‘The Lion King’ cast, crew reveal technology, inspirations behind new film

As the lights came down at the beginning of the press junket for Disney’s “The Lion King” on July 10 at Montage Beverly Hills, the opening strains of the film’s signature song, “Circle of Life,” echoed through the Marquesa ballroom.

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Photos by Melanie Gable

Audience members then quickly hit record on their cameras and lifted them high above their heads as they realized they were being treated to a live performance by Lebo M – the creator/vocalist of the Zulu chant that opens both the 1994 animated movie and the new film – and the choir who provided the vocals for “The Lion King.”

It would have been difficult for Disney to top this rousing performance had it not been for the appearance of the star-studded cast, who were nearly all in attendance to share their thoughts behind the making of the film. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, who voices Nala, was absent from the conference, as was the hilarious John Oliver, voice of uptight hornbill Zazu, and James Earl Jones, who reprised his role as Mufasa.

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Moderator Jacqueline Coley introduced the group, starting with director Jon Favreau, followed by Donald Glover (Simba), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Alfre Woodard (Sarabi), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), JD McCrary (Young Simba), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Young Nala), Dr. John Kani (Rafiki), composer Hans Zimmer, African choral arranger/producer and vocalist Lebo M, Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), and Eric André (Azizi). Coley forgot to introduce Billy Eichner (Timon), who milked the moment for full comedic effect, stepping onstage and yelling, “I’m also here! I play Timon and I’m very good at it!”

“The Lion King”: 1994 vs. 2019

For the few who may be unfamiliar with the story, “The Lion King” takes place on the African savanna and follows the adventures of Simba, a lion cub who will one day take his beloved father Mufasa’s place as King of the Pride Lands.

Mufasa’s brother, Scar, plots to get rid of Mufasa and Simba, with the help of a pack of vengeful hyenas, in an epic story that was influenced by tales of Biblical figures and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” These lofty sources made the story feel universal, while the music, vocal performances, humor, and animation added a fresh liveliness to the film that connected with audiences of all ages.

Released in 1994 to critical and box office success, “The Lion King” went on to win Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Music Score, and inspired a stage production that made its Broadway debut in 1997. The musical won six Tony Awards and has become one of Broadway’s biggest hits, recently marking its 9,000th show.

The original film pushed the boundaries of technology at the time, combining the studio’s signature hand-drawn animation with cutting edge computer animation in key moments, most memorably the wildebeest stampede scene.

“It’s such a beloved property,” said Favreau, in an earlier interview with Disney. “Disney has had tremendous success with the original animated version and then the Broadway musical. I knew that I had to be very careful with it. I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up. I wanted to demonstrate that we could be respectful of the source material while bringing it to life using mind-blowing techniques and technologies.”

Favreau also directed Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” which won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Favreau felt that he “cracked the code” of the visual effects technology by the end of production, so he was looking forward to revisiting and updating those filmmaking techniques for “The Lion King.”

“Really, these are handmade films. There’s animators working on every shot,” shared Favreau, who worked on the movie for about three years. Aside from one photographic shot, “Everything else is built from scratch by artists.” Quite literally, in fact, with Favreau revealing that the film began with pencil sketches. “To trust that it would turn out well was a big leap of faith for everybody.”

Favreau was inspired by Walt Disney’s pioneering spirit and pushed the envelope of storytelling technology by fusing live-action filmmaking techniques with photorealistic computer-generated imagery. The film’s environments were designed within a game engine and employed virtual-reality technology, giving Favreau the ability to walk around on a virtual set to scout locations and set up shots. Once the film was completed in VR, Favreau handed it over to the animation team, who created the film in an animated format based on the VR footage. This process turned out to be a whole new method of filmmaking.

JD McCrary, the young actor who plays young Simba in the movie, got to try out the VR technology during filming. He put it best when he gushed, “It was awesome! It’s like watching your favorite movie, but you’re in it! You’re in the movie! That’s exactly what it was!” He then turned to Favreau and said, “You did an amazing job with this,” to laughter from the audience at his unabashed enthusiasm.

McCrary went on to explain the process. “You put on the headsets, we had these little controller things in our hands, and we were just flying. We could fly! It was like we were Zazu. We were birds. We were whatever we wanted to be, and we saw everything. We saw the Pride Lands, we saw Pride Rock, we saw the watering hole, we saw the elephant graveyard…we saw it all, man. And it was so cool!”

