Animation Supervisor Andy Jones, part of the same team reuniting from The Jungle Book, discusses his role working with the filmmakers and MPC to bring the much loved characters from another Disney classic back to life on screen.
Q - What were director Jon Favreau’s marching orders for you as related to the animation on this film?
A - Jon set the bar extremely high from the onset of The Lion King. He told me: “If it feels like animation – there is no reason to do this movie. Nobody needs another animated version of The Lion King.” Basically what he was saying is, the goal here is to pull off a magic trick — make the animation so life-like, that the audience will believe they are watching real animals and wonder “how did they do that?"
Q - This film differed in approach from The Jungle Book. How would you characterize this film and how it differs?
A - We learned a lot from making The Jungle Book. We did a lot right with our process, and we learned from our mistakes. The Lion King was our chance to improve upon all that we learned, both in preproduction and production. Our goal was to maximize efficiency in storytelling so that Jon could put every last dollar up on that screen.
The Jungle Book was more of a traditional VFX film. We filmed live action plates and added visual effects to the frame to make you believe Mowgli was living in a jungle and surrounded by his animal friends. The Lion King approach was more like an animated feature. We knew we had nothing to film with a live action camera.
The biggest similarity was our Virtual Camera approach. We used the Virtual Camera on The Jungle Book to “pre-shoot” the movie to help us understand exactly the types of shots we needed to get with our live action Mowgli. We used the Virtual Camera on The Lion King to actually shoot very sophisticated previs, with realistic camera moves, so that we could tightly edit the previs V-cam dailies and form our sequences for turn over to post-production.
Q - Can you speak about the research and development of the film’s creature-characters?
A - All of our characters were initially designed by our production design team led by James Chinlund. As the designs were getting approved and the models were taking shape, we started to research everything these animals could and couldn’t do physically. We had our very own animal researcher Noessa Higa, working alongside our production team in LA. She was a constant source for digging deep into the details of what these animals were capable of. It was really important to keep the physicality of these animals as real as possible. So all gags and ideas for scenes first had to pass Noessa’s sniff test of real animal believability. Limiting our animation team to realistic movement made the acting animation extremely challenging. But when we got it right, it was immensely rewarding.
Q - Cinematographer Rob Deschanel has characterized this project as the height of collaboration. Can you describe the collaboration on this film?
A - I think that the way Jon works is to surround himself with very talented people in their respective disciplines and then distribute the workload – asking all parties to contribute both creatively and technically to help him deliver a truly remarkable film. I work a very similar way, trusting my generals and lieutenants to execute their jobs at the highest level. (MPC Animation Supervisors) Gabriele Zucchelli and Stephen Enticott did an amazing job pushing an insane amount of animation work through MPC in a short amount of time.
Q - MPC’s Adam Valdez (VFX Supervisor) and Audrey Ferrara (DFX Supervisor) have both expressed the strong feeling of wanting to honor the experience of being in Africa. Do you feel similarly?
A - Yes, the safari we went on at the onset of this project is something I will never forget. There is nothing like seeing these animals in the wild to make one truly appreciate the beautiful harmony of life that is going on there. I think the original film captured it well with the music and grandeur of the compositions. We had a very high bar to meet – to both do justice to the original film and bring something new to the story that pays respect to its roots in Africa.
Q - Can you talk specifically about working with the animation team at MPC?
A - It was really great to come back to MPC and see so many familiar faces that helped us on The Jungle Book. Some of the animators had now moved on to lead roles – taking on more responsibility. It was a pleasure to work with this talented group of animators who each brought their own special love for the film and its characters.
But I have to say I really like Gabriele Zucchelli – after five years and working closely on two films in a row, I feel like I have been to war with the guy. His easy-going demeanor and his extreme talent for animation detail make him a standout supervisor at MPC. I also admire Stephen Enticott for coming into a supervisor role at MPC and leading his crew through some very tough sequences.
My hat is off to the entire animation department at MPC; they are real troopers and all the love and passion for this film is up on that screen for the world to see. A big thank you to the animation production department as well, headed by Nancy Xu. She always handled everything with a smile and confidence that spread through her team.
Q - What are some of the specific advancements in animation technique to be found in the film?
A - We mainly expanded upon the puppet rigging that we did for The Jungle Book. Achieving amazing animation is directly related to the speed of playback. The faster the iterations, the easier it is for the animators to see performance issues and solve them in real time. So we put a lot of effort in the performance of the animation rigs – giving the animators options for caching additional characters so that their scenes were scrubbable. Once the animation team was able to use these tools to their advantage, I noticed major improvements in their work.
Q - A lot will likely be made about the VR aspect of production/shooting. Can you talk about how that VR pipeline positively impacted the animation?
A - It was really cool to do virtual set scouts with the Director, the Production Designer, the Cinematographer, the VFX Supervisor and myself, all in one VR session walking (and flying) around the set and discussing where we wanted the action to take place. This was a first for me. VR is such a powerful tool to help everyone get on the same page for a movie of this scale. And then, my previs team would whip up some amazing blocking that we all could discuss and reposition in the game engine in real time.
Q - Did it allow for greater communication between the on-going shoot and the character building?
A - Yes, definitely. Ideas could come from any of Jon’s core team and we all just rolled with the changes and adjustments. In the end, having such a creative core team – being able to add their input through a very visual real time VR environment – really served the film well.
Q - What are some of the most noteworthy features of the film for you personally?
A - I am extremely proud of the animal acting in the film. Sure, the physical animation was quite challenging. But making animals act and talk in such a way that it does not break the reality is the most challenging aspect for the animators. When we hit the sweet spot where the animals’ movements do not betray the real thing – and it looks like the animal is thinking and feeling those thoughts – man, it really is a thing of beauty.
Several sequences make me smile at how well we pulled off the magic trick. A notable one would be Simba's confession. I think the acting between Scar and Simba is so eloquent and beautiful that I really feel something for both characters throughout that scene.