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Interview: Tony Bancroft, Pumbaa's Supervising Animator on The Lion King
Tony Bancroft smiles next to his latest drawing of Pumbaa, the character whose animation he supervised on "The Lion King."

With the exception of the cartoon feature's birth in the late 1930s, the 1990s were as exciting as any time to be a Disney animator. Tony Bancroft can vouch for that. Bancroft started small, earning assistant animator credits on the Roger Rabbit short Roller Coaster Rabbit and The Rescuers.
Disney animator Tony Bancroft has worked on such films as "The Lion King", "Aladdin", "Beauty and the Beast", and "Mulan."
He was promoted to character animator, working on Beauty and the Beast's Cogsworth and Aladdin's Iago. Then, on what would become Disney's biggest hit of all time, Bancroft was appointed supervising animator for Pumbaa, the worry-free warthog in The Lion King.

Bancroft later got to direct Mulan with Barry Cook and serve as supervising animator for Kronk in The Emperor's New Groove. His other film credits include directing the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso, supervising all the animation in Stuart Little 2, and directing the delayed mixed-medium fantasy Bunyan & Babe. But, Pumbaa has been on his mind again lately. The character and his meerkat friend Timon have remained in use, with Bancroft's input in a series of recent safety shorts. Now, the original blockbuster The Lion King has returned to theaters, claiming the top spot at the box office for two consecutive weeks. Not since George Lucas' 1997 Special Editions of his original Star Wars trilogy has a theatrical reissue won the public's hearts so emphatically.

The return engagement was supposed to be a two-week preface to The Lion King's much-anticipated Blu-ray debut, but with moviegoers coming back for more every day, there will now be overlap between the two releases. On the Friday that the movie hit theaters again, Bancroft took out a couple of hours to talk about his role in production and the film's enduring popularity. This virtual roundtable, attended by select journalists all over the world, began with a short webcast, in which Bancroft talked about animating the bulkier of the Serengeti bachelors. After drawing Pumbaa for us and describing his characteristics (his hair is inspired by Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart) at each step, he answered dozens of our questions.

Watch Tony Bancroft's webcast:

What were your visual inspirations for Pumbaa?

Tony Bancroft: As animators, we always start with the real thing first. I spent almost six months at the beginning of the film just researching warthogs and African animals. It was a great time to soak in what the real animal looked like before I moved away from it and caricatured it. Besides reality, Ernie Sabella, the voice of Pumbaa, was a big influence. He has a very round and appealing smile that I knew just had to be a part of Pumbaa.

How much was voice actor Ernie Sabella used as a live-action reference for the character of Pumbaa?

Tony Bancroft: A lot. Early in the process of making the film, I flew out to NY city with Mike Surrey, the animator on Timon, where both Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane (the voice of Timon) were in Guys and Dolls together on Broadway. It was a great education for me to see Ernie performing, to study his movements and actions.
Then when I got back to my animation desk I would try to incorporate as much as Ernie's acting style in my scenes. I think it really helped in bringing the character to life.

Looking back at the character, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Not really... since I was a first-time Supervising Animator my mistakes had to do with managerial things that I was learning about leading a crew but also the work on the screen of which I am most proud of. I learned so much on this movie and it really changed the kind of artist I am now.

What's the sequence you're most proud of in this film, and why?

That's a tough one, but I would have to say the sequence where Pumbaa is lying on his back looking up at the stars with Simba and Timon talking about what the stars are. I loved Pumbaa's response to Simba's thoughts on what the stars above really were. He says, "Aw, gee... I always thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away." That scene really helped round out Pumbaa to be a more fully realized character. He's not dumb, he's just an innocent animal that follows Timon's lead. Once I animated that scene, I felt like I knew who his character was.

What was it like working at Disney Animation during that period?

Boy, it was a great time. Many of us on The Lion King were young animators that just had no fear of trying new things and we were totally focused on making great films. There was not a lot of pressure on us at the time because the studio at first did not expect much from The Lion King, so we felt creatively unharnessed.

Will you say something to Vietnamese audiences who are urged to see The Lion King 3D at the end of this September?