Favreau chuckled and added, “Gaming and filmmaking, it’s all overlapping so much. We’re at a time with so much change and disruption, and I think the effort here was to keep the tradition, not just the tradition of the film and stage production that came before us, but the filmmaking tradition. Oftentimes when new technology comes online it disrupts an industry, but with just a little bit effort we were able to build around the way filmmakers and film crews work.”

While Favreau used cutting-edge technology to create “The Lion King,” the filmmaking process was a unique blend of VR, animation, and old-school techniques. Favreau praised the film’s cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, a six-time Academy Award nominee with whom he’d long wanted to collaborate.

“Although the film was completely animated as far as performances went, it allowed a live-action film crew to go in and use the tools they were used to,” Favreau explained. “So part of what’s so beautiful about the lighting, the camera work, the shots of the film was that we were able to inherit a whole career of experience and artistry from our fantastic team. I think it’s nice to look at technology as an invitation for things to progress, and not always something that’s going to change the way everything came before. I think there’s a balance between innovation and tradition.”

For further inspiration, Favreau and his crew watched nature documentaries and the movie “Babe” in order to blend the human performances with photorealistic portrayals of wild animals as seamlessly as possible. Said Favreau, “It really fell in the animators’ hands to try to figure out how to express their performances through an animal’s emotive language.”

An Incredible Cast from Stage and Screen

When it came to casting “The Lion King,” Favreau put it simply: “Casting is the foundation of great cinematic storytelling.”

Aside from Mufasa – played once again by the inimitable James Earl Jones, who originated the role in the 1994 film – all of the characters in “The Lion King” were re-cast with new voice talent.

Favreau took a unique approach to recording the vocal performances, essentially building a black box theater-in-the-round so the actors could move freely and engage with each other as they would for a theatrical rehearsal or live performance. These recordings were filmed with multiple cameras for the animators to use as reference points and inspiration. The actors, for their part, seemed to appreciate this technique, as the black box space helped them breathe life into their performances.

Two of the movie’s actresses also played their roles in stage productions of “The Lion King,” so the theatrical approach was familiar and comfortable for them. Florence Kasumba, a German actress who also appeared in “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman,” played lead hyena Shenzi in a German production of the musical and reprised her role in the new film.

“I was lucky that I got to play the part already in Germany for more than a year, and we played that eight shows a week,” said Kasumba. “So when you tell me, ‘Who is Shenzi?,’ it’s like muscle memory because I got to play her every day.”

Kasumba said the film’s Shenzi, however, is “more dangerous, more serious,” than her stage counterpart. The theatrical recording space allowed her to stalk around and intimidate the other characters, just as villainous Shenzi does in the stage production. “Because everybody is very confident, we could just really try out things. We could walk around each other, we could scare each other, we could scream, be loud, be big, be small, and it’s like working in the theatre, which I love,” Kasumba raved. “I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to.”

McCrary then jumped in and playfully confessed that he was a bit frightened by Kasumba’s performance, as was Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays young Nala. Wright Joseph, like Kasumba, has a theatre background and played young Nala in the Broadway production of “The Lion King.” According to Favreau, Wright Joseph was the first and only choice for the role in the new film. But Wright Joseph did notice some distinct differences between playing the character on the stage and voicing the role on film.

“One thing that I really saw the difference in was that on Broadway everything’s a little bit more structured – I feel like, maybe Florence, you felt that as well – you kind of just have to follow direction, which is cool, too,” she quickly added. “But also, with the all-new ‘Lion King,’ I loved how Jon gave JD and I just a bunch of freedom […] we could riff, or do whatever. Just make it fun.”

Pharrell Williams, who produced the songs, and composer Hans Zimmer also gave McCrary and Wright Joseph the space to express themselves and improvise during the music recording sessions.

Donald Glover portrays the adult version of Simba alongside Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, who plays his childhood friend and grown-up love interest, Nala. Glover, also known as Grammy-winning artist Childish Gambino, is an actor, writer, musician, comedian, producer and director who recently gave a scene-stealing performance as Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and is known on the small screen for his work on “Atlanta” and “Community.”

Still, even an artist of his caliber and notoriety can be overshadowed by another star, namely his co-star Beyoncé. Said Glover, who had taken his son to see the movie the night before, “My son saw it last night and he was, like, freaking out.” The animated version of “The Lion King” is his son’s favorite movie, and Glover kept him in the dark about his own involvement in the new film. “I didn’t tell him anything,” laughed Glover. “I was like, ‘I’ll just wait until he gets there.’ He somehow found out about it, but still didn’t know I was in it. He was just like, ‘Oh, the one with Beyoncé.’ And then during the movie, ‘Oh, Dad’s in it, too! This is great! Bonus.’”

