A Virtual Roundtable Discussion with "The Lion King" Co-Directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers
When they signed on to co-direct The Lion King, Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers had no idea they were going to make cinematic history. With its recent re-release in theaters topping box office lists for two weeks in a row, The Lion King has just broken into the top 10 list for US domestic gross ticket sales, and sits at #23 on the worldwide list. Even before this re-release, The Lion King was the most successful hand-drawn animated film in US box office history, and remains one of the studio’s most beloved films.
Rob Minkoff is an alumnus of the prestigious California Institute of the Arts program in Character Animation, and has directed several films for Disney including The Lion King, the live-action Haunted Mansion movie, and two Roger Rabbit shorts. He has also directed both Stuart Little movies and The Forbidden Kingdom. Roger Allers’ entry into the animation business was with the Lisberger Studios, where he worked on Animalympics and TRON. His other credits include stints at Nelvana (and the feature film Rock & Rule) and a tenure in Tokyo supervising Japanese artists before he moved to Walt Disney Feature Animation, working on every animated feature from Oliver & Company through to The Lion King. His most recent directorial credits include the Oscar-nominated “Little Matchgirl” short for Disney and a co-director’s chair for Open Season for Sony.
On the eve of the release of The Lion King on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D, and after its surprise win at box offices during its theatrical release, Toonzone News was able to sit in on a virtual roundtable session with Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers to discuss the film and its conversion to 3D. The following is edited and re-arranged from the raw transcript of the event, and Toonzone’s questions are marked.
QUESTION: How surprised are you that you’re still doing interviews about The Lion King after all these years?
ROB MINKOFF: It’s odd because so much time has passed and yet it feels like only a short while ago that we made the film.
QUESTION: What was the idea that brought to life The Lion King in 1994?
ROGER ALLERS: We wanted to do an animal picture based in a more natural setting. A story that dealt with the issue of taking on the responsibility of adulthood. Definitely I’d say that Bambi was an inspiration.
ROB MINKOFF: Originally it was thought of as Bambi in Africa. More true life adventure than mythical epic. But when Roger and I finally got together on it we imbued it with the more spiritual elements that are a hallmark of the film.
QUESTION: Was there any concern that the movie might be too scary or adult for children?
ROB MINKOFF: We found ourselves constantly re-balancing the film to make sure there were enough comic elements to lighten the mood after the tragedy of Mufasa’s death. Timon and Pumbaa really came along at the right time to give the film a lift and make it a more satisfying whole.
QUESTION: How did you split the work between you two directors?
ROGER ALLERS: I took all the best parts and gave Rob the rest – (kidding!) We split up the film by sequences being particularly careful that we each had scenes that really spoke to each of us. We worked side by side on story, music and editing, while such things as animation, backgrounds, etc. We gave each other separate domains according to the sequence.
ROB MINKOFF: After working on the story together, we divided up the sequences so that each one had either Roger or me leading the way. For example: Roger did “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and I did “Circle of Life.”
QUESTION: Can you talk a bit about how you went about recruiting animators to come work on The Lion King? I’ve always heard that because Pocahontas was supposed to be the prestige project, most of the Studio’s A-list animators gravitated to that production, which then supposedly made it kind of tough to initially recruit animators to come work on The Lion King. At that time, The Lion King was also supposed to still have some pretty significant story problems. Is that story true?
ROB MINKOFF: The Lion King was originally called King of the Jungle and was not well regarded around the studio. So when Jeffery Katzenberg announced that the studio would be split in two to make two films simultaneously, many of the top animators wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of The Lion King. Jefferey had deemed Pocahontas the “home run” and The Lion King the “risk.” That gave a lot of newer animators a chance to step up to leadership roles.
ROGER ALLERS: True, indeed. This was a chance to give some really deserving young animators their chance to lead a character. Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa), Mike Surrey (Timon), James Baxter (Rafiki) are all brilliant guys – we lucked out!
