From: Brian Tiemann <>
Subject: ASIFA "The Lion King" Tenth Anniversary Reunion Panel
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 2004 18:52:04 -0700
Message #: 138


    Okay, stand back... this may well be the most on-topic post of all  
time. I hope the mail server can handle it.

    I just got back, late last night, from the afore-mentioned event: the  
TLK Tenth Anniversary Reunion panel and fundraiser, presented by ASIFA  
(the International Animated Film Association) in Glendale, right next  
door to Burbank just north of Hollywood. Information on the event is  

    It's a gathering of eight of the producers, directors, and animators  
who had brought the movie to life: people I've been wanting to meet for  
the last ten years, all gathered together in the same place for  
reminiscing and communing with the fans both local and devoted enough  
to drive down from San Jose on a work night. Christian Ziebarth  
( was there too, as were Jim "Hill" Media  
and other luminaries. Christian was taking copious notes, and he'll  
probably be posting his own account of the events to his own site  
shortly. However, in the interest of being timely and getting some  
things typed up before they evaporate from my brain, I'm writing this  
down now.

    I got to the Glendale Public Library at about 6:45 (the event was to  
start at 7:00); I went inside, and there were girls holding up  
hand-drawn signs saying "Lion King upstairs", with a picture of Simba  
clearly having been drawn by one of the animators in attendance. I went  
up and was immediately met at the door by Christian; we sat down and  
talked with Jim Hill and his friends (mostly on the subject of the  
sorry state of the 2D animation world right now-- needless to say,  
virtually everybody in the 200-or-so-strong crowd was a staunch  
supporter of traditional 2D hand animation rather than the 3D CG stuff  
that people are trying to hard to replace 2D with) while watching the  
crowd for more familiar faces.

    Eventually ASIFA bigwig Stephen Worth stood up in front of the stage  
and showed a withered old sketch with battered corners and no  
signature. Turns out its a self-caricature by Ub Iwerks, found recently  
in a studio dumpster. It's probably priceless. He used it very  
effectively to make his point that 2D animation is an art form unto  
itself that can no more be "replaced" by CG than pencils and paint can  
be replaced by photography. And although Disney Feature Animation has  
closed its doors, and although 2006 is the last slated date for any 2D  
animated feature to be released by any company, after which nothing is  
planned at all, he said, 2D animation is NOT dead. To that end, he  
announced the founding of the Animation Archive Project, conceived as  
being a digitized online museum of archival quality scans of as much  
animation art that ASIFA can scrounge up from the past century of work:  
sketches, cels, pencil tests, demo reels, everything they can get their  
hands on. They're only just now kicking it off, and they need $20K  
before they can buy the equipment and fund the initial development. But  
judging by the enthusiastic attendance last night, I don't think  
they'll have any trouble reaching their goal. One day they hope to turn  
it into a real, brick-and-mortar Animation Museum, and I think that's  
bound to succeed too. Animation, after all, is a civic treasure for  
Glendale, Burbank, and Hollywood; there's no way any of the local city  
fathers could fail to see the importance of preserving something that  
only ten years ago seemed to be here to stay forever, but today looks  
all but moribund. I hope that anybody who has an interest in saving 2D  
animation, and maybe seeing Disney Feature Animation resurrected  
someday, will visit the site and contribute what you can:

    Anyway: After Worth spoke, Tom Sito (the moderator, and one of TLK's  
story developers) took the stage; he introduced all the speakers in  
turn: producer Don Hahn, executive-dude-at-the-time Jeffrey Katzenberg,  
directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, screenplay writer Irene Mecchi,  
animators Andreas Deja and Tony Bancroft (and Alex Kuperschmidt too,  
but he was just in the audience, along with a bunch of other folks who  
hadn't been explicitly put on the panel), and CGI developer Scott  
Johnston. Mike Surrey (Timon) was supposed to be there too, but he  
bailed. Fooey. I wanted to meet him.

    Rob Minkoff dominated most of the discussion; he and Roger Allers are  
real-life clowns, is all I can say about them. They're both constantly  
gesticulating, breaking randomly into song, doing silly voices at each  
other, flailing their arms-- it's like they're doing story pitches  
every minute of every day. (I wouldn't be surprised if that's how they  
view their lives.) They were just mesmerizing to watch. And nobody else  
could get in a word edgewise. The fact that these guys were all so  
enthusiastic about talking about their experiences working on TLK was  
really encouraging to me: I'd had the impression, from trying to  
contact Hans Zimmer back in 1996 or so as to the possibility of seeing  
an "extended" version of the TLK soundtrack based on his additional  
compositions, and having him tell me that his studio had "moved on to  
new projects" and mostly just thrown out all the old recordings, that  
people in the industry tended to live in the moment and not drip over  
nostalgia. How pleasantly surprised I was to find this absolutely not  
the case.