Jeremy Irons memorably originated the role of Scar, Simba’s villainous uncle, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, an Academy Award-nominated actor known for “12 Years a Slave” and “Doctor Strange,” was more than up for the task of making the role his own.

“The part of Scar is obviously an extraordinary part to play,” said Ejiofor. “In a way, you approach it the same way you approach any other part […] you identify with the character, you look at the psychology of the character, you place yourself into those circumstances, and that creates its own individual slant. So, in a way, as much as I, personally, with everybody else, absolutely loved the original, you kind of make it your own and you create the sort of individuality to it in that way.”

Alfre Woodard, a prolific actress who’s been working continuously in the film industry for decades, spoke about her connection to her character, Sarabi, Mufasa’s mate and queen of the lionesses. Woodard shared a story about one of her first major encounters with wildlife, which was on a nature preserve about forty years ago. When she came upon a pride of lionesses on her tour, she was simultaneously terrified by and drawn to them. The dual nature of the nurturing qualities and the ferociousness of the creatures was fascinating to her.

Woodard explained, “It’s called ‘The Lion King,’ but everyone knows the lionesses are actually the rulers, the protectors, the nurturers, the hunters of the pride. And Jon was able to give us the space to be that.”

Providing comedy relief from the royal drama of “The Lion King” are Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog originally voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen take on the hilarious roles in the new movie and clearly relished the experience.

“It was a lot of improvisation,” said Rogen, a comedic actor known for “Freaks and Geeks,” “Knocked Up,” and “Pineapple Express.” Shared Rogen, on performing with Eichner, “We were actually together every time that we recorded, which was a very rare gift to have as someone trying to be funny in an animated film, which I’ve done a lot, and you’re often just alone in there. I think you could really tell that we’re playing off of each other.”

Eichner is the creator, executive producer and star of his own show, “Billy on the Street,” and Rogen felt the film was an accurate reflection of his scene partner’s spirit.

“It’s incredibly naturalistic-feeling, and they really captured Billy. Like, that is what is amazing […] he essentially put himself on a TV show for years, and this character is more Billy than that character…somehow,” Rogen chuckled.

Added Eichner, “I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie. The Timon they designed is so adorable, and I think the juxtaposition of my personality in that little Timon body really works. I agree with everything Seth was saying. I can’t imagine now, looking back, not being in the room together. Being able to riff off each other and really discover our chemistry together in the same moment […] you can feel it when you’re watching the movie. I had not seen the finished movie until last night and I was shocked by how much of the riffing actually ended up in the movie. I think it works and I think it feels very unique to other movies in this genre, which can often feel a bit canned.”

Rogen praised the naturalistic performances that director Favreau was able to encourage and draw out during filming, adding, “The fact that it has, like, a looseness applied to probably the most technologically incredible movie ever made is an amazing contrast. It feels like people in a room just talking and then it’s refined to a degree that is, like, inconceivable in a lot of ways, and that mixture is what I think is so incredible and that’s what Jon really captured in an amazing way.”

Providing funny moments on the villains’ side of the Pride Lands are Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André as the dastardly and dysfunctional hyena duo Kamari and Azizi. Joked Key of the hyena pair, “We’re in a very toxic relationship.”

When Coley asked the two comedic actors how they found their particular dynamic in the film, which is the opposite of Timon and Pumbaa’s affable companionship, André joked that they “were pretty drunk” during recording and Key added, “And then all the real, pure animosity came out.”

In all seriousness, André was impressed by Key. “He’s incredibly talented and really, really easy to work off of, and he is a selfless, altruistic talent, which is rare.” The actors were in good hands with Favreau, who, according to André, created “a very nurturing environment” for the actors.

Key added that Favreau’s “encyclopedic knowledge of all different types of comedy” proved very useful on set, especially when it came to referencing comedy duos, like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and even Beavis and Butthead, as inspiration for Key and André. Like Eichner and Rogen, Key and André also had the opportunity to record with each other in the black box space, as though they were rehearsing a scene in a play.

South African actor and playwright Dr. John Kani plays Rafiki, the wise, shaman-like baboon who guides Simba at a time when he’s questioning his place in the world.

Dr. Kani feels he shares some similar qualities with Rafiki, namely that they have both “walked the footpaths” of Africa and witnessed “the spirit of life” in their natural surroundings. Dr. Kani also saw similarities between the political unrest in real-life Africa and the dramatic tensions in “The Lion King.”

