When a 3D release of The Lion King was released in US cinemas a few weeks ago, even Disney only had muted expectations for it. It was seen as much as a promotion for the Blu-ray release as anything else. However it went on to make $30 million in its first weekend, and its continuing success has seen it return to the list of the 10 highest grossing movies ever in the US. It is a special film and audiences have loved seeing it back on the big screening.
With The Lion King returning to UK cinemas on Friday in its brand new 3D form, we got the chance to talk to the films directors, Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers. Weve split the interview into two parts, with one coming now and the other just ahead of the Blu-ray release.
We asked them how involved they were in the 3D conversion, what it involved and how The Lion King came to be in the first place…
How surprised are you that you’re still doing interviews about The Lion King after all these years?
Rob Minkoff: It’s odd because so much time has passed and yet it feels like only a short while ago that we made the film.
Do you think 3D adds something to The Lion King or is it only fashionable right now?
Roger Allers: Sure. I think it adds a more visceral experience to the film. It’s been fun to see how “3-Dimensionally” we’d been thinking when we originally made it in 2D.
Rob Minkoff: I must confess that I am a fan of 3D when it’s done properly. Avatar was amazing on screen. There have been a number of films released in 3D which haven’t really delivered on its potential. But I think The Lion King 3D does. It adds a dimension to the world of our characters that makes the experience of the film more immersive. And it doesn’t take anything away from the 2D version either. So The Lion King 3D was a worthwhile endeavour in my opinion.
How involved were you in the actual 3D transfer of The Lion King?
Rob Minkoff: Don Hahn, Roger and I came in to meet with Robert Neuman and his team to launch them on the conversion. We watched the picture in 2D and conveyed our thoughts on things we’d like to see (and not see) in our 3D version. And then we met regularly to check the work in progress.
Roger Allers: Rob Minkoff, myself and Don Hahn watched the 2D version to determine which scenes could be pushed in 3D to enhance the storytelling and emotional content. Throughout the process, we then reviewed each scene to offer input to Robert Neuman, the 3D stereographer and his crew. I also oversaw the colour correction of the final version.
What was the process you went through to determine which story elements would most benefit from the stereoscopic 3D enhancement?
Roger Allers: We screened the movie without sound, watching for the scenes of greatest potential, and called them out to someone who was furiously taking notes!
Which is your favourite 3D scene?
Rob Minkoff: I think for me, the Circle of Life works amazingly well. And is a great way to open the experience of watching the film. It always had a power and impact but now really jumps off the screen.
Roger Allers: I’d have to say in the Circle of Life sequence where Zazu is flying up to join Mufasa on the promontory of Pride Rock. Great sense of flying and space!
How surprised were you when you saw the US box office figures for The Lion King 3D opening weekend?
Rob Minkoff: I couldn’t believe it! I originally heard they were estimating something in the range of $12 million. When it topped $30 million I was shocked and amazed but also very pleased. It’s nice that audiences still love the movie!
Were you surprised that hand-drawn animation worked in 3D?
Rob Minkoff: I had seen some attempts at traditional animation rendered in 3D and saw great possibilities in it. But I think Robert Neuman and his team went beyond my expectations and delivered a really compelling presentation.
Many people have noted similarities to Hamlet in the story of The Lion King. Was that something you were conscious of when making the movie?
Rob Minkoff: Because The Lion King was considered an original story there was always the need to anchor it with something familiar. When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favourably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic.
What was the idea that brought to life The Lion King in 1994?
Roger Allers: We wanted to do an animal picture based in a more natural setting. A story that dealt with the issue of taking on the responsibility of adulthood.
Rob Minkoff: Originally it was thought of as a Bambi in Africa. More true life adventure than mythical epic. But when Roger and I finally got together on it we imbued it with the more spiritual elements that are a hallmark of the film.
Can you talk a bit about how you went about recruiting animators to come work on The Lion King? I’ve always heard that because Pocahontas was supposed to be this prestige project, so most of the Studio’s A-list animators gravitated to that production. That then made it kind of tough to initially recruit animators to come work on The Lion King. Is that story true?
Rob Minkoff: The Lion King was originally called King of the Jungle and was not well regarded around the studio. So when Jeffery Katzenberg announced that the studio would be split in two to make two films simultaneously, many of the top animators wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of The Lion King. Jeffrey had deemed Pocahontas the “home run” and The Lion King the ‘risk.” That gave a lot of newer animators a chance to step up to leadership roles.
Roger Allers: But this was a chance to give some really deserving young animators their chance to lead a character. Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa), Mike Surrey (Timon), James Baxter (Rafiki) are all brilliant guys – we lucked out!
Now it seems inevitable The Lion King would become a classic, but how much of a risk did it seems when you were making it?
The Lion King was the step-child project when we started at the studio. Developing it was a hard but satisfying journey. You can never know in advance how something will turn out, and even if you like it whether it will be a success.
Were you ever tempted to do a George Lucas and improve parts of The Lion King, before the new release?
Roger Allers: No, I think we knew to leave well enough alone. Did some colour correcting though on a few scenes that I was never happy with.
Was there any concern that the movie might be too scary or adult for children?
Rob Minkoff: We found ourselves constantly re-balancing the film to make sure there were enough comic elements to lighten the mood after the tragedy of Mufasa’s death. Timon and Pumbaa really came along at the right time to give the film a lift and make it a more satisfying whole.
What`s the key things in doing a ‘larger than life’ movie like The Lion King?
Roger Allers: Story-wise, it’s important to stay rooted in the main character’s experience and emotions; not to let the sweep of story plots take you away from experiencing what happens through the character’s point of view.
What do you prefer, classic 2D or computer animation?
Rob Minkoff: I think computer animation has vastly improved over the years and has achieved a similar quality to traditionally hand drawn animation. That said, nothing can replace the look and feel of human drawings. So I think there is room in the world for both, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses.
How closely did you work with the voice cast, and how essential are the right voices to an animated film’s success?
Rob Minkoff: As directors we work very closely with the actors to create their performance. Typically there will only be one actor recording at a time. This can make it challenging for the actors who are working in a vacuum. Sometimes we have some reading lines with them. Other times I will read with the actor which I find is an excellent way of getting the performance you’re after.
What do you think is the future of animation?
Rob Minkoff: When I got started back in the early 80’s it seemed that animation was on its way out. But today there are more animated features, TV shows, commercials, and animated content of all kinds being produced. So I’m very bullish on animation. I think, eventually, more films will be made with more diverse content to reach audiences of all ages, and that animation finally achieves a level of respect that equals any other kind of filmmaking.
Roger Allers: I think the field will continue to open up in terms of technique and subject matter. The line between animated and live action has already become so blurred, the entire distinction may disappear.
What was the most unexpected way that The Lion King made its way into your life outside the animation industry?
Rob Minkoff: Hakuna Matata has become a phrase recognized around the world. And every time we get kidded on TV, including the recent Emmy Awards, it’s very gratifying. It’s nice to have a little shelf space in the pop culture universe.