Escape Studios 5 min read

An Evening With...The Lion King Animator

Alex Williams

Alex Williams posted on

Escape Studios was proud to welcome MPC lead animator El Suliman to Escape Studios last week to talk about his work on the Disney blockbuster "The Lion King", now one of the top ten most successful films ever made. El Suliman was an animation lead on The Lion King, and he animated many of the key shots on the film.

El explained how the animators approached the animation on this hugely complex and ground-breaking movie, which raises the bar for creature animation.
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The Lion King

London VFX powerhouse MPC have raised the bar for animal and creature animation with Disney's release of The Lion King, the re-make of the 1994 Disney classic. The Lion King is a triumph not just of technology but of great storytelling, as the film-makers kept most of the original film but wove in new elements to keep the story fresh.

"Last week we were visited by Elwaleed Suliman from MPC for one of our 'Evening With' events! He showed both current and prospective students some behind the scenes shots from the new Lion King film. Did you know it took 3 years to complete the film?" - Emma Devlin, Event Attendee

Realism and Believability

Lion King (2019)
The animal animation feels so believable that you forget you're watching animation; as you slip into a David Attenborough world so realistic that you are seldom aware the entire film is just pixels.

Gathering Reference

To make the film, MPC first sent a crew to Kenya for 3-4 months, gathering reference footage. The brief for the film was that it needed to look completely real - like a David Attenborough documentary. The team also went to zoos to learn as much as possible about the animals, and how they behaved. Many hours were spent gathering reference.

CG Environments

There were no matte paintings in the film; everything was a full cg environment. The environments were vast, arguably they are "the biggest star" of the movie. The MPC artists built over 150 square kilometres of super-detailed set, including over 60 discreet set environments.

The whole film is digital - every blade of grass, every whisker. Apart, that is, from one shot, which was filmed with a camera - the only real shot is the first one - of the sun rising in Africa.

Previz & Camera

At first the artists at MPC built a proxy set, to do the previs on the film. They did previs on entire sequences, with each shot accurate from every angle. The DP was able to move around the set in a VR headset, positioning the camera. However this meant that for animators, their scenes were "very slow" to animate in Maya, because the environments were so heavy.

All the camera moves in the film were based on real camera moves - simulating what could be achieved with a real camera on a real set. Camera lenses were all long-lens shots, because when you are shooting a documentary, you can't get close to the animals. Some of the shots in the movie are the same as the original, mostly pivotal, memorable moments, but the rest is "quite different".

Animation Development

MPC animators started off by animating walk cycles, with full muscles systems, which are "completely accurate", and which get you "95% of the way there; they had a technical animation dept which would "do the last 5%".

The animators copied live action footage to get the best results. Vets would come in and make sure the animal builds were all completely accurate. Experts came in to make sure the facial expressions were accurate. The animation team knew they were doing a good job when the experts got confused about what was a real lion, and what was a cg test - they couldn't tell the difference.

Even the grubs had their own test shots to be animated. Run cycles, walk cycles, everything to make sure it was as accurate as possible. All the shots are based on live action reference; everything in film is something that the real animal could do.

Each lion has its own character; Scar is slower, calmer, more controlled. He moves differently to Simba, who has an adolescent, "cocky" way of moving. Rafiki was tough to copy; in the first film he was a "crazy witch doctor", but in this film he was more of a "messiah figure".
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Animating shots

Most animators had "four or five shots going at once", leaving everyone with "a lot to juggle". Some shots took months; one of El's shots took three months to complete, but this was necessary in order to get it just right.

The wildebeest are all hand keyed; it was :impossible to use a crowd system when the director is giving you notes on individual wildebeest". There was a team of animators just doing wildebeest clips for months on end. All the hero shots were hand-crafted from scratch. Dialogue was done by animating the jaw, getting the timing right, and then using a muscle-based approach to get the lipsync right.

Over 1000 artists from 30 nations worked on the film, working on over 1500 shots, and in the end more than 130 animators worked on the movie.

Every animator got to do a hero shot, even the juniors. Lots of training of juniors went on during the course of the film. MPC might host a class on "foot peel-offs", for example, because it's different for each animal.

Characters

Scar took the longest to develop; and the longest to win approval. The animators had to sell the character's emotions through their body language; they couldn't use eyebrows as this would have deviated from the David Attenborough brief. They did hundreds of test shots; and some of this animation could be re-used later - though most shots were hand-keyframed from scratch.

El Suliman

El Suliman learned animation by studying at home, learning how to animate on his own time, at home. He studied computer science at Kent University, working with one of my old comrades from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, David Byers-Brown. You can read an interview with El Suliman here.

Breaking into the industry

El recommends attending industry events such as "Bring Your Own Animation", and also applying for MPC Academy. He also suggested working as a runner, because once you get in the door you can start doing tutorials and learn from the artists. Once you're in, start learning, and stick around as long as you are still learning. As people for tips; most people in the industry are super helpful.

An Evening With...The Lion King Animator
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