, the idea of recreating a new type of animation for the big screen was a daunting challenge. But for Legato and his team, it was an exciting one. “We had to make sure it wasn’t a copy of the original, and we couldn’t recreate the Broadway experience,” he said.

This led to a whole host of questions. How do you emulate what’s real while staying true to the story? How can you make this something unique when it’s been told before? And how do you film it?

© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Answering those questions gave them the opportunity to develop new techniques and ways of creating photorealistic characters and settings in ways that haven’t been done before. This required working with animation to design new looks, while also making sure to satisfy the technical needs of Favreau’s vision. Legato explained, “We’re always making sure we’re pointing to the North Star in terms of photorealism. All of the art forms need to work in concert so that it looks believable.”

Authenticity was always the goal. “In this case, it’s not real, but it is cinema. We always had to keep that in mind. It had to look authentic. It had to feel real.”

When asked how they worked to maintain that authenticity, he said, “We had to make sure not to become precious about our work at the day.” Avoiding preciousness was always the key. “We had to make sure it looked and felt the way we intended it to be.” And they accomplished that by treating this project like they would a live-action film. “We’re not settling for an imitation.”

“The Lion King” is now available for digital download and will be released on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on October 22.

 

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