QUESTION: Now it seems inevitable The Lion King would become a classic, but how much of a risk did it seem to be when you were making it?
ROGER ALLERS: The Lion King was the step-child project when we started at the studio. Developing it was a hard but satisfying journey. You can never know in advance how something will turn out, or whether it will be a success even if you like it.
QUESTION: What`s the key things in doing a “larger than life” movie like The Lion King?
ROGER ALLERS: Story-wise, it’s important to stay rooted in the main
character’s experience and emotions; not to let the sweep of story plots take you away from experiencing what happens through the character’s point of view.
QUESTION: When you were doing The Lion King, could you ever imagine that it would have become such a classic Disney film?
ROB MINKOFF: When we started working on The Lion King we were fourth in a succession of modern Disney animated classics. First it was The Little Mermaid, then Beauty and the Beast, and finally Aladdin. They were all tough acts to follow. We only hoped we would be compared favorably and not disappoint the Disney fans that had been growing with each new hit. It wasn’t until we finished “Circle of Life” and put it into theaters as a trailer that we knew we had something special. But we were never overly confident. So we continued to work hard to deliver a good movie.
QUESTION: What about The Lion King do you feel makes it a classic?
ROB MINKOFF: I think it’s a combination of classic coming of age story with an incredible musical score by Elton John, one of pop music’s most prolific and successful composers. Plus, the overall design of the production and look of the characters make The Lion King feel like a traditional Disney Classic.
ROGER ALLERS: It’s the balance of humor and drama and the resonance of its themes. The issues of life and death, and loss. The responsibilities of leadership and finding one’s place in life.
ROB MINKOFF: Because The Lion King was considered an original story, there was always the need to anchor it with something familiar. When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic.
QUESTION: Are you a fan of Shakespeare’s works?
ROB MINKOFF: Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in history. His works have stood the test of time like no other. But it takes time to learn to appreciate Shakespeare and I was fortunate enough to grow up in Palo Alto, California, in a time and place where arts education was supported.
ROGER ALLERS: I am indeed a fan, but the Hamlet parallels were discovered well after we had constructed the story. But I’d be happy if we had even unconsciously channeled the old Bard!
QUESTION: Rob, who’s your favorite character? Why?
ROB MINKOFF: I always find myself drawing either Young Simba or Timon. Simba’s innocence and enthusiasm are infectious and Timon, to me, is the funniest.
QUESTION: How closely did you work with the voice cast, and how essential are the right voices to an animated film’s success?
ROB MINKOFF: As directors we work very closely with the actors to create their performance. Typically there will only be one actor recording at a time. This can make it challenging for the actors who are working in a vacuum. Sometimes we have some reading lines with them. Other times I will read with the actor which I find is an excellent way of getting the performance you’re after.
QUESTION: Share with us some memories of working with James Earl Jones?
ROGER ALLERS: Ha ha! The very first time we had James in to record, before doing his first lines he proceeded to clear his throat. The strength and resonance of his “harrrunfs” practically blew us off our chairs in the recording booth! That man IS a lion!
ROB MINKOFF: James Earl Jones has one of the most incredible voices in the history of film. Perhaps Orson Welles is his only real rival in that regard. Getting to work with him, especially being such a big fan of Star Wars, was an amazing experience. Watching him warming up his voice before a session was remarkable. He would run through a bunch of vocal exercises and sometimes sounded like a real lion with a rumbling growl.
QUESTION: Can you share with us some memories of working with Jeremy Irons?
ROGER ALLERS: Jeremy is a gentleman and a brilliant actor. He always gave us extra interpretations of lines which were fantastic.
QUESTION: Can you talk about how you guys struggled to get a handle of Rafiki? Robert Guillaume tells these great stories about he kept being called back in to re-record scenes that he’d already recorded dialogue for because you kept changing your approach and your take on the character. Evidently you folks finally brought him back in and said, “We finally figured out who Rafiki is. He’s insane.” Is there any truth to that story?