He confessed, “Watching it last night, I prayed, ‘Please, God, not another Scar in Africa.’” Dr. Kani expressed excitement about the film premiering in Johannesburg, South Africa, and anticipated that the audience would be “full of African people who are looking for something about them.”

The Iconic Songs and Score

Hans Zimmer, who composed the original score for the 1994 film and won an Academy Award for his work, also took charge of the score in the new movie, albeit with a fresh approach.

“There came a point in my life where somebody said to me, ‘You can’t hide behind your screen for the rest of your life. You’ve gotta go out and look people in the eye.’ And we ended up dragging an orchestra and a choir out to Coachella and doing ‘Lion King’ live, and there was an energy about doing it as a performance and doing it live in that way, that moved Jon and, actually, to be really honest, it moved me, too.”

That 2017 Coachella performance inspired Zimmer to ask Favreau, “Why don’t we do it like this? Why don’t we get all the greatest players in the world, make a new orchestra here in Los Angeles, rehearse it for two days, and then really make it as if it was a concert?” The filmmakers were given the rare opportunity to then watch the scoring session, which is unusual in the movie industry, and the orchestra, as Zimmer put it, “Just went for it.”

From the beginning of scoring the original film, Zimmer said, “I wanted to make a Disney movie that started off with a voice from Africa.” Both versions of the film begin with the same iconic, soaring Zulu chant solo from Lebo M. Through the music, Zimmer aimed to invite audiences on a journey. “Come along,” Zimmer said. “Come along and feel this, feel this other continent, and don’t ever forget this continent.” This message, Zimmer feels, has become even more urgent and important today.

When Coley asked Lebo M about his feelings upon returning to “The Lion King,” he responded that he felt like he “never left.” M was approached by Zimmer about working on the music for the film back in the 90s, and he joked that he initially thought it was a “set-up” due to the arrests and political upheaval happening in his home country of South Africa during that time.

When he entered the first meeting with Zimmer and was suddenly in a room with “nine white people,” he thought he was going to be arrested. Thankfully, the meeting was legit, and M went on to forge an incredible working relationship with Zimmer and created the inspiring and authentic African choral arrangements for the film.

And what about the unforgettable “Nants’ Ingonyama” Zulu chant that opens both versions of “The Lion King” and transitions into “Circle of Life”? Turns out those incredible vocals were a last-minute improvisation by M at the tail end of a recording session. That one-take demo was such a perfect opening for the film that it made the final cut and wasn’t re-recorded.

“The Lion King” has had a huge impact on M’s life. “I’m just blessed enough to be a part of a huge global family […] and that we built something that I’ve had to live with for the last 23 years on Broadway.” M praised Favreau’s approach, saying that in their first meeting, Favreau promised that they were “never going to compromise the authenticity of the original work.”

Said M, “Not only did the new movie remain true to the original movie, but it also remained true and respectful to the Broadway production. I’m truly grateful as a South African and an African and an American, because I grew up here, who are blessed enough to be part of this amazing journey.”

The songs in the original film were written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and were re-recorded with the new talent for the 2019 version of the soundtrack. Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams produced five songs for the film, including updated versions of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Hakuna Matata,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and new song “Mbube” with Lebo M’s vocals and choral arrangements.

Beyoncé contributed to the soundtrack, of course, performing vocals on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and on new track “Spirit,” which she also co-wrote and co-produced.

“The Lion King” Protect the Pride Campaign

After the conference concluded (with a joke from André about Rogen serenading the crowd), members of the press poured into the ballroom lobby to check out displays featuring the latest “The Lion King” merchandise, including apparel, books, toys, jewelry, collectibles, and more.

We also had the opportunity to speak with representatives from the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) about “The Lion King” Protect the Pride campaign. Since the release of the original film 25 years ago, half of Africa’s lions have disappeared due to poaching, loss of prey, and destruction of natural habitats. WCN’s Lion Recovery Fund (LRF) aims to change that, with the goal of doubling the number of lions in the wild by 2050.

Disney is launching “The Lion King” Protect the Pride campaign to benefit conservation efforts by supporting programs that engage communities to ensure a future for African wildlife and their habitats. Disney has already donated more than $1.5 million to the WCN’s Lion Recovery Fund and its partners and will make additional grants, as well as invite fans to help double the donation for a total contribution of up to $3 million. Fans may participate by taking part in celebratory experiences and purchasing special-edition products as part of the campaign.

To learn more about Protect the Pride, visit Disney.com/LionKingProtectThePride.

“The Lion King” opens in theaters everywhere July 19. You can check out the trailer below, and read our spoiler-free review here.

The Lion King Official Trailer

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