By Cory Marshall, SDSU News Center
Photo via Disney
July 22, 2019 (San Diego) - Imagine coming across a talking meerkat, muddled between tall blades of grass, somewhere in the serene savannas of Kenya, and feeling as though it is a completely normal encounter. That was the goal for the Disney filmmakers behind this summer’s live action “The Lion King” remake. In order to do that, filmmakers, including San Diego State University alumnus Tom Peitzman (‘87) set out to create a virtual world, and in the process, fashioned an entirely new way live action films are produced.
“When you’re making a traditional live action film, you have a formula (and) you know you need to hire certain crews, have certain locations locked down, and you need to have all of these pieces of equipment,” said Peitzman during an interview with SDSU on the film’s Los Angeles area set.
For this reimagined version, the “set” was a relatively small, unassuming back room with an even smaller area taped off on the floor – serving as the set. Cameras are strategically positioned around the taped off area and a dolly – just like one you would see on a typical live action movie set – is placed off to the side. But this is not your typical live action film.
“With this [movie], we were kind of inventing it as we were going. So, it was like making the train track as the train is already going down the track,” said Peitzman.
To start, “The Lion King” team, led by director Jon Favreau, drafted a storyboard concept of the film. The storyboards would then be turned into an animatic version, which is a series of storyboards and audio.
“Once you have that animatic, we would have the art department start coming up with concept sketches. ‘What does Pride Rock look like? What does the elephant graveyard look like,’” said Peitzman.
This is where the production process takes an atypical turn.
The team’s virtual art department then began building the locations in a three-dimensional space and with the help of virtual headsets, the team scouted scene locations in the very virtual world they once envisioned.
“And you would just teleport yourself around with virtual controls in the game engine and you would go to a certain place in that environment and they would say, ‘Well, I think that Simba should start here and take this path. Guys, follow me.’ And they would all virtually follow,” said Peitzman. “That’s the part that I find so amazing. I’ve been doing visual effects for a very, very long time and I have seen a lot of technologies and things that have made big leaps forward, where this film has taken a huge leap forward.”
The Circle of Life
"The Lion King" is a retelling of the same blockbuster story from 25 years ago, but the scenes have been given new life in a photorealistic world.
The film brings about a certain sense of nostalgia, not only for the viewers but for the filmmakers as well.
“All of us kind of grew up with this great film and it’s one of Disney’s crown jewels,” said Peitzman. “I think that one of the things that makes this a very unique, special film is that it’s such a well told story that we’re able to give back to so many generations.”
At the time the original animated version debuted, Peitzman was seven years post-graduation from SDSU.
Now, to be a title member of the live action remake and sitting down with SDSU’s News Team to discuss the film’s release, Peitzman says, is surreal.
Like the original animated adaptation, his time at SDSU evokes a similar feeling of nostalgia. A graduate of the School of Theatre, Television and Film in the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts (PSFA), the ‘87 alumnus says the university provided a foundation for his professional career.
For students looking to explore a similar career, Peitzman encourages budding filmmakers to be open-minded. Initially, Peitzman, upon graduating, thought he was destined to become a director, but when he landed his first job on the set of 1988’s “The Great Outdoors” as a production assistant, he quickly realized he had a passion for producing.
“I think the best thing you can do is when you can get on a motion picture set, if that’s the direction you want to go, look what everybody does and just be a sponge. Go out there, observe (and) find out what everybody does. You’ll gravitate towards the thing that’s right for you.
“Follow what you find is passionate for you. That’s what ended up happening for me and it’s seemed to work out okay.”