ROB MINKOFF: I remember the big breakthrough came when I asked Robert to laugh. His laugh was so amazing and really brought out the character of Rafiki as a crazy shaman witch-doctor. We kept asking him to laugh before every line!
QUESTION: Can you please talk about the contributions of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer?
ROGER ALLERS: Elton and Tim’s songs help tell the story with humor and heart, while Hans’ brilliant score and arrangements (along with Lebo M’s choral work) gave it its scale, drama, and placed it in Africa. Mark Mancina’s arrangements of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” gave the film its moments of playfulness.
ROB MINKOFF: It was Tim who suggested Elton for the job. Me, Don and Roger wanted Hans based on his work in The Power of One whose score also featured Lebo M. Their collaboration on the score and musical elements really brought the story to life and gave it its enduring power.
QUESTION: Hans Zimmer was more used to scoring live action movies. How did you get along with him in that regard?
ROB MINKOFF: Hans really brought the movie to life via the music. It was his ability to combine authentic African flavor that really made the film come to life musically. Mark Mancina was working for Hans at the time and also contributed greatly to the feeling of the movie. He was also musical director and composer for the stage production. As for his experience as a live-action composer, I think there is very little difference in how a composer works on animation and live-action, although typically an animated score is more closely married to the images. It was a terrific collaboration.
QUESTION: “The Morning Report” is no longer part of The Lion King feature. Why?
ROGER ALLERS: It was only included for the IMAX & first DVD release as a fun bonus feature. The song “Morning Report” was originally written for the stage musical. We wanted this current version to be true to the original release.
QUESTION: Were you surprised that hand-drawn animation worked in 3D?
ROB MINKOFF: I had seen some attempts at traditional animation rendered in 3D and saw great possibilities in it. But I think Robert Neuman and his team went beyond my expectations and delivered a really compelling presentation.
QUESTION: Do you think 3D adds something to The Lion King or is it only “fashionable” right now?
ROGER ALLERS: Sure, I think it adds a more visceral experience to the film. It’s been fun to see how “3Dimensionally” we’d been thinking when we originally made it in 2D.
ROB MINKOFF: I must confess that I am a fan of 3D when it’s done properly. Avatar was amazing on screen. There have been a number of films released in 3D which haven’t really delivered on its potential. But I think The Lion King 3D does. It adds a dimension to the world of our characters that makes the experience of the film more immersive, and it doesn’t take anything away from the 2D version either. So The Lion King 3D was a worthwhile endeavor in my opinion.
ROB MINKOFF: Don Hahn, Roger and I came in to meet with Robert Neuman and his team to launch them on the conversion. We watched the picture in 2D and conveyed our thoughts on things we’d like to see (and not see) in our 3D version. Then we met regularly to check the work in progress.
ROGER ALLERS: Rob Minkoff, myself, and Don Hahn watched the 2D version to determine which scenes could be pushed in 3D to enhance the storytelling and emotional content. We screened the movie without sound, watching for the scenes of greatest potential, and called them out to someone who was furiously taking notes! Throughout the process, we then reviewed each scene to offer input to Robert Neuman, the 3D stereographer and his crew. I also oversaw the color correction of the final version.
QUESTION: Which is your favorite 3D scene?
ROGER ALLERS: I’d have to say in “The Circle of Life” sequence where Zazu is flying up to join Mufasa on the promontory of Pride Rock. Great sense of flying and space!
ROB MINKOFF: I think for me, “The Circle of Life” works amazing well, and is a great way to open the experience of watching the film. It always had a power and impact but now really jumps off the screen.
QUESTION: How surprised were you when you saw the US box office figures for The Lion King 3D opening weekend?
ROB MINKOFF: I couldn’t believe it! I originally heard they were estimating something in the range of $12 million. When it topped $30 million I was shocked and amazed, but also very pleased. It’s nice that audiences still love the movie!
