Is the New ‘Lion King’ Movie Live-Action or Animation? Top Hollywood Animators Debate

     December 13, 2018

the-lion-king-live-action-or-animationOne thing in this world is clear: Disney’s 1994 classic The Lion King is an animated movie. But when it comes to Jon Favreau‘s upcoming remake of that movie, the consensus is a little murkier. It’s been billed as a live-action remake, but since it uses cutting-edge computer graphics technology, doesn’t feature any motion-capture or performance-capture, and doesn’t have a flesh-and-blood character anywhere in sight, the argument is that it’s more of a photo-realistic animated movie. Clearly that doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “live-action Lion King“, but is it just a matter of semantics or a complete misunderstanding of the medium?

In a roundtable chat with THR, Hollywood’s veteran animators debated just that question. Included in the roundtable were Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation; Brad Bird director of Disney/Pixar’s Incredibles 2; Rich Moore, director of Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet; Latifa Ouaou, executive producer of Illumination’s The Grinch; Bonne Radford, producer of Warner Animation Group’s Smallfoot; and Peter Ramsey, director of Sony Pictures Animation’s incredible Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The animation veterans also tackled the topics of #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the need for diversity in the workplace and the reasons behind why it’s important, and the state of animation in Hollywood. Be sure to read the full roundtable over at THR for all that and more, but for the debate on The Lion King and where the lines between live-action and animation are drawn, read on below:


Image via Disney

A question came up about the rise in the number of productions using a combination of computer-generated effects and live-action filming in recent years, along with “virtual productions” like The Lion King. “Virtual Productions” is an interesting way to rephrase what has traditionally just been an “animated movie” (Andy Serkis explained the term in a recent chat for his Mowgli movie), but as the lines between what’s real and what’s computer-animated blur, these distinctions are becoming fuzzier. That’s just what the gathered animators addressed in response to this question.

BIRD: Well, which half of me are you asking? The live-action half of me is kind of getting sick of the way the movies look all computerized. We bent over backward in Mission: Impossible [Ghost Protocol] to make our stunts real. Where Tom [Cruise] is actually on the building in Dubai, we eliminated cables [with VFX] but he was out there swinging around. It’s not a CG Tom Cruise. I do think you can feel it. And listen, I come from animation. I am not against animated effects. But I think there’s a tendency to just plunk people down in front of a greenscreen and think we’ll figure it out later. And I hate that.


Image via Disney

Moore goes on to ask if the recent Jungle Book movie, Favreau’s previous “live-action” Disney movie, was animation. Ouaou, Ramsey, and Moore himself believe that it was. The question then pointed directly to Favreau’s upcoming take on The Lion King, along with the caveat that Jungle Book at least had a human character, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), as part of the filming process.

RADFORD: That’s animation.


BIRD: I was mentored by Milt Kahl, who was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. And they used live action on those hand-drawn films. But he hated animators leaning on it. And it ended up being an issue that was one of the things that got me fired because I was vocal about it, the rotoscoping.


RADFORD: Motion capture is that now.


BIRD Kind of. It gets into so many gray areas, though, because I’ve seen actors that get wired up and they think that everything on the screen is a hundred percent them. And really, sometimes it is; but sometimes there’s nothing from what they’re doing. Because the animators look at it and go, “Screw this, I can do this better.” And they’ll do a scene that is completely emotional. I don’t want to get in trouble, but there’s stuff on Gollum [in the Lord of the Rings movies] that is a hundred percent key-framed [hand animated]. And Andy Serkis is brilliant, I absolutely credit much of that to him. But there are shots in there that are very emotional that were a hundred percent key-framed, and that’s the dirty little secret because animators aren’t supposed to do that — only actors can do that. And what I would love to see change is for actors to consider animators their brethren.


Image via Disney

I’ll forgive Bird’s dig at Serkis, someone who’s done more than just about anyone to advance the technology and acceptance of motion-capture and performance-capture as a tool in the actor’s belt, mostly because they share a common hope: That actors and animators can find common ground to collaborate rather than act independently of each other:

MOORE: The more that you bring actors into the process and they meet the animators and see what they do, they concede that fact: “It’s like these guys are as much actors as we are.”


BIRD: I want actors to see animators as fellow actors.


BELSON: As the great actors that they are.


BIRD: Because we were doing a review session on Incredibles 2 and I’m talking over with an animator: “What we need to see here is this and you have something here, but I’d love to see it.” And we were breaking it down into what the character is thinking. And I turn around at the end of it, and Holly [Hunter, who voices Elastigirl] is sitting there, she’d just come in and just decided to hang out and watch. She was like, “I’ve never seen this before, this is very illuminating because it’s much of the same process that we go through internally as actors.” And it’s not competition — it’s expanding.


BELSON: This whole conversation is making me think it’s not that interesting really to debate the semantic difference between animation and hybrid. But as the lines keep blurring, I have much optimism that movies are just going to get more and more interesting. It’s all just tools in the toolbox. And as the lines get blurred, you won’t think those movies are for kids, those movies are only for adults. They’ll just hopefully be awesome movies for everybody.

So what do you think? Is 2019’s The Lion King live-action or animation? And as the technologies progress to the point that it’s becoming nearly impossible to tell the difference, does the distinction even matter? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


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