Director Rob Minkoff talks The Lion King 3D

Director Rob Minkoff discusses The Lion King's 3D conversion, his thoughts on motion-capture, Chinese Odyssey, and more

Last month, I got to see one of the greatest animated movies of all time in a way I had never seen it before. Back in May, Disney announced that the 1994 classic The Lion King will be re-released in theaters with a brand new 3D conversion, for a limited two-week run starting on September 16. The Lion King will then make its debut in Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D on October 4, along with an eight-disc trilogy set as well. I was invited to a special early screening of The Lion King 3D, and a press day where we were able to speak with some of the filmmakers and artists responsible for this classic, and the new 3D conversion. While I'll hold off on my reaction to this new 3D experience, I thought I'd share one of the interviews from this press day with director Rob Minkoff.

Rob Minkoff started his filmmaking career at Disney in the 1980s as a character animator and designer on such movies as The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Little Mermaid. He transitioned into directing shortly thereafter, with short films such as Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Mickey's Audition. He made his feature debut with The Lion King, co-directing with Roger Allers, and now, nearly 20 years later, the director sat down with our assembled press corps to discuss this animated classic and its new 3D look. Rob Minkoff was also joined by Lella Smith, the creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, a sprawling facility in Glendale which houses over 65 million pieces of artwork from Disney films throughout the years. Take a look at what they both had to say below.

Rob Minkoff and Lella Smith

How did it come about to make The Lion King in 3D?

Rob Minkoff: Originally, the idea was to do this for home video. Obviously, 3D is a big subject in the movie business today, and theaters are converting everywhere to be able to present 3D films. There was a sense also, that even with home entertainment and 3D televisions, it might be opportunity to do these films. They've done Beauty and the Beast, and now they've done The Lion King. Beauty and the Beast is going to be released on 3D Blu-ray, but not in theaters. I think that, because this was originally coming through the home video channel, that the theatrical release was sort of a bonus. I think it's a great idea. It's sort of an outside-the-box idea. They don't have a distribution model for this, although it used to be, back when I started at Disney in 1983, there was a standard that they would always distribute the films every seven years in theaters, but this was before video. There was a lot of controversy at the time, with us working in animation, about releasing the films to video, and what that would mean, whether that would be a good thing for the studio or not so good. I remember that we didn't want to lose the opportunity to bring these films back into theaters, because there's always aa new generation of kids who haven't seen the films. When I was a kid, there was always a Disney animated film released, but they were older films from the library. When they decided they would go on video, it was a big experiment and there was a lot of risk involved. The benefit of it was that the films on video were so successful, it created a demand for new films. It created revenue so that new films could be invested. The boom of Disney animation in the late 80s and 90s, was fueled by the success of the older films on video. Before The Little Mermaid in particular, the films weren't earning as much as they wanted them to earn, and the business of animation wasn't that healthy. After The Little Mermaid though, it changed and with the additional revenue from video, it really fueled the second golden age.

What's great about that format too, is when you bring something out of the vault after seven years, and it's only available for a limited time, it creates this crazy demand. People aren't going to want to wait another seven years to see it again. It's a great way to build anticipation.

Rob Minkoff: Yeah. We'll see how it does theatrically, but if it does well, it might inspire them to do more limited runs for films. What's unique about Disney Animation, many of the films have this perennial quality about them. They don't seem like old films, they still seem sort of fresh and relevant.

Were you afraid, at any point, about making this 2D film into a 3D film?

Rob Minkoff: Yeah, sure. The big concern was we didn't want to do it just to do it, because it's in fashion. This conversation about 3D has only been going on for a few years, at the most, but after seeing Avatar in the theater, it was incredible. You couldn't argue that it was an incredible experience and amazing. The enthusiasm for it was high, as long as it was done well. (Stereographer) Robert Neuman, when we first met with him about it, we looked at the movie in 2D and discussed it in 3D. I actually took a 3D class, that was offered by the DGA at Sony. They were talking about some of the component parts of 3D, and why it isn't a no-brainer to convert a film. The choices you would make in a 2D film, aren't necessarily the same choices you would make in a 3D film. Then there are choices about how you see the film, if the characters are coming in front of the screen plane or behind it. A lot of choices had to be made. I was very excited to see the film completed and on a big screen. It respected the original film, and gave it a cool factor, where you suddenly felt like you were in the world of the movie, which is what movies are trying to do anyway. That's what you really want. You want the movie to suck you in so that you really feel you're a part of it.

When you first made The Lion King, did you come to the Archive to look at old sketches, maybe from The Jungle Book?