QUESTION: What has been improved in the transfer to 3D and for Blu-ray?
ROGER ALLERS: Besides the obvious addition of new depth and dimension, this print has the best clarity and color of anything previously released.
QUESTION: Were you ever tempted to do “a George Lucas” and improve parts of The Lion King, before the new release?
ROGER ALLERS: No, I think we knew to leave well enough alone. Did some color correcting on a few scenes that I was never happy with, though.
QUESTION: What is your opinion about The Lion King Broadway Musical directed by Julie Taymor?
ROB MINKOFF: When I first heard that a musical was being contemplated for The Lion King I was concerned it would attempt to be too literal. Beauty and the Beast had already made the leap to the stage and it was very much a replica of the animated movie. I didn’t think that kind of approach would work for The Lion King. When Julie Taymor was brought on board to re-imagine the musical for the stage, it was put into the right hands. Her approach to re-conceptualize the show, utilizing her brilliant sense of stagecraft, brought out its theatricality and made it a unique experience. When I saw the show for the first time I was delighted and gratified that our movie would live on, on-stage. And it hasn’t disappointed having been running since 1997.
ROB MINKOFF: Story is the most important thing! But beyond that, the creative process and the excitement of working with top notch artistic collaborators makes working as a director a very satisfying endeavor.
ROGER ALLERS: What’s most important to me is having an environment of mutually respectful, creative energy with my co-creators/artists.
QUESTION: Do you have Lion King items lying around your home?
ROGER ALLERS: To my wife’s dismay, I have a life-sized Simba plush. In my office, I have some framed cels and a couple of character maquettes, which are sculptural reference models. I also have the original theatrical poster signed by the cast and crew and that’s my favorite item.
ROB MINKOFF: I do, but most of them are currently in storage. I sold my house a while back and am in the process of building a new one. I’m really looking forward to creating the perfect place to house them all.
TOONZONE NEWS: What was the most unexpected way that The Lion King made its way into your life outside the animation industry?
ROB MINKOFF: “Hakuna Matata” has become a phrase recognized around the world. And every time we get kidded on TV, including the recent Emmy Awards, it’s very gratifying. It’s nice to have a little shelf space in the pop culture universe.
QUESTION: How has The Lion King changed your lives?
ROGER ALLERS: Wow. It has connected me to the world in an intimate way that I could never imagine. And as I have continued to work on all the international iterations of the stage musical it still takes me around the world.
QUESTION: What`s your favorite movie?
ROB MINKOFF: There are so many films I love it’s hard to pick just one. But The Wizard of Oz is one that will always mean a great deal to me.
ROGER ALLERS: Disney’s Peter Pan fired up my imagination as a child and inspired me to become an animator. Still love that film.
QUESTION: What is your favorite Disney movie?
ROGER ALLERS: As a child it was always Peter Pan, but The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast hold very special places in my heart. (well, The Lion King goes without saying!)
ROB MINKOFF: The key is to make something that works for both children and adults. I love the films Pixar has made like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
QUESTION: Do family movies always need to have happy endings?
ROB MINKOFF: The Lion King is unusual in that the film really focuses on the death of Mufasa and how Simba has to come to terms with that. So in a sense the film has very tragic elements. But ultimately there is reassurance in the final moments when we see that Simba and Nala have their own little lion cub. So yes, happy endings are important even though they may contain tragic elements. One of the most satisfying endings to a film is saying goodbye. It’s true of The Wizard of Oz, E.T., Gone With the Wind, and many many more.
QUESTION: How does it feel to be an integral part of the Disney Renaissance?
ROGER ALLERS: When I was a kid, I always dreamed of going to work for Walt Disney and make animated features. In high school when Walt died I was crushed and thought I had missed my chance. I am thrilled and proud to be a part of the “Second Wave”!