    We heard a lot of stories I'd never heard before, as well as some that  
we all know (like the directors' trip to Kenya, where their native tour  
guide introduced them to the phrase "Hakuna Matata" and what was to  
become Rafiki's "Asante sana, squash banana" chant). For instance,  
Minkoff told of how when he came to the project, he was shown a story  
reel of what was then called "King of the Jungle", a half-hearted,  
pedestrian, stop-gap, "real life National Geographic adventure" project  
that was being staffed by the "B team" (all the second-stringer  
animators and story people who couldn't get spots on what was to be the  
much more prestigious and ambitious project, Pocahontas), he turned to  
Hahn and said, "So... how much of this do we have to keep?" Hahn told  
him, "None of it." (Though Hahn on the panel said he'd never said  
that.) So Minkoff and Allers sat down with some other story developers,  
and they hacked out the framework of the storyline we know today in  
about a weekend.

    Then, they were pitching the story to the executives and other  
directors. Right about when they got to the Mufasa's Ghost scene, one  
of them piped up and said, "Hey, this movie is King Lear!" Minkoff was  
taken rather by surprise-- after all, Lear doesn't have much to  
parallel TLK. But then another one of the people in the audience said,  
"No it isn't-- it's Hamlet!" To which everybody sort of gasped, looked  
around, nodded, and said, "Ah haaahhh..."

    So the Hamlet connection wasn't something they'd intended. But once  
they realized what they had going, they stuck to it. And the same sort  
of thing happened in relation to a question Sito prompted them with:  
"Do we finally get a statement about Kimba the White Lion?" Allers  
chuckled and said that he'd spent a couple of years in Japan shortly  
before working on TLK, and yet he'd in fact never seen Kimba stuff; but  
throughout the 90s, if you went there, you'd be inundated with it from  
all sides. So apparently, some time into story development, someone  
walked in with a Kimba comic book drawn by Tezuka; Minkoff and Allers  
looked at it, with its storyline, its Pride Rock-alike, its evil Uncle,  
and so on-- and said, "...Huh. Wow." So, just as with Hamlet, the  
storyline parallel is just something they stumbled into-- and yet they  
forged ahead, without materially changing anything. And I surmise that  
the uproar that followed owes more to Disney's legal butt-covering than  
to any malicious intent by the writers. So that, more or less, is the  
official word.

    They told of how Elton John, a desperate long-shot at the time and by  
no means assurance of success, was 100% on board with the project as  
soon as he saw Hans Zimmer's reworked treatment of his "Circle of Life"  
pitch. That sequence, one of the first things completed in pencils at  
the beginning of the project, was held up by Katzenberg and others as  
the definitive encapsulation of the movie, the piece to which  
everything else would have to measure up. But then they later found  
themselves struggling with the "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" scene;  
they couldn't figure out how to make it work. First they took Elton's  
song (what we know today as the radio version) and had Timon and Pumbaa  
singing it, sarcastically. Elton saw it and went into a fuming rage,  
which Minkoff and Allers related in quite graphic detail. So they  
recast it, changing the lyrics around, making it into more the abstract  
love song that we now have; but Elton was still furious: he called  
Katzenberg on his cell phone as the latter was driving north on the  
Golden Gate Bridge on his way to see George Lucas; Elton on the phone  
was described as unloading on him with a string of expletives  
unsuitable even for the Internet. :) But in the stream of invective was  
a really important insight: the love scene, at that time in  
development, was an *unearned* plot point. See, at that time the  
writers hadn't fleshed out Simba's and Nala's relationship as cubs;  
there was nothing to refer back to when they were reunited, nothing for  
the audience to connect with or to feel any sense of realism about  
their reactions to each other. So the story guys went back and added  
all the little bits-- the wrestling/pinning scenes, the bath, the  
waterhole, and so on. With those in place, the love scene made a lot  
more sense, and Elton was appeased.

    Katzenberg described how he and Pancho, the 700-lb male lion brought  
in for the animators to study, "bonded". He said that at one point he  
was sitting on the dais behind Pancho while the animators sketched, and  
he put his hand on Pancho's side; and as he felt that earthquake-like  
heartbeat, he said, he felt as though something weird and spiritual had  
gone from the lion into him-- yeah, it sounds sappy, but he really  
seemed to have been changed by the experience. I liked to think,  
hearing him talk, that everybody on staff absorbed a little bit of that  
sensation while bringing the movie to life-- and it's at the heart of  
why we in the audience were so deeply affected by it.

