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How the heck did Disney make 'The Lion King' feel so real? Your burning questions, answered

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Disney’s live-action remake of “The Lion King” features the familiar voices of Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen and more.
USA TODAY

When an entire herd of wildebeest careen across the movie screen and seemingly real lions converse with each other in the new version of “The Lion King” (in theaters Friday), big questions come to mind.

Such as, how the heck did director Jon Favreau do that?

His remake of the 1994 animated film is an epic visual achievement, with Donald Glover voicing the adult lion Simba, Beyoncé the lioness Nala and the iconic James Earl Jones returning to voice Mufasa in an entirely new, stunning world.

The photorealistic creatures and vast African vistas have even wowed “Lion King” critics. How Disney achieved this is just one of the burning questions we set out to answer.

The new ‘Lion King’: What’s different from the animated version?

Definitive ranking: All the Disney live-action remakes (including ‘The Lion King’)

So how did they make ‘Lion King’ so jaw-droppingly photorealistic?

Neither green screen nor motion-capture performances were involved. Everything seen onscreen was created by cutting-edge computer animation in a virtual reality environment, essentially shot in a powerful video-game engine.

“Only a few shots were in Kenya; the rest was shot on a stage in Playa Vista (California),” says “Lion King” director of photography Caleb Deschanel. 

This required a blend of traditional live-action filmmaking techniques, state-of-the-art virtual reality tools and the highest level of computer-generated animation, a step beyond the techniques Favreau used to bring 2016’s “The Jungle Book” to life (earning an Oscar for best visual achievement).

Favreau and his team donned virtual reality headsets and walked around within the virtual set: setting up shots with low-resolution versions of the characters and choreographing movements while adjusting lighting and sequences in real time. 

“You use the goggles to see where the action is,” says Deschanel. “Everything was almost exactly like it is when you make a real live-action movie.”

Once the scenes and voice performances were captured, animators took on the task of fully computer-animating the scene in the lifelike detail. 

Review: Disney’s new ‘Lion King’ revamp razzles and dazzles but feels all too familiar

Donald Glover: From redoing Simba after losing his father to his funny Blue Ivy encounter

Where did they find an elephant graveyard?

In both the original and the new film, evil uncle Scar (now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) entices young Simba to leave the safety of the watering hole by mentioning the “elephant graveyard.” It’s no place for a young prince, but it’s where old elephants go to die, a site filled with bones. Naturally, Simba takes Nala to go check it out.

The “elephant graveyard” concept is a famous myth, the type of tale told by big game hunters dreaming of untold riches from recovering the elephants’ ivory tusks. 

To visualize the barren wasteland, filmmakers used the porous volcanic tufa towers in Mono Lake, California, and the eerie geothermal pools of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming as visual references.

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  • Young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary, right) chats with his dad's loyal majordomo Zazu (John Oliver) in The Lion King. (July 19)1 of 15
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  • Jason Scott Lee starred as a grown-up Mowgli in Disney's 1994 live-action The Jungle Book.5 of 15
  • Roger (Jeff Daniels) hangs out with his best buddy Pongo in 101 Dalmatians.6 of 15
  • Mowgli (Neel Sethi) shares a moment with his wolf mom Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), one of the many photorealistic animals in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book.'7 of 15
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  • The aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) prepares to take flight with the title elephant of Tim Burton's Dumbo.10 of 15
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Is it OK to sing ‘Hakuna Matata’? 

“Hakuna Matata” is a joyful “Lion King” song, taken from Swahili for “no worries.” It describes the utterly carefree lifestyle of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and eventually Simba.

But a debate over the phrase, and Disney’s trademark on it for a T-shirt, has intensified after a 2018 column in the Kenyan newspaper Business Daily. The column decried Disney’s decision to trademark the term, noting the “pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights.”

A Change.org petition calling upon Disney to drop the trademark has more than 194,000 signatures.

A Disney statement calls the flap a misunderstanding:

“Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase. Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as ‘Yahoo!’, ‘Vaya con Dios (Go with God),’ ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way. In 2018 alone, 638,000 trademark applications were filed.”

What’s up with Beyonce’s name in the credits?

Beyoncé is part of the ensemble cast. But her full name is listed prominently and second to last, as “With Beyonce Knowles-Carter” – just before Jones. It’s a roar of respect for the superstar.

“Getting this honorary ‘with’ credits designation is usually reserved to honor film veterans like James Earl Jones,” says Sean O’Connell, managing director at CinemaBlend. “But from ‘Lion King’s perspective, Beyoncé is so ginormous and so crucial from a marketing perspective that Disney clearly granted the honor to her.”

Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum

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  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Beyonc attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610712321 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Blue Ivy Carter and Beyonc attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610734892 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Donald Glover attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610686483 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Donald Glover attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610675084 of 41
  • Tiffany Haddish arrives at the world premiere of The Lion King on Tuesday, July 9, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: CAPM1095 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Alfre Woodard attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610710936 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Kelly Rowland attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610712337 of 41
  • US singer Michelle Williams arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GU8 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Chloe Bailey and Halle Bailey attend the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610675559 of 41
  • US-Canadian actor Seth Rogen arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85J10 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Shahadi Wright Joseph attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106951111 of 41
  • British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85V12 of 41
  • US actor Keegan-Michael Key and his wife US producer Elisa Pugliese arrive for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6HB13 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jon Favreau attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107268314 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Chance The Rapper and Kensli Bennett attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116106937515 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Chrissy Metz attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107283916 of 41
  • US actress Zooey Deschanel arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H617 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jimmy Kimmel attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116106771518 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Ali Wong attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107366919 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Florence Kasumba attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107099320 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Raven-Symon attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106749821 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Daryl Sabara and Meghan Trainor attend the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106659722 of 41
  • US actor LeVar Burton arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85I23 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: JD McCrary attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116107295624 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Patrick Starrr attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107275825 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jason Maybaum attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107289226 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: LeAnn Rimes attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107018427 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Maia Mitchell attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106865128 of 41
  • US actress Skai Jackson arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GS29 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Hans Zimmer attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107022530 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Eric Andre attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107094631 of 41
  • US actress Marsai Martin arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GP32 of 41
  • US actress Zooey Deschanel (L) and her sister actress Emily Deschanel (R) arrive for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6HE33 of 41
  • US actor Billy Eichner arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H734 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Emily Deschanel attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106651635 of 41
  • English actor Rufus Sewell arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GT36 of 41
  • US actress Yvette Nicole Brown arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GR37 of 41
  • US actress Ruth Righi arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GL38 of 41
  • US actress Demi Singleton arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GN39 of 41
  • US actress Denise Rodriguez arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GZ40 of 41
  • Executive producer Tom Peitzman arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H241 of 41

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