Rob Minkoff: Absolutely. One of the great things about Disney, is that from the very beginning of the studio, they've been saving and keeping all this great, incredible artwork. That sort of sets Disney apart from any other studio.

Lella Smith: A lot of people will ask, 'Well, what about a scene that wasn't used?' We will keep the art from that, so when the bonus material is created for a re-release, especially something like a Diamond Edition, they will come here and look through out and put together story sketches which were taken out of the film. Because we have them here, we can recreate those things.

You mentioned taking that 3D class and the decisions you make in a 2D film compared to a 3D film. Can you give some specific examples of those decisions?

Rob Minkoff: The easiest example to understand is, when you're shooting a film, one of the most classic things you do is what's called a "over-the-shoulder,' you're shooting someone else over an actor's back. In a 3D film, depending on where the convergence is, if that person comes forward off the screen plane, a couple of strange things happen, which are not good. Number one is the shoulder is in the foreground, which is what you're most likely to look at, as opposed to what you're supposed to look at, which is this person behind him. Secondly, if it goes off the frame, and it's projected in front of the screen, you get this very strange ghost effect, because you're seeing a disembodied head or something, which really cannot work in the space. It creates a weird dissonance that doesn't really help the story. Sometimes, you will prefer that the depth be behind the screen plane, so it looks like you're looking into a window into the world, instead of things coming in front of that world. When you do choose to put them in front, it should have dramatic effect and be purposeful, as opposed to just everything coming at you. We were very mindful of that. You'll notice when Simba lies down in the dust, and the dust flies, it does actually fly off the screen, for that moment, and then back towards Rafiki. That's one of the few moments when that effect is being used.

Lella Smith: I noticed a few people last night reaching out for it (Laughs).

Rob Minkoff: If you think about it, it's kind of a gimmicky thing, and when 3D is used that way, it's a gimmick but it's also an obvious choice. The truth is, you don't really want it to come off the screen, except in moments where it really makes sense. That was a big thing. When you think about it, all the things you do in a film, the language of film has evolved over 100 years, to convey certain things and relate to contemporary tastes. If you have a film that is cut very quickly, it's usually to create a sense of urgency and excitement. If you see that in 3D, it's quite hard to watch, constantly changing perspectives.

What are your thoughts on Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture, since you worked on the Roger Rabbit shorts?

Rob Minkoff: If you look at Avatar, which was done using many of the same techniques, it's much more successful, aesthetically. it's not a failure of the technology, the aesthetic is a human-driven thing, and I think that the choices that were made, aesthetically, on those (Robert Zemeckis) films, were not pleasing to me. It's how the technology is applied. There was a thing done at the Academy theater about live-action and animation and how the lines are being blurred in films today. In fact, I believe the Robert Zemeckis films were having trouble being qualified for animated categories, because it was motion-capture. When they showed an example of how they did the films, they showed Tom Hanks. Robert Zemeckis' instructions were to not lose Tom Hanks' performance, to capture it. They showed shots of Tom Hanks' performance, side-by-side with the animation, the motion-capture version of it, and every ounce of that performance was lost. You see Tom Hanks and say 'That was great. What he did was great.' Then you look at the motion-capture and it's like they didn't have any of it. Even though Robert didn't want anyone to alter or lose the performance, that happened. I actually enjoyed the filmmaking of Beowulf. I enjoyed the way the camera was used, I enjoyed the way the story was told, but the characters themselves, felt hideous. You're looking at Anthony Hopkins, but it was like that part in Silence of the Lambs, where the guy dresses up in somebody else's skin, that's what it felt like to me. It's just not alive. The thing you're trying to create in animation or in any film, really, is this illusion of life. Truthfully, filmmakers are like Doctor Frankenstein, because you're making life out of bits and pieces and parts and you're sewing them all together. When you're done with it, you don't know if it's going to look like the Frankenstein monster, which looks like a bunch of horrible parts sewn together, of if it's going to look like something organic and beautiful and alive. Everyone wants it to look like it's organic and beautiful and alive, but sometimes it looks like a hideous monster.

Is there anything you can say about Chinese Odyssey? Is that still in development?

Rob Minkoff: We're in development on it. James V. Hart is writing it and he's supposed to turn in a draft later this summer. I'm excited to see that. It's a co-production to be shot in China, an action-adventure fantasy. I'm also working down the street on Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which is from the Jay Ward canon, with Robert Downey Jr. playing Mr. Peabody.

Rob Minkoff's animated classic The Lion King will return to theaters with a brand new 3D conversion on September 16 for a two-week limited run. The Lion King will make its high-def debut on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D a few weeks later on October 4. Be sure to check back as we near closer to The Lion King 3D's release for more interviews with the filmmakers.