I had a lot of fun talking to animator Mark Henn about “Winnie the Pooh” last summer so it was a pleasure to get to talk to him again, this time about The Lion King, which has had surprise box office success as a 3D theatrical re-release and in its first Blu-Ray edition.
Were you surprised by the support for the theatrical re-release of a 1994 movie?
Yes — seventeen years gone by and this little film that we had no idea how well it would do back then is surprising us again even today. Still the king of the beasts, I guess, and a nice shot in the arm for hand-drawn animation, which is still viable.
I think it is less due to the 3D than because people want to go to the theater to see a movie the whole family can enjoy.
I don’t disagree. The 3D is a hook but it is still a great movie. I haven’t seen it in a long time and even I went, “Wow, this is a really good movie!” And the 3D on top of it gave it a fresh twist but it’s really a great movie and there’s a whole new generation to see it, too.
You start by going there. I was not a part of the original research trip but the directors, head of story, head of layout and head of background go on these trips. I did one for “Mulan.” They went to Africa and I had the opportunity several years after the film came out to go to Africa to do a promotional trip and when I showed up there, I said, “Oh, my gosh, there’s Pride Rock! There’s where the wildebeests were!”
It all goes back to Walt Disney. He believed everything had to be based in reality and fact and then you go from there. We went to zoos and studied real lions. Even though there are some liberties with color and things like that, that’s what you can do with this medium, adjust the colors and moods but it is all based in fact and reality.
We’re the actors. In a live action movie we can offer it to Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt but for animation we are usually cast on a specific character. I was responsible for young Simba, the beginning of the movie through “Hakuna Matata,” those scenes of him growing up. Animators, like actors, have a variety of strengths, some are better with villains or comedy but I’ve tended to do more lead characters, especially the girls. The directors, when the sequence is ready to go into production they can sit down with us and communicate what Simba is doing and part of my job is not just the design of the character, what he looks like, but how he acts and moves. So I act like quality control between the director and the other animators working on Simba, and make sure that what they do is what the directors want and consistent in the way he looks and acts throughout the the film.
One of the highlights of the film for me is when young Simba sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” How do you make a lion dance?
You have to know how a lion walks and moves first, and how they’re put together. And then you can break the rules and have some fun with it. You push it until it looks broken and then you back it up. It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to get up on two legs — you had the rhythm and choreography but it had to be on all fours.
We have the voice and the music, particularly with songs, but the rest of the score comes in later. We get the very specific musical beats and highlights and accents they need to hit and the lyrics — you have that to move the character to.
What does the 3D add to it?
It completes it, in a way. The film was already very vast and epic in the way it was laid out. We did what we could with the tools that were available in 1994 to make it that way. If we had this technology then we would have used it. So the technology has caught up with us to provide the final piece of the puzzle. It is really something to see Zazu walking the lion cubs out into the middle of the Savannah. You can feel him floating in the air with the cubs below him and it is really neat, an extra little tool that enhances the movie-going experience.