By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood September 9, 2011 at 6:02AM
The Lion King has been converted to 3-D. Bill Desowitz talks to the folks who did it, and the original filmmakers, who look back on what it took to make the groundbreaking animated juggernaut in the first place.
There's been plenty of revisionist outrage about George Lucas digitally tweaking Star Wars for the "Complete Saga" Blu-ray set, which streets Sept. 16. Let's at least wait and see how it looks before passing final judgment. But, in the meantime, there's also some anger about converting Disney's The Lion King to 3-D, which gets a two-week theatrical run beginning the same day. After all, this is the reigning hand-drawn box office champ at $328.5 million and fourth overall on the all-time list of animated features, so people are very protective of their childhood memories.
Having seen it twice, however, I can report that the added depth was definitely worth the experience. There's something extra special about witnessing the grandeur of the opening "Circle of Life" sequence in 3-D: the celebration of Simba's birth, the introduction of the wildlife kingdom and the African Pride Lands. The flight of Zazu the bird takes on an added dimension before settling in on the royal presence of King Mufasa. Likewise, the horrifying danger of the wildebeest stampede also enhances the movie's theatricality when viewed stereoscopically.
On the other hand, there's no denying that the dimness factor (still an inherent problem with 3-D viewing) negates the enjoyment of the full color palette. We'll just have to wait for the Blu-ray release on Oct. 4 to rectify that.
Still, it's a noteworthy achievement for post-converting hand-drawn animation, given the paper cut-out fear that used to persist just a few years ago. Disney stereographer Robert Neuman worked diligently for four months with a staff of 60 artists and four sequence supervisors to do justice to the 1994 classic. But first he needed to figure out the right aesthetic.
"I had to re-imagine what was in the minds of the original artists," Neuman recalls. "What kind of depth were we seeing? What would characters look like? Then I had to do this in a way that would enhance the storytelling and maximize viewing comfort, which is always a delicate balancing act."
Fortunately, The Lion King was made using the pioneering digital ink and paint system called CAPS (developed by Disney and Pixar), of which the stampede was an early example of computerized character animation prior to the Pixar animated features. That meant they had all of the original data archived electronically. Unfortunately, they had to write modern software to convert the '94 technology. But they also designed tools to help sculpt the depth of the shots.
"Our challenge was to try and create depth in a hand-drawn movie, but there's also a tangible quality to CG animation," Neuman adds. "You want to reach out and touch the toys in Toy Story. By creating the fusion of 2D animation with stereoscopic 3-D, we feel like we're creating a new medium with a fresh look."
Neuman communicated depth through the process of mark up. He drew on each of the 1,200 shots, quantifying the amount of parallax through pixels, which also ensured continuity among the artists. He also inflated the characters, which were enhanced by their vertical designs.
Yet prior to working on the 3-D conversion, producer Don Hahn hadn't seen The Lion King in about 15 years. Apparently neither had the directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. So they had forgotten a lot of the pain they went through to make the movie. "For quite a while, we thought it would be a turkey," Hahn admits. "I couldn't get animators to work on it. They wanted to work on Pocahontas and some of the other upcoming movies. That made sense because we were making Broadway musical-type movies and that was Alan Menken's next movie. So they naturally thought it would be our next hit."
But they wanted to do Joseph meets Hamlet in Africa with music by Elton John, and it just didn't connect with the animators. But this "Circle of Life" thing took hold and became an unexpected phenomenon, and the the result was that it propelled a whole new generation of animators, including Andreas Deja (who supervised the deliciously villainous Scar) and Tony Bancroft (who supervised the lovable warthog, Pumbaa).
"Rightly or wrongly, they thought they could do as well as Walt Disney's generation of animators," Hahn suggests. "Whether they did or not is moot. But we thought we could do something special with these animals just as Walt's generation did with Jungle Book. It's like a hand-written letter. It's very nostalgic and humbling in a funny way and we definitely didn't want to screw it up when we put it in 3-D."