How internal rivalry at Disney animation impacted The Lion King and Pocahontas

THE LION KING

Thanks to some very kind individuals I knew, I was able to hangout with the “Pocahontas” crew at Walt Disney Feature Animation a couple times and was invited to the wrap party for the movie. I got a close look at some of the politics and manipulation during what was a tumultuous time for the Mouse House. I never really felt comfortable talking about the internal affairs of Disney Animation as the time, I was still basically an outsider, but overtime, more details have been made public. It’s an interesting story.

The short of it is that Disney animation was animating two animated features at the same time (“The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”) in order to meet a new accelerated schedule of one animated film a year. Jeffrey Katzenberg was in charge of the animation department and had not yet developed the leadership style or animation knowledge that has helped Dreamworks Animation become a success. Instead, he was seen as sticking his nose where it didn’t belong and trying to apply Hollywood principles that just didn’t apply to animation. Katzenberg earned the nickname ‘Sparky’ both for his fireplug stature, but also for his fiery nature.

Sparky didn’t realize it at the time, but Michael Eisner giving him animation was his way of marginalizing him to a division Eisner did not see as core to the business. Katzenberg had already lost any hope of becoming CEO, but he didn’t know it.

 

A new article at Refinery29 delves into that period in Disney animation’s history. After reading about some rumors about friction between the animation teams for The Lion King and Pocahontas from a former-Disney inbetweener in a reddit thread, Vanessa Golembewski asked five former Disney animation employees to give them perspective on what was going on.

Said Tom Bancroft (who animated young Simba in The Lion King)

“To make matters worse, at an animation staff update meeting for both films (about mid-way through Lion King), Jeffery Katzenberg told the crowd that Pocahontas was a ‘home run’ while Lion King ‘would be a base hit.’ That statement embittered the Lion King animators, directors, and story people and made them work even harder to make it a better film. Personally, I don’t think it was a slip of the tongue. I think Jeffery did it on purpose.”

Aaron Blaise:

“The biggest difference by far was that they shot Pocahontas in live action first. The directors would direct it just like a live-action film and they would print out every frame. They were pretty strict about saying what was approved and wanted to stick to that. We talked about it a lot as animators and artists, that we had to search hard to find that thing that made us feel like we were contributing in a big way creatively to this film, because it was already shot. One of the big draws to being an animator is that you’re acting out the scene — you’re doing it with your pencil. You’re the actor, so when someone says, ‘Here, it’s already acted, we just want you to trace it basically,’ that was a little harder to accept and find creativity in it. Eventually we did and we were able to get in there and make it better, but it was a much more subtle approach creatively than The Lion King was.”

This wasn’t that strange for Disney. Most of the early animated features were done this way.

The whole article is really fascinating. The redditor got a lot right, but missed a few things too. In the end “The Lion King” set the new standard for animated Disney features and “Pocahontas” underperformed. (I think some of that can be attributed to Disney’s marketing team that really over marketed Pocahontas (remember the premier in the park?)).

It’s great to hear from the animators who were involved in producing both great films. Sadly, Andreas Deja wasn’t quoted in the article, but he’s written quite a bit about his work on Scar for The Lion King over on his blog.

Have you ever dreamed of being a Disney animator? What character would you like to have been an animator on?

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