DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY CALEB DESCHANEL TALKS ABOUT SETTING THE STAGE FOR DISNEY’S THE LION KING
By Candice Chua
He also lets us in on a little filming secret behind THAT emotional wildebeest scene.
With the world in Disney’s The Lion King created through ground-breaking virtual reality, one wonders just how six-time Oscar nominee and Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel even began to craft the cinematography for the film. He breaks it down for us in a phone interview – and it involves headsets, “flying” through the Pride Lands and “chasing” after lions and hyenas. Intrigued?
Let’s start with something fun. If you could pick one animal from Disney’s The Lion King to be your spirit animal, which would it be?
I think Rafiki. [Laughs] Just because Rafiki was the first character that we really saw completed and he’s pretty fascinating as a character. I really like him.
What was your first memory of the animated classic Disney’s The Lion King?
It came at a time when my kids were past wanting to see animation, but I always want to see animation. I really loved [the film]. The imagery was beautiful and the story was great. While I never thought about it being anything more than what I saw [at that time], I did remember thinking that it was this sort of mythological story that drew from so many classic myths. It’s the kind of story that can just go on.
What made you decide to join Disney’s The Lion King?
I like Jon [Favreau, Director of Disney’s The Lion King] and I’ve known him since my daughter Zooey worked on one of his earlier films. I like a lot of his films, and I thought The Jungle Book was great. I also thought that the idea of doing [Disney’s The Lion King] as a live-action film would be fantastic. But, I did have great reservations, because I was so afraid that the technology would be daunting and I would have to be involved in all these computer technology. In the end, the tools that we had were all designed so beautifully. Jon told me at the beginning, he said, “Listen, I don’t want you to do the film because you know all these advanced technology. I want you to do it because of all the great films you’ve shot over the years. I want you to bring your visual expertise to this film to make it look real”.
I was a little sceptical, nonetheless! [Laughs] But then as I visited the set, I saw that it was basically everything I was used to. Dollies, cranes, gear heads. The ability to move the light around any way I wanted. It was just great. It was really like shooting a regular movie, except that your working area was a virtual space that you can go into, walk and fly around in. it was amazing, really fun and wonderful. The disappointing part of the day was always taking off the headset and realising you were in a plain, dark stage with fluorescent lighting all along! [Laughs]
As Director of Photography, how did your role come into play in the making of the film?
I choose the lenses, I choose how the camera would move, what the choreography of the camera would be. For Disney’s The Lion King, it was like doing a regular movie, it wasn’t that different. The hardest part, though, was spending a lot of time with the lighting, particularly with the caves and the scenes at night. What we do in a regular film is always realistic and very naturalistic, and so it took a couple of weeks to get my lighting director to understand the style of lighting that I like to do in a regular film. Once he got the idea of it, we got along really well. It was a perfect relationship.
Disney’s The Lion King is incredible in that it’s not live-action at all, but photorealistic CGI. How does one even begin to work on the cinematography for a film like that?
Even though it was virtual reality, we would set up dolly tracks, and there was still a real dolly on-stage with real dolly grips. There was still a human feel to it all. At first, we worked with just the computers and it didn’t feel right. It felt really mechanical, and it sort of took you out of the movie. After I brought my real-life filming assistant in, it started to have the feel [we were looking for]. The whole thing about [this film] is that it’s not only about how well the animals were created, but also filming it live so you feel like there’s always a human being behind the camera following the animals. Mistakes do happen [with this method], and even though you can do it over and over, certain kinds of mistakes would make the film feel more real than trying to get perfection, which you never get in real life anyway. It’s not perfect, but it feels right. You might have missed the lion because he jumped too quickly, or that hyena was running so fast, and you missed him for a second, but caught up with him. We went to Africa and we spent a lot of time filming animals while there, so we had a real understanding of how to do so. That was really at the back of our minds when we were filming.
There are so many beautiful scenes in the film. What was your favourite?
Well, it’s the scene in the gorge with the wildebeest and the death of Mufasa with Simba discovering that Mufasa had died. For that scene, I had always wanted them to be in the shadows, with all the walls around them hit by sunlight so that the characters were sort of silhouetted against the canyon. Emotionally, that felt right for the movie. I had to use two suns to make that work. [Laughs] Don’t tell anybody!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.