WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Why the one real shot in 2019's Lion King CGI remake feels ... off

Posted November 23, 2018 3:11 p.m. EST
Updated May 22, 2021 3:32 p.m. EDT

The first trailer for Disney’s CGI remake of the The Lion King arrived on Thanksgiving day. While the animals and landscapes in this CGI trailer are photorealistic, the sunrise that opens this shot-for-shot remake feels less realistic than the hand-drawn original.

Director Jon Favreau later revealed, it was the lone real shot in the movie.

If you’ve ever watched a sunrise from the beach, you might have noticed the Sun looks flatter near the horizon. This is caused by atmospheric refraction. The air itself acts like a lens, refracting or bending the light. The lower in the sky the Sun appears, the flatter it looks because the light is traveling through more atmosphere. On an average day, the Sun appears about 20 percent wider than tall near the horizon. Colder air and/or areas of higher pressure increase the refraction making the sun look even flatter.

In the 2019 trailer, the Sun is rounder, nearly white and emerges smoothly above the horizon. The 1994 version shows a deeper yellow, almost orange, more flattened Sun rippling its way up.

Lion King sun compared

The undulating effect seen in the 1994 trailer is gone in the latest version. Those ripples are created by turbulent air rising upward.

This would be expected as the rising sun disturbs heats the nocturnal boundary layer, air near the ground which has cooled and become very stable overnight. Air turbulence is also what makes stars appear to twinkle at night.

Both trailers accurately depict the red-orange colors of sunset, caused by the scattering of light. Blue has a very short wavelength, which air molecules are better at scattering. At sunset and sunrise we are looking through a lot more atmosphere leaving the longer wave red, orange and yellow light. Dust, moisture or pollution in the air compound this effect creating deeper reds.

That increased amount of atmosphere also explains why its painful to look at the noon Sun but less so at sunrise or sunset. It's all about the amount of air the light is traveling through.

Looking back at the sunrise in the film, Favreau's team may have photographed it during a temperature inversion. This unusual condition happens when cold air is trapped beneath a layer of warm air.  A couple of clues point to this

  • Lots of low stratus clouds near the ground
  • There is very little movement in those clouds even as the 2 minute sunrise compressed to 10 seconds in the film
  • The extra distortion to the bottom of the Sun as it rises indicates cold dense air near the ground.
  • The reddish/orange hue to the sky indicates a lot of moisture trapped near the ground.