The Lion King comes roaring back in three dimensions
William Goldman once wrote that “in Hollywood nobody knows anything” and The Lion King might well be a good example of that. The film itself was conceived during a conversation between Jeffery Katzenberg and Roy Disney whilst on a promotional tour of Europe back in 1988. Katzenberg became enthused by the idea of a coming of age story set in Africa and appointed George Scribner, who had just finished working on Oliver and Company, as the director. Aside from Katzenberg and Scribner there was very little enthusiasm for the project, which would be Disney’s first original story, and in fact everyone wanted to work on Pocahontas. The perceived wisdom was that Pocahontas had a more familiar story and that it would be a sure fire hit, as opposed to a semi-serious film about warring lions. How wrong they were...
The film’s path to the multiplexes wasn’t an easy one with original director Scribner leaving the project due to differences over the tone of the film and the addition of musical numbers. However Jeffery Katenberg remained determined and whilst many in the Disney organisation weren’t interested in the The King of the Jungle, as it was then known, those that were brought a great deal of enthusiasm. Like weather patterns merging, all the elements combined to turn The Lion King, the title was changed after someone pointed out that lions didn’t live in the jungle, into a perfect storm. On its release in 1994 The Lion King earned a massive $312 million at the US box office, to become the second highest grossing film that year, after Forrest Gump. The Lion King currently stands as the second most successful animated feature at the US box office, just behind Shrek 2, and also, after Toy Story 3, the most successful animated feature worldwide. In inflation adjusted terms it is the third most successful animated feature ever, just behind 101 Dalmatians and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not bad for a film that most people at Disney thought was a risky proposition.
As if the film wasn’t content to prove every one wrong once, it decided to do it again this year. Just as many pundits were declaring that 3D was on the way out, along comes a 17 year old, cell animated movie to prove everyone wrong - again! The 3D conversion of The Lion King was re-released theatrically in the US in September and promptly took nearly $100 million at the box office. Quite why this happened is the subject of much debate because whilst Disney has a history of re-releasing its big animated titles the development of the home video market has largely ended that practice. There was an IMAX re-release of The Lion King back in 2002 but that only took $15 million, although clearly there are far fewer IMAX screens than 3D screens in the US. This latest re-release ended up being the number one film at the box office during its opening weekend, a feat not achieved since Return of the Jedi back in 1997. Since the re-release was 3D only there clearly remains an appetite for three dimensional fare and it would seem premature for people to write the format off just yet.
There is already a review of the 2D version of The Lion King here, so this review will concentrate on the 3D aspects of the disc and Disney’s approach to converting it. When it comes to 3D, regardless of whether it is being shot native or being converted in post-production, the most important role is that of the Stereographer. It is the Stereographer who is responsible for all the 3D aspects of the cinematography, determining the amount of depth used to tell the story and deciding what will go back into the screen (positive parallax) and what will come out of the screen (negative parallax). For The Lion King, Disney chose Robert Neuman as the Stereographer and he had the task of deciding how to best use the added depth cues to enhance the storytelling. The idea is that by increasing and decreasing the amounts of depth used, the 3D can echo the emotional content of the film. To achieve this effect on a 2D to 3D conversion, Neuman created a ‘depth script’ by charting the film’s story, quantifying emotional beats using a scale from one, for low emotional scenes like exposition, up to ten for big emotional scenes like action set pieces.
Using this ‘depth script’, the amount of stereoscopic depth can be equated to emotional depth, with shots that have a value of one getting the minimum amount of depth, whilst shots with a value of ten will use as much depth as possible. In addition, the amount of depth can be used to enhance the narrative, so if a character is supposed to be detached then they can be put further into the background. Conversely if you are supposed to connect with a character they can be brought further forward. This approach shows that the use of 3D in The Lion King is not random, it is being used to enhance both the emotional impact and the narrative strength of the film.
Another important element is viewer comfort, which is something often overlooked by other 3D movies that perhaps don’t quite understand how important this can be. When converting a film like The Lion King, the Stereographer will create a 'depth budget' within which the majority of the film’s added depth will fluctuate. This depth budget determines the amount of negative and positive parallax used and is important for viewer comfort. This is because the viewer’s eyes are focusing on the screen itself whilst converging to different distances, either into the screen for positive parallax images or in front of the screen for negative parallax images. This is called ‘accommodation’ and is the same technique used to look at ‘magic eye’ posters but if a object is either in excessive negative or positive parallax it can result in discomfort. This is especially true for objects in extreme positive parallax, the far background, because the viewer’s eyes are starting to diverge which is an extremely unnatural feeling.
Once all the creative decisions had been made regarding the depth script and the depth budget, a team of 60 artists working under four sequence supervisors and the stereographer spent over four months completing the actual conversion. The film was broken up into four sequences so that dedicated teams could work on one sequence each, thus ensuring there was 3D continuity within that sequence. The film’s original Directors - Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff - as well as the film’s Producer - Don Hahn - were also on hand to provide creative input and ensure the finished product matched their original vision.
This first step in the conversion process was to de-archive the original movie. The Lion King was one of the first features created using a pioneering digital ink and paint system that Disney developed called CAPS. Prior to CAPS everything was painted by hand and photographed using multi-plane cameras. A technology team had to convert the old digital files into a format that could be used today, once this had been done the team could begin to convert the images.
The actual conversion process involved taking the original image and creating a 3D depth map, where numbers were used to denote depth for different elements within the frame. Rather confusingly, positive numbers were used for elements that would be coming out of the screen (negative parallax) and negative numbers were used for objects going deeper into the screen (positive parallax). This depth map was then converted into a grey scale where different shades of grey were used to denote different amounts of depth - the darker the image the further away and the lighter the image the closer to the viewer. The computers were then able to use this grey scale to create depth by creating a second image, resulting in a slightly differing perspective for each eye, which is the basis of the illusion of 3D.
The hardest sequence to convert was the famous wildebeest stampede because there were so many effects elements in that one sequence, not to mention an entire herd of wildebeest. The conversion artists also discovered that certain character designs lent themselves to 3D better than others. This was especially true of Zazu the bird, where the angular features of his beak, wings and tail feathers proved challenging. Whereas the more rounded features of the Simba and Mufasa proved much easier to convert.
When it came to creating the 3D Blu-ray of The Lion King, the Stereographer essentially used the same conversion created for the cinema but slightly adjusted the depth budget by moving the image back a few pixels. This allowed for the fact that a television screen isn’t as big as a cinema screen and the audience is sat much closer to a television screen, thus the perception of depth is slightly different. All this effort has certainly paid off with Disney producing one of the most impressive 3D blu-rays that has been released to date. The 3D Blu-ray of The Lion King creates a wonderfully immersive experience, where the extra dimensionality adds to the story telling and never feels like a gimmick. Both Disney and their creative team are to be congratulated for painstakingly creating such a towering artistic achievement.
Whilst media pundits might still be scratching their heads over the surprising success of the 3D re-release of The Lion King, one thing is for sure, with $100 million box office numbers you can be sure that there are more 3D conversions to come. In fact Disney has already released a spectacular 3D conversion of Beauty and the Beast, a review of which can be found here, and they plan to release 3D conversions of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc over the next two years. It would seem that there is plenty of roar left in both The Lion King and 3D.
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