    Plus, Katzenberg went on, Pancho took such a liking to him-- rubbing  
around his waist like a cat, purring (and all this time I thought lions  
didn't purr!), rubbing his cheek on him-- that he ended up with a cut  
lip when he was giving a presentation with Pancho on one of those  
circus pedestal things. Pancho turned suddenly away from his trainer  
(who was feeding him meatballs), misjudged the distance, and thwacked  
Katzenberg across the mouth with the bridge of his nose. "So there I  
was with a cut lip, bleeding profusely, right in front of an animal  
that likes blood..." But it was all good, because Pancho got down from  
the pedestal and curled around his ankles, putting his huge paw around  
his legs (it came halfway up his shin) and purring. Katzenberg seems to  
have been fairly deeply affected by this whole business, and who can  
blame him?

    Irene Mecchi, when given specific questions to answer, was a very  
funny woman. It's her sense of humor that runs throughout TLK. She  
didn't get to say much, and I don't remember much specifically about  
the questions she was asked, but she could probably do stand-up comedy.

    Andreas Deja (Scar) and Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa) told some very  
insightful stories about designing their characters to match their  
respective voice actors. Deja said that Jeremy Irons insisted on  
working in as relaxed a manner as possible, leaning back in a big easy  
chair, and sometimes smoking. "SOMETIMES smoking?!" Roger Allers  
shouted. "Let me tell you: Jeremy Irons smoked *all* the time. He  
smoked while he was *singing!*" He then mimed inhaling on an imaginary  
cigarette and leaned in close to his microphone. "<sssssssuck> BEEE  

    And when the principal animation on Scar was all done, Deja flew to  
England to show it to him. Irons had never seen the character design  
before, and Deja was sitting and cringing in the corner while Irons  
watched the film. Finally, Irons boomed: "Why-- he looks just like ME!"

    They then dropped a projector down to show a bunch of pencil-test  
animations from the Scar/Simba scene right before the stampede. We saw  
Deja's rough timing sketches, then the keyframe animation, then the  
final inbetweened stuff. Really fascinating how much Deja's style  
varied from his quick sketches to his final pencils; yet they kept the  
same energy and expression regardless of how detailed he was being.  
(Also there was unused dialogue in the tests: "Now why don't you be a  
good little cub and prove that you can do at least ONE thing right:  
stay right here on this rock and wait for your surprise." Which, as we  
know, was shortened and made a little less condescending for the final  

    Scott Johnston was also there; he's the guy who designed the CGI  
system for controlling the wildebeest stampede. We've all seen most of  
what he had to talk about, though. It was, nonetheless, cool to see the  
consensus that even back in the early 90s, as limited as the technology  
was then, they managed to pull off the stampede so convincingly that  
(in Johnston's words) if you tried to do it over again today, even with  
the modern tools we have, you couldn't improve on the original movie.  
Having seen so many studios flail at capturing that kind of motion and  
realism since then, and seeing so few succeed (the LotR movies being  
one example of a winning breakthrough), I have to agree. It gives me a  
lot more respect for that scene and the way it was done.

    Before they opened it up to Q&A, Sito pulled down the projector again  
to show a video that nobody had seen since 1994: the "Wrap Party"  
video, which consisted of clips taken of all the Disney employees in  
the Feature Animation building waving, singing, hitting each other with  
fun-noodles, playing ping-pong, wrestling, building towers of cardboard  
boxes, smashing towers of cardboard boxes to bits, and doing silly  
voices and making strange faces. You may have seen this kind of video  
at your workplace, with people in their cubicles waving one after  
another to some dear departing executive, set to Green Day's "Hope you  
had the time of your life" song or something, cobbled together by some  
enterprising employee in iMovie. But let me tell you... you ain't seen  
no wrap party video until you've seen one directed by Rob Minkoff and  
Roger Allers. That's all.

