James Earl Jones voices Mufasa and JD McCrary voices Young Simba in Disney's "The Lion King," from director Jon Favreau.
See the live-action trailer for 'The Lion King'
00:50 - Source: CNN

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In an era where audiences have increasingly sophisticated knowledge about how movie magic is made, the personality-rich, photorealistic animal characters in Disney’s new “The Lion King” will have moviegoers asking, “How the heck did they do that?”

The bleeding-edge visual effects techniques that the studio and director Jon Favreau pushed forward on 2016’s “The Jungle Book” – which center more on creating vividly lifelike animals that also incorporate performances by A-list Hollywood actors than the explosive spectacles many other films offer – get a quantum bump forward in the film as Simba, Scar, Timon, Pumba and other iconic characters from the 1994 animated are stunningly realized.

“These are handmade films,” Favreau said during a recent press conference. “There are animators working on every shot, every environment that you see in the film – other than one shot that’s a real photographic shot. But everything else is built from scratch by artists.”

John Oliver voices Zazu and JD McCrary voices Young Simba in Disney's 'The Lion King'

The characters have all been rendered digitally using a rich mélange of video and photo references of real animals – many recorded from the menagerie inhabiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom, others culled from searchable online libraries. Artists also incorporated footage of cast members performing, not just vocally, but with a physicality suited for their role (rather than increasingly widespread use of motion-capture, such as on the recent “Planet of the Apes” franchise). The animators blended the nuances of both elements into fully realized CG characters.

“Casting, that’s the foundation of great cinematic storytelling,” Favreau said of finding the perfect performer for each role. “I came up as an actor, so I have my foundation of, you can’t compromise one iota on cast. You have to get the best people you can, because they’re the ones who are going to do everything.”

The filmmakers felt a strong responsibility to pay homage and honor the original film with their choices, “The Lion King” casting directing Sarah Halley Finn told CNN.

“We really approached these characters as fully living, breathing, emotional characters,” she said. “We tried to capture the essence of them – even though I know I’m talking about a warthog, etc., etc. But we tried to bring an element of the spirit, the authenticity, the emotional range of the characters and the actors that we looked at.”

Favreau assembled the all-star cast – which includes Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles Carter, Chiwetel Ejifor, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner – in black box theater-style rooms and let them explore their characters through the script, and movement, all while wearing microphones for sound. They wanted them interacting with one another and improvising, he said.

“What we said to them is we want you to embrace this character fully,” said Finn. “Let your imaginations run wild, fill this emotionally, have fun with it and bring it to life in the best way you can.”

The video footage captured was then turned over the animators, who used it for reference.

“The animators would take the choices that they made and interpolate it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do,” Favreau explained.

The ultimate goal, he said, was to reach something evoking the classic characters’ personalities, yet similar in look and feel to the compelling up-close aesthetic within the films of natural history documentarian Sir David Attenborough.

“If we just motion captured [an actor’s] face and put a human expression on the animal’s face, I was concerned that that would blow the illusion of it being a naturalistic documentary,” he said.

'The Lion King' features the voices of Florence Kasumba, Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key as the hyenas, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar.

Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, a veteran of groundbreaking films including “Apollo 13,” “Titanic” and “Avatar, said the animators were “really the other actor,” in that their interpretations contributed so much to the essence of the characters.

“You still need to see Chiwetel perform as the silent version of Scar, so you have to emulate the actor he is, the performance he’s giving, the intent of the script, and then the intent of how he interpreted, then you have to do it in kind,” he said. “When the marriage is great, it’s seamless, and you believe that character is inspired by Chiwetel. But it’s really not even Chiwetel anymore: It’s Scar.”

The filmmaking team took as much care choosing the animal models as they did the human actors, Legato said.

“It’s very similar to casting a movie,” Legato added. “Instead of sculpting and trying to make some wonderful, larger-than-life thing, start with life and let the largess of the life just ring through the photograph.”

As the comic duo Timon and Pumbaa, Eichner and Rogen were astounded by how much of themselves they saw within their on-screen alter egos.

“They really captured Billy,” marveled Rogen. “He essentially played himself on a TV show for years, and this character is more Billy than that character somehow. It’s remarkable to me how his character specifically makes me laugh so hard.”

Eichner agreed, joking, “I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie.”