‘The Lion King’: How They Gave Realistic Facial Expressions to Photoreal Animals

     June 24, 2019


The Lion King arrives in less than a month, and we’ve seen surprisingly little of the animals actually talking. We’ve heard dialogue and some songs, but not much of the animals emoting with their faces as opposed to their body language. Director Jon Favreau showed he could get impressive performances out of CGI animals with The Jungle Book, but The Lion King is an even heavier lift.

Speaking to Fandango, Favreau explained the challenges of making sure you get the right performance from a CGI animal:

We learned a lot on The Jungle Book, and one of the things we learned is that if you push the facial expressions on an animal too much it starts to look less like an animal and more like a human. Part of the naturalistic approach of The Lion King that would have not fit in with our tone. Part of it is trying to make the animals express emotions without facial expression, so like in the case of Pumbaa, who is a very comedic character who has a lot of facial expressions in the old one, how do you make a warthog comical if you can’t make him make faces? You have to look at the reference of warthogs in nature, and you start to see that they’re very comical in the way that they move.


So, part of it was directing the animators to express the emotions of the characters, be it the lion or the meerkat or the warthog, in a way that is both consistent with what people would see in nature, but also to express the performance choices the actors are making. So, there’s a lot of body language that was worked into this piece. What’s nice is that as you watch the film all together, I think it’s very successful. But it definitely is one of the things that created one of the bigger challenges, to try to help bring the charm and humanity of the original productions into this without having the ability to manipulate the facial expressions and the naturalism of the animals to the extent that you could in animation.

the-lion-king-poster-nalaHe also talked about getting an icon like Beyoncé in the movie and expanding Nala’s role:

In the original film, her role is not as large as in the stage production, and we definitely drew inspiration, and that was one of the areas where we were going to expand this. There’s an opportunity to build upon especially the female characters of Sarabi played by Alfre Woodard and Nala played by Beyoncé that the stage play explores further. It has a lot more time to do so than the original film. That was an area that we could build upon the original.

Obviously, you’re not going to get Beyoncé for such a minor role as Nala has in the animated original, so hopefully they’ve found a good way to expand the character’s role without slowing down the narrative. Other live-action Disney movies have fallen into the trap of just loading up on exposition, so hopefully the new Lion King will give Nala something to do rather than just having her tell us her backstory.

The Lion King opens July 19th.

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