    One of the most poignant (while funny at the same time) moments of the  
whole evening was during this video; the clips of the animators and  
cubicle-dwellers mugging for the camera were interspersed with little  
congratulatory speeches by the voice actors, producers, and executives;  
when Katzenberg gave his speech (he had hair ten years ago!), he talked  
about how it had only been ten years before then that he'd come to the  
studio and seen it grow from a slumping, backwater pit of misery to the  
high-flying powerhouse it had become in 1994, particularly with this  
very earth-shattering release. In the background of his reminiscing  
were shown clips of the Feature Animation building  
( being built in time-lapse,  
rising next to the 134 freeway, truly a symbol of the studio's  
explosive renaissance if there ever was one. But as we watch that video  
just another ten short years later, the Feature Animation building  
itself is derelict and abandoned, with the huge ABC headquarters that  
resembles nothing so much as a Stalinist wedding-cake building looming  
over it from its very front parking lot. (When Michael Eisner came  
on-screen to do his laudatory speech, oh, the *hissing* that came from  
the audience...)

    So then they opened it up to questions from the audience. They only  
ended up taking seven or eight questions, most of which were of the  
nature of "What inspired you to do a movie about lions?" and "What  
decisions influenced how you used foley in this movie?". When Sito  
roved the side of the room I was on, he picked someone in front of me  
first; after that, it was actually Katzenberg himself who called on me.  
I stood up.

    "This is a question for the story guys; and I apologize for the  
"Trekkie" nature of the question-- you can feel free to tell me to 'get  
a life', or whatever..."

    A chuckle went around the room, so I took the opportunity to breathe a  
couple of times.

    "...So I apologize in advance; but I've been charged, for... ten years  
now, with providing to the entire Internet fan community (and believe  
me, there are thousands of us) with a definitive answer to the  
following question:

    "WHO is Nala's father?!"

    Full-blown laughter this time, as the question sank in to a couple of  
hundred people who had apparently never thought about it before, or who  
suddenly remembered they wanted to hear the answer too. Fortunately Rob  
Minkoff and Roger Allers were laughing too, ribbing each other, making  
little sidelong jibes. Finally, Minkoff looked at me, pointed at  
Allers, and said "Roger."

    More guffawing ensued. Minkoff and Allers then mentioned how they'd  
joked about this during production, tossed around some off-color gags,  
and eventually decided that they just "hoped nobody would notice". Heh.  
Fat chance, right?

    Finally, after talking a little bit about how lions operate in  
real-life prides, Minkoff said, sort of muttering into his sleeve, that  
the general assumption was that Nala's father was "either Scar or...  

    So there we have it, from as official a source as I can imagine.

    Q&A continued; then the panel broke, and people started taking photos  
and groping for autographs. I got my TLK trading cards signed by Deja,  
Bancroft, Kuperschmidt, Hahn, Minkoff, and Allers. (Katzenberg had  
scooted out a little early, perhaps sensing that the evening was coming  
to a close and that he'd best avoid the mob.) I didn't have a  
sketchbook with me, which is rather a pity, because the animators were  
all doing little doodles of Scar and Pumbaa and (in Kuperschmidt's  
case) Stitch and Koda in people's books. But I didn't want to pressure  
them unduly, so I'll be satisfied with what I got. Besides, I got to  
chat with some of these magicians (because that's what animators are:  
magicians); and Tony Bancroft, in particular, is a  very personable and  
fun guy to talk to. (He looks sort of like Linus Torvalds.) I wish I'd  
had more time to schmooze with him. But I got to talk to him about  
those lithograph sketches in the Special Edition DVD boxed set  
(, in which some of the  
characters (Timon, Pumbaa, Zazu, Rafiki) are perfectly on-model and  
full of energy, whereas others were excessively stylized (Adult Simba  
and Nala, who seemed to have gained a lot of weight), off of a model  
sheet from 1991 or something (Young Simba), or dashed off without much  
effort apparent (Scar-- eww). And I talked about his design process for  
Pumbaa, a very bravely stylized character. It's clear that Bancroft  
really loved working on this project; that's something that just does  
my heart good.

    I got close-up photos of all the principal players, plus a group shot  
of them plus all the other people from the TLK project who happened to  
be in the audience. You can see these photos at Please forgive the  
blurriness of the shots of the projection screen, and the graininess of  
some of the ones in the dark; my camera doesn't perform very well in  
low-light conditions.

    And when I told some of them, like Allers and Hahn, that I had driven  
down from San Jose, and was now leaving (at 10:00) to do the same  
5-hour trip in reverse-- they were quite floored at the level of  
importance I'd apparently placed on this event. It really *was*  
important, to me and to the animation world in general, and I wanted to  
be sure they knew it.

    I made it home safe and sound at 3:00 AM; and since I'm still intact  
in life and limb, that's the conclusion of this account. I hope I  
haven't left out anything important; if I have, hopefully Christian can  
help lend his own observations to the mix.

    That's ten years, folks.

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