Friday, September 16, 2011

'Hakuna Matata!' Animator Tony Bancroft Talks About the Return of 'The Lion King'

Pumbaa and Timon, The Lion King
It's tough to make an ugly, smelly creature with spindly legs into a funny animated character that audiences love. Tony Bancroft managed to do that when he was the supervising animator for the flatulent, fun-loving warthog Pumbaa in The Lion King. The 1994 animated classic begins a two week theatrical run this weekend in an "enhanced" 3D version (for purists like me, the movie is being show in 2D as well) and will be released on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D on October 4.

Bancroft attended CalArts beginning in 1987 and eventually spent 12 years at Disney, animating films including Beauty and the BeastAladdin and The Emperor's New Groove. He also co-directed Mulan with Barry Cook. Even with that diverse resume, Pumbaa keeps a special place in Bancroft's heart. "I think it was because he was my first character to supervise as an animator," he says. "Also, he and I have so much in common. We're both overweight and enjoy a good bug every once in awhile!"

Tony Bancroft
When The Lion King first went into production, it was considered a secondary project. Following the successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the Walt Disney Studios was far more excited about making another film with a strong female protagonist, Pocohontas. There wasn't nearly as much enthusiasm for a "King of the Jungle" (The Lion King's working title) film. So, veteran animators were assigned to Pocahontas while, for the most part, less experienced staff was put on The Lion King. Says Bancroft, "Many of us on The Lion King were young animators that just had no fear of trying new things and we were totally focused on making great films. There was not a lot of pressure on us at the time because the studio did not expect much from The Lion King at first so we felt creatively unharnessed."

In the beginning, Bancroft was drawn to the character of Zazu, Mufasa's horn-billed major domo. As he explains, "Pumbaa and Timon, even at an early stage of the film, were the break out popular characters and they seemed out of my reach to even request as a first-time supervising animator. Having just finished animating Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, I thought, 'Well, Iago's a bird and Zazu's a bird. Maybe I have a shot.' I was totally taken by surprise when the directors called me to offer me the character of Pumbaa. It was one of the happiest day of my life."

It took time to make a warthog an appealing character, though. With his fellow animators, Bancroft made trips to the zoo and even observed and drew animals brought into the studio. "I spent a good six months just coming up with the design. What does he look like? How do we make one of the ugliest known animals in the animal kingdom appealing for the audience? So, we spent a lot of time trying to hone that design into something that's simple, cute and works well with Timon and the other animals in the environment."

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella record the voices of
Timon and Pumbaa
Drawing inspiration from the voice talent helped a lot. Pumbaa and his meerkat buddy Timon were voiced by Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane, who, in the early 1990s, appeared together in a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. Bancroft and Timon animator Mike Surrey made a trip to New York to see the acting duo in action. "It was a great education for me to see Ernie performing, to study his movements and actions," says Bancroft. "Then, when I got back to my animation desk, I would try to incorporate Ernie's acting style in my scenes. I think it really helped in bringing the character to life."

Bancroft and Surrey would continue to be influenced by Broadway musicals as they worked on Pumbaa and Timon. As Bancroft explains, "Mike and I shared an office together and (we) would listen to the music out loud all day long. We would sing along to Les Miserables or Miss Saigon while animating our characters. Maybe it helped in animating our characters singing "Hakuna Matata," I don't know.

When The Lion King was finally released in 1994, it was embraced by moviegoers and critics alike, taking in over $40 million during it's first weekend of wide release. It would eventually rack up over $300 million in the U.S. during its initial run and become one of Disney's best loved films. "We had no idea that The Lion King would become the phenomenon that it has become," says Bancroft. At the time, we thought it was just this fun little film with a quirky story about a lion cub in Africa that thinks he killed his father and has bug-eating friends, set to music by Elton John. Not the normal Disney story, for sure. It still amazes me that it is so well-loved around the world."

And now, 17 years later, The Lion King is being retooled in 3D for theatrical and home video release. What does Bancroft think about the new look? "When I first heard that The Lion King was being made into a 3D version, I must admit I was skeptical. I wasn't sure what the technology would bring to our 2D animation. Then I saw it and I was amazed at how it looked in 3D--how much it enhances the animation. When we created the film in 1994, we tried to make it as dimensional and real as we could with the technology during that time, but now with stereoscopic technology it actually fully realizes the potential of what were trying to make. I think it actually improves the film.

"Look at the wildebeest stampede scene for example. We made the wildebeests in CGI and lowered the camera down to the level of Simba so that the audiences feel the fear of the little lion cub as they rush past him. In 3D that scene literally leaps out at you and makes it all the more frightening for little Simba. That alone is an improvement on the storytelling and a great reason to have this new awesome version."

Bancroft learned his craft in an era of hand-drawn 2D animation, so he tends to favor it over modern CG animation. Still, he feels there's room for both styles in film making as long as they're executed properly. "So much has changed in how we make movies in animation," he says, "and yet so much has remained the same. The essence of making animated movies is still about taking the audience on a magical journey to a place they have never before seen through the eyes of characters that are appealing and endearing. I think The Lion King is the best example of that."

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