Supervising animators Tony Bancroft and Mark Henn discuss The Lion King and its new 3D re-release
The Lion King comes roaring back to life on the big screen this weekend in a way you've never seen it before, in 3D. The animated classic will be in theaters for a two-week limited run starting on September 16 before making its debut on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D on October 4. Recently I was invited to chat with some of the filmmakers behind The Lion King, and the last interview in this series is with animators Tony Bancroft and Mark Henn. They were primarily responsible for two of the main characters in The Lion King, with Tony Bancroft animating Simba and Mark Henn animating Pumbaa. Take a look at what they had to say about their experiences on this beloved Disney tale, and the new 3D conversion below.
Can you talk about your first involvement with The Lion King?
Tony Bancroft: Well, when I got involved with the film, there was already a Pumbaa and Timon, they had already drawn them in story sketches and the directors had done some drawings. Some character designs existed, but I did the final design and, as supervising animators, we oversee a staff of other animators who have to draw our character. We create the model sheets that they look at, where they can see what they look like in profile or from the front. The Lion King was not my first movie, but it was the first where I got to supervise a character. I was honored. When I first came on, we kind of had to try out for the character. We all had to submit a reel with scenes from our past movies, and I had just come off of Aladdin, where I animated the parrot Yago. I thought, naturally, maybe they'll hire me to do Zazu. It's a bird, it talks, like Yago. I submitted to do Zazu, even though my favorite characters were Pumbaa and Timon. I had always done comedy characters. Animators are typecast like actors are. Mark does all the leading women, and I tend to do more of the comedy characters. I was really shocked when I got a call from the directors, asking me to do Pumbaa. It was one of the biggest opportunities of my career, so I was very excited.
Do you think if The Lion King was done today, it would be as dark or as violent?
Tony Bancroft: We wanted to be bold with the storytelling. It's based on Hamlet, so there are various Shakespearean elements there, brother against brother. I think that's part of what helped it to resonate throughout all these years. Everybody always asks us if we thought The Lion King was going to be as big as it was, or why was it so successful? It's hard to gel it down to just one element, but I think one of the elements is that it has a story with depth that resonates. It's funny but it has heart and it has characters that just come to life that you can relate to. Those are key things.
Mark Henn: There are elements that you don't want to shy away from. It's just good storytelling. It's often been said that the hero is only as heroic as the bad guy is bad, or the obstacles that the hero has to overcome. You up the ante on all those things and that makes the hero stronger and the villains more important. I think it just worked in this film.
What were your favorite scenes?
Mark Henn: The death sequence was one of my favorites, with Mufasa and Simba, but then I loved doing Hakuna Matata. It has that contrast and that spectrum. I loved I Can't Wait to Be King. The moment when Mufasa thinks his dad is really going to clobber him, and yet, he lets him know he's very disappointed, but goes on and talks about the stars and their ancestry and all that. Simba starts to get it a little bit. Those are great moments for me.
Tony Bancroft: For me, it was very early in the process of the film and I saw a sequence in storyboards of Pumbaa looking up at the stars, and the three bachelors are looking up and talking about the stars. Pumbaa says, "Aw gee, I always thought they were balls of gas, burning millions of miles away.' It got a laugh just in storyboards. It was already funny, and I thought, I have to do that scene. I was so excited about it. My wife was pregnant at the time and she had this thing where she would rub her belly, they do that when they're pregnant, but I put that into the scene, where Pumbaa does that. It was something that I thought added a little life to it and made it more relatable. That was one of the more memorable ones to me, because it had a personal connection.
Where are you in the process when the voices are cast? Have you ever found that the voice cast influences your work as an animator?
Mark Henn: Yeah, it does. A voice can equally kill something... of course, we probably wouldn't stick with someone if they obviously weren't working, but they can easily make or break and that's a great starting point. Sometimes, our voice actors look like the characters. We have had that influence sometimes, not always, but in some cases. I loved watching Jonathan Taylor Thomas when he was a boy on Home Improvement, and getting to meet him and observe him. That's important to me, getting to observe the voice talent, seeing what kind of little things they bring in their acting and mannerisms. You just never know where an inspiration is going to come from.
Did you film them recording their lines?
Mark Henn: Yeah. If we weren't there in person, they would often videotape... remember videotape? They would videotape the sessions and we could access that to use as reference.
Tony Bancroft: For me, my voice actor was Ernie Sabella, who was a Broadway actor, and he was very theatrical. At the time when we were making The Lion King, my partner who did Timone, we found out that Nathan Lane, who did the voice of Timon, and Ernie Sabella were in a show on Broadway at the same time we were making The Lion King. So we flew out to New York - I think we payed for it ourselves - just to meet Nathan and Ernie and see them. They were doing Guys and Dolls on Broadway, and I got a lot out of that. I spent some time with Ernie, who was very generous with his time, we went out to dinner, talked. He did a lot of facial expressions for me, which helped me out a lot in the character design process. I also got to see how he did his lines. For me, what I took away from it, was that Ernie, and therefore Pumbaa, I wanted to be a little more staccato in his movements, very jerky and quick, in his performance style. That's one thing I wanted to put in there.
How do you guys feel about the 2D to 3D conversion?
Tony Bancroft: I think it's fabulous.
Mark Henn: I honestly didn't know how they were going to do it, but it's amazing. It's equally painstakingly approached, frame by frame, as our animation was. It isn't just simply push a button and it's done. There is a lot of thought into how scenes are constructed and how far to push things. It was pretty amazing.
Tony Bancroft: I think if we would have had the ability to make this in stereoscopic 3D in 1994, we would have. We were trying to make it as dimensional as possible, and that's why I think it translates so well. We put a lot of effort into making things feel round with a midground and a background and a foreground. It translates great to 3D because of those things. We were trying to be as dimensional and real as possible.
Mark Henn: 3D isn't going to change the story. It's there to support the visuals. We have talked often about the wildebeest stampede, and how the technology really does complete what we wanted to get on the screen, which was this flood of wildebeests sweeping over Simba and Mufasa.
Tony Bancroft: I think it helps to put you in that moment with Simba and see the wildebeests coming at you from that point of view. It makes it more real. At the time, it was state-of-the-art technology, computer animation, for those wildebeests, the first film to ever have computer animation like that. Now computer animation is so much more than that, but, for us, at the time, we were trying to make that as dimensional and real as possible. Now, with stereoscopic 3D, it actually gives it more of the sense they're coming at you, and that sense of fright for Simba resonates more with the audience because of it.
Mark Henn: You don't ever want those elements to overpower the story and the characters, though. That's first and foremost. It's there to support and enhance the story, but you don't want to be pulled out of the movie and say, "What a neat gimmick that is.'