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How Photo-Realism Redefined the Idea of Character Animation on Jon Favreau’s ‘The Lion King’

While MPC upped its animation game for the life-like animals, Favreau imposed limitations on performance that go against the rules of conventional animation.

THE LION KING - Featuring the voices of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala and Donald Glover as Simba, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The Lion King”

Disney

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As a result of “The Lion King’s” innovative photo-realism, Jon Favreau intentionally put his Disney remake squarely in the crosshairs of live action and animation. Thus, while the Technicolor-owned MPC Film team stunningly upped its keyframe character work to meet the requirements of the director’s narrative nature-doc aesthetic, it had to basically rewrite the playbook for performance by dialing down facial expressions and lip syncing. To many, this seemed counter-intuitive to what we normally expect from CG-animated character performance, which relies on exaggeration or more caricatured anthropomorphic behavior to express thought and emotion.

Yet Favreau was determined to avoid conventional character performance to stay within the life-like parameters of his aesthetic. He introduced distinct yet nuanced physicality along with an ensemble of new vocal performers (led by Donald Glover, Beyoncé, and Chiwetel Ejiofor), and relied on us to fill in the blanks with the familiar story, songs, and score. Still, the instant the animals began talking and singing, the live-action spell was momentarily broken until audiences made the adjustment.

“Meaning, the audience was going to relate to this film in a different way,” said Adam Valdez, MPC’s visual effects supervisor. “And you didn’t have all of the comedy turns and exaggerated action and hyper-stylized look that you can do in a cartoon. You get a strange hybrid if you dial up the emotions where you’re not sure whether you’re watching animation or live action. And it’s a film that has to work for a wider audience, so the challenge was, what were you going to put in the place of those things in terms of the overall impact of the film?”

THE LION KING - Featuring the voices of Florence Kasumba, Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key as the hyenas, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The Lion King”

Disney

The answer was creating individual characteristics for the animals, which had their own way of moving and behaving in keeping with their species. Yes, there was exaggeration, but it was kept to a minimum. “There’s combinations that don’t work that well,” Valdez added. “When you’re stylized, it allows you to push. But when you’re going very real, and you change proportions (bigger eyes) or exaggerate certain moves, it looks out of sync and doesn’t have the resonance that we want from reality.”

MPC first had to write new software for more complex fur shading and rendering (Furtility) and muscle/skin simulation (Muggins).  It’s so realistic-looking that you can see the veins popping on Mufasa (James Earl Jones) when he starts walking. “The muscles are triggered based on checking the weight,” said Andy Jones, the animation supervisor. “We had a team that would go in and, if the muscles were misfiring, we’d give them notes to fix that to make sure the paws on the ground were in check with the weight. And then the skin sliding was something they worked on more than on ‘Jungle Book’ because you see a lot more of it on the lions.”

The most requested character to work on for the animators was the villainous Scar (Ejiofor), whose body reveals vulnerability but whose posture emphasizes relaxed cunning. “Scar needed to harken back to the older design from the original but couldn’t look too different from the family, and couldn’t be too wiry or thin,” Valdez said. “He needed to be a physical threat in his own way, a default menace in the way that he was designed in his entire physical presence. Mufasa has a healthy, dominant, powerful form, and Simba needed to clearly look like the son of Mufasa yet have his own youthful persona and be able to fight in the end.”

THE LION KING - Featuring the voices of JD McCrary as Young Simba, Billy Eichner as Timon and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The Lion King”

Disney

Meanwhile, the hyenas had a role to play in the ecosystem as scavengers. They were trying to survive and Scar recruits them to destabilize the environment around Pride Rock. The kingdom rivalry dynamic is explored more extensively in Favreau’s version. “The hyenas are naturally intimidating,” said Valdez. “Their faces have a skull shape that reads in the light and a lot of work was done to their eyes and teeth to emphasize their threat.”

The comic Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) were a combination of cute and ugly, and there was more leeway to animate as meerkat and warthog. “We first tried to make Timon’s hand gestures more human, more anthropomorphic,” said Jones. “And we found out right away that it broke the character. So we researched what they really could do, how they stand and move while standing and what they do with their paws. And we were limited to those moments and based the comedy on that. They’re a funny animal in general. The way the meerkats move their heads is sporadic, especially when they’re on the lookout. They also get a little drugged out by eating scorpions, almost like they’re falling asleep, so we gave a narcoleptic sense to him.

“With Pumbaa, because his mouth is behind his nose and tusks, you get a sense of it moving,” Jones added. “And there’s a lot we could do with the corners around the cheeks. They are also very funny animals. You come up to them in Africa and they’ll run off really fast like they’re scared, and then turn around and look like they forgot what they’re running from. We tried to replicate that kind of movement. And Seth captured the tone so perfectly, even with the scraggly beard.”

THE LION KING - Featuring the voices of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, James Earl Jones as Mufasa and John Oliver as Zazu, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The Lion King”

Disney

Most challenging, though, was limiting the facial expressions, which meant the animators were restricted in the way the animals could realistically move their mouths while speaking or singing. They focused on jaw motion and played with the corners of the mouth and only slighted pressed the upper and lower lips. Although they initially dialed up the brow gestures for the lions, Favreau found it too unsettling and they pulled back. However, with Simba having fun as a cub, he gave way to a few smiles. So, to take attention away from the mouths, they concentrated on choreographing action to convey emotion: jumping up or down rocks, prancing around the watering hole, displaying affection between parents and children, or having Scar slinking around in dialogue-heavy scenes.

“Singing was more tricky,” Jones said, “because you’re holding notes and that’s when they kept more to the choreography. Jon wanted to lean on the documentary aspect. Watching the characters in those environments was about making everything look real. With how much we’ve learned and how much artistry has excelled with all the different disciplines of computer-generated imagery…from ‘Toy Story’ to here is pretty amazing.”

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