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Interview: Caleb Deschanel Talks ‘The Lion King’

October 25, 2019Ben MK

Best known for his work on such films as Jack Reacher, National Treasure and The Passion of the Christ, Caleb Deschanel was an easy choice for director Jon Favreau, who tapped the veteran cinematographer to help lens his latest Disney reimagining, The Lion King. But although the project entailed working with an entire cast of furry and feathered CGI creatures, as Deschanel tells it, the movie ended up treading on some fairly familiar territory.

I caught up with Caleb Deschanel to discuss what it took to bring The Lion King to life, how the animated version influenced this retelling, and whether working in virtual space changed his approach to the filmmaking process.

Your career has been quite varied in terms of the types of films you've worked on, but The Lion King is the first fully CG film that you've done. How did you become involved in the project?

Deschanel: Jon Favreau called me up and said, "Well, you know, I want to talk to you about this movie." And I came and talked to him and got an idea of how it was being done, which sounded like the most advanced filmmaking technology. And I'm thinking, "I don't know if I want to do this. It sounds like it could get very boring and technical." [laughs] But Jon said, "Listen, I don't want you do to it because of the technology. I want you to do it because you've done so many movies that are great live-action movies, and I want you to bring that sensibility to this movie so it feels real." And then [Visual Effects Supervisor] Rob Legato invited me down to Magnopus, which is a company that developed all the tools that we used, and we got to play around for a day, and I suddenly realized that all the tools they created were exactly like the moviemaking tools I've been used to for the last 45 or 50 years. [laughs]

I ended up taking to it pretty fast. You go in virtual reality, but it was so complete it felt more like reality. You just got used to it, and you appreciated the fact that you didn't have to hop in an old Ford Econoline van and drive over a bunch of dirt roads and get all dusty and hot, and end up at the top of a cliff after 45 minutes bouncing around. I'd like to pretend it was all wonderfully different and inventive, but it was very close to what I was used to. Except I had the advantage of being able to put the sun where I wanted it and pick clouds in the sky — any one of 350 skies we had. And you can set a dolly track 30 feet up a canyon and not have to wait for the grips to build scaffolding. It was really a lot of fun; I really had a good time.

Of course, the original animated version is one of Disney's most beloved movies. Did the need to honor the '94 version affect how you approached the film?

Deschanel: The opening is very much an homage to the original. It's pretty much shot-for-shot, but in a realistic way. But to be honest with you, we never really copied anything after that. We just shot the way it felt right to film it, just the way you would when you go out and make a movie and decide where to put the camera, how to move the camera to best tell the story. So I'm sure there are shots that are very, very similar because that just sort of happens, but each one of the scenes was approached as if it was new and we were just doing it on our own.

It's such a mythological story. It can be retold any number of times, and each time you tell it, you find different nuances of different kinds of emotion and everything. Just like how you can go see Hamlet 10 times with different people and it has a different feeling. I'm always attracted to mythological stories because I think they're kind of universal in a way that other stories are not. The first one's a great movie, and I think what we created was another telling of it that maybe has a different impact on an audience because of the fact that it feels realistic.

What were some of the challenges of designing the shots for this movie, compared to a film where everything is in-frame?

Deschanel: The challenge was to find what is the reality. We went to Africa for a couple weeks and we filmed real footage there as reference, and also for a couple of shots in the movie. But it was really more to acquaint ourselves with the place and the feeling of it, and to keep that in the back of our minds for the rest of the time that we were filming. The real trick when you go into virtual reality is that you can do almost everything that you can do in the animated film. You can go with a 4 mm lens and go 300 miles an hour and stop on a dime, but we wanted everything to have the same weight and the same feel as all the live-action tools that you would use. Even to the point where we actually filmed a real dolly being pushed and then stopping, and then using that as the reference for how the dolly would be translated from the computer to reality.

We could use drones and we could use any tool that you would use on any live-action movie, and each of those things had its own feeling in terms of what the shot felt like. And those choices were the same choices that you would make on being on a live-action movie with real actors. So I think always feeling like there's a person behind the camera making decisions and having the tools that existed in virtual reality connected to a real dolly track on-stage was important. We were always trying to apply things to what we did to make it feel like it was really being filmed live-action. I think that was what was inspiring about it, was to be able to do it in a way where you felt like it was being filmed for real.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone hoping to break into the industry as a cinematographer?

Deschanel: My advice to anyone who wants to be a cinematographer is to see every movie you can possibly see. If you want to be a writer you have to read, and if you want to be a cinematographer you have to look at movies and any kind of visual medium. Study art, go to museums and look at art, and see as many movies as you can. It's like learning a language. You can study it and you can have people tell you about how what scene works because of this and that, but it becomes instinctive to you if you see enough movies. And the other thing is to take as many photographs and shoot as many films as you can. It's the advice Gordon Willis, who was my mentor, gave me — to shoot as much as you can. You never know where you'll learn something.

You never go out thinking you're making art — people do, but they rarely create art. Art is sort of created by surviving as much as anything. So you just have to tough it out and do as much as you can and say, "This failed but this worked," and "Why did this work and why did this fail?" Just keep questioning. But if you don't love it and you're not enthusiastic about it, then it isn't something you should be doing. Because it's too hard to make movies taking it casually, you really have to dedicate yourself and be obsessed with it to be really good at it.

The Lion King is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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