ROB MINKOFF: As a young boy I was an ardent Disney fan. Some would say Disney Geek. So for me, getting the chance to work at the studio and help revitalize animation is more than a dream come true.
QUESTION: You went from animation to live action/ animation with Stuart Little 2 and live action with Haunted Mansion. What are the differences between directing animation and directing live action? and in directing animators (actors with a pencil) and live actors?
ROB MINKOFF: Hugh Laurie once asked me if I wanted to erase his eyebrows and sketch in something else. There is a mistaken notion that directing animators is easier than live actors. It isn’t. Animators are just as difficult. Especially the really good ones.
QUESTION: What’s more difficult, directing live action movies (such as The Forbidden Kingdom) or animated ones?
ROB MINKOFF: The Forbidden Kingdom was an incredible challenge because we made the film entirely in China. And Jackie Chan and Jet Li are the two biggest marital arts stars in the world. They were very competitive, but had a great rapport off-camera.
QUESTION: Do you feel like the changes are for the better in the animated film industry?
ROGER ALLERS: The increase in diversity is really welcome, but I hope that traditional hand-drawn animation keeps being produced. It’s an art form that’s dear to my heart and one that I don’t think has still been fully explored.
QUESTION: What do you prefer, classic 2D or computer animation?
ROB MINKOFF: I think computer animation has vastly improved over the years and has achieved a similar quality to traditionally hand drawn animation. That said, nothing can replace the look and feel of human drawings. So I think there is room in the world for both, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses.
QUESTION: What do you think is the future of animation?
ROB MINKOFF: When I got started back in the early 80’s it seemed that animation was on its way out. But today there are more animated features, TV shows, commercials, and animated content of all kinds being produced. So I’m very bullish on animation. I think, eventually, more films will be made with more diverse content to reach audiences of all ages, and that animation finally achieves a level of respect that equals any other kind of filmmaking.
ROGER ALLERS: I think the field will continue to open up in terms of technique and subject matter. The line between animated and live action has already become so blurred, the entire distinction may disappear.
QUESTION: Rob, do you have any plans to return to animation?
ROB MINKOFF: I am actually working on a new animated movie right now. It’s based on the classic characters Mr. Peabody & Sherman who originally appeared on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show. We have Robert Downey Jr. on board playing the genius dog who adopts a red-headed human boy.
ROGER ALLERS: You know, this can be a tough business. I have developed several movies since then which for one reason or another never made to full fruition. Want to finance a film?
QUESTION: There’s a plan for Elton John’s biopic. Would you consider directing it, maybe?
ROGER ALLERS: Sure, an animated version of his life story? I’m on it!
QUESTION: How do you feel the animated movie industry has changed since The Lion King first came out?
ROGER ALLERS: I see more movies of different styles coming from many more studios now. It’s exciting. Bring ’em on!
QUESTION: What do you think of The Lion King after 17 years?
ROGER ALLERS: I still love this movie. I’ve been involved with the stage show all these intervening years, so for me it’s never gone away! But I’m so pleased with the audience’s positive response to this new release after all these years.
QUESTION: If you did The Lion King now instead of 17 years ago, what would you change?
ROGER ALLERS: The schedule. More non-working lunches!
QUESTION: Any final thoughts on The Lion King?
ROB MINKOFF: After 17 years it’s been an amazing journey on The Lion King. One that I hope continues on, like the Circle of Life. Thanks for joining us in this virtual round table. Looking forward to the next time we all meet virtually or otherwise!
ROGER ALLERS: I’m so happy that audiences are able to experience The Lion King in a theatre on a big screen with other viewers. It’s the communal experience, you know? Let’s gather at Pride Rock, join the circle, and tell our tales.
Toonzone News would like to thank Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers for taking the time to speak with us, along with the Disney PR team and the fine folks at Click Communications for setting us up to participate in this virtual roundtable session, and don’t forget to check out our roundtable interview session with Lion King producer Don Hahn. The Lion King is available now on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.