Keeper of the Plans

Wichita native played major role in producing new ‘Lion King’ movie

Disney’s live-action remake of “The Lion King” is perhaps the summer’s most-anticipated blockbuster — and a Wichitan played a major role in creating it.

Barry St. John, a 38-year-old Wichita native who now lives in Los Angeles, was the visual effects producer on the film.

And for “The Lion King,” that’s a pretty big job, considering 99 percent of what you see on screen is computer-generated.

As producer, he oversaw the creation of all the digital scenery and managed a team of about a thousand visual-effects artists.

“It’s a huge feat to accomplish a film like this — it’s so difficult to do,” St. John said Friday from his parents’ Wichita home, where he was visiting for the weekend.

Most times, visual-effects crews are contracted to add computer-generated imagery into scenes that have already been shot by a film crew. In this movie, the visual-effects crew essentially created everything you see on screen.

Ever since the film’s trailer was released earlier this year, critics have talked about how hyper-realistic the animals and the environment look.

St. John, who previously performed a similar job for Disney’s live-action “The Jungle Book” film in 2016, said the technology used to create films is developing at a breakneck pace.

“The technology we used on (“The Lion King”) was so far ahead at the time, but the shoot was a little over a year and a half ago, and now the technology is even surpassing that,” he said. “There’s like this rat race of trying to keep up with technology.”

When he was a film student at the University of Kansas, St. John said he never imagined doing visual effects on feature films. Everyone always dreams of being a director or a producer or other such hot-shot roles.

“It’s not like I wanted to be in visual effects — that was just the opportunity that presented itself,” he said. “It was where my strengths lent themselves toward the productions. It’s just part of the circle of life.”

He got his first Los Angeles job in 2009 working in visual effects for “Men in Black III.” A woman with whom he worked, Joyce Cox — who, coincidentally, is originally from Derby — hired him for the job.

St. John was Cox’s associate visual effects producer on “The Jungle Book,” and took over her role for “The Lion King,” after she decided to take a break from filmmaking, he said.

He said it was an honor to play such an important role on the live-action remake of a film that was dear to him and so many others growing up.

“It’s something people cherish and worship who are my age or older, because they remember it as a child and it had such an impact on them,” he said. “No matter how they feel about this one, they feel very strongly — both positive and negatively — which says a lot.

“This was not meant to go one-up the old film. This was very much an homage, but doing it in a new format.”

As if he wasn’t busy enough during the film’s 2 1/2-year production cycle, St. John and his wife, Silvia, welcomed their second child recently as well.

He jokes that he’s used to not getting sleep at night because of his work.

St. John’s next big project is with an upcoming film “from the Spider-Man universe” with Sony Pictures, “but it’s not Spider-Man; it’s a villain film, as was ‘Venom.’”

It just so happens that this weekend is Wichita East High School’s 20-year reunion for the Class of 1998, of which St. John is a member.

The group has booked the IMAX theater at the Warren West for a private screening of “The Lion King,” at which St. John will talk about his career in feature films.

Talk about coming to impress.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.
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