Yes, Xin Chao, Vietnam! I am so happy to know that there are fans of The Lion King in Vietnam too. We made this film for the world so please enjoy this epic and fun story that we made for you and, as Pumbaa would say, Hakuna Matata!

The Lion King is such a super classic and popular story to millions of children all around the world through many 2D versions. Although the 3D movement is now in vogue, 2D animation has become an irreplaceable trademark for Disney. Do you think remaking this film into 3D might be a double-edged sword?

When I first heard that The Lion King was being made into a 3D version, I must admit I was skeptical. I wasn't sure what the technology would bring to our 2D animation. Then I saw it and I was amazed at how it looked in 3D -- how much it enhances the animation. When we created the film in 1994, we tried to make it as dimensional and real as we could with the technology during that time, but now with stereoscopic technology it actually fully realizes the potential of what were trying to make. I think it actually improves the film.

Tony Bancroft supervised the animation of Pumbaa, the warthog from "The Lion King."

What was the most difficult aspect of animating Pumbaa, and why?

Really trying to make a warthog appealing. They are really the ugliest animals in the animal kingdom so trying to make him cute was an ongoing battle. I'm pleased with the results though.

I assume you have a personal collection of animation cels that you have collected over the years. What is the most curious and most interesting animation cel you have?

Good question! I do love collecting artwork from animation but not of my own, mostly art by my friends and mentors. Besides animation drawings by my friends at the studio that I have framed on my walls, my favorite is an animation drawing of two of the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is a rough pencil drawing by Disney legend Freddie Moore and it is incredible. It has so much life in the drawing! It's an education in itself.

Did you ask to supervise Pumbaa? What drew you to the character?

No, actually I asked to work on Zazu originally. Pumbaa and Timon, even at an early stage of the film, were the breakout popular characters and they seemed out of my reach to even request as a first-time Supervising Animator. Having just finished animating Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, I thought, "Well, Iago's a bird and Zazu's a bird...maybe I have a shot!" I was totally taken by surprise when the directors called me to offer me the character of Pumbaa! It was one of the happiest days of my life.

What is your favourite character you have worked on? Why?

Definitely, Pumbaa. I enjoyed all of the comedy characters I have worked on over the years (Iago, Kronk, Cogsworth, etc.),
but there is a special place in my heart for Pumbaa. I think it was because he was my first character to supervise as an animator. Also, he and I have so much in common. We're both overweight and enjoy a good bug every once in awhile!

When did you realize The Lion King was more than just a movie?

It's funny because at the time we had no idea that The Lion King would become the phenomenon that it has become. At the time, we thought it was just this fun little film with a quirky story about a lion cub in Africa that thinks he killed his father and has bug-eating friends set to music by Elton John. Not the normal Disney story for sure. It still amazes me that it is so well-loved around the world.

What will the 3D technique bring to this new 3D version of The Lion King?

I think if we had the technology of stereoscopic 3D in 1994 we would have used it in the making of this film. We really tried to make it as inclusive as we could for the audience with the technology we had at the time. Look at the wildebeest stampede scene for example. We made the wildebeests in CGI and lowered the camera down to the level of Simba so that the audiences feel the fear of the little lion cub as they rush past him. In 3D, that scene literally leaps out at you and makes it all the more frightening for little Simbaa. That alone is an improvement on the story telling and a great reason to have this new awesome version.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to break into the industry?

I still think it is so important that an animator knows how to draw really well even in this computer animation world we live in now. Drawing is a quick and easy way for an animator to communicate his ideas to a director or others before going to his computer to flesh out a scene. But besides that, studying how people move and act around them is very important. Watch your family around the house, how your dog moves, or how people interact at a bus stop. All of those things will help you bring a character to life.

This shot of Simba's paw in Mufasa's footprint is singled out as one of Tony Bancroft's favorite moments in "The Lion King."

Is there anything subtle in the movie that you see in it, that you'd like to point out to audiences?

One of my all time favorite movie moments happened in The Lion King. There is a scene where Simba after disobeying his father and going to the elephant graveyard is walking back to home following behind his father. He knows he's in trouble and more than that; he feels like he will never live up to being the king that he is. Those feelings are summed up in one visual moment as Simba accidentally steps into his father's footprint. The camera shows his little paw inside the huge footprint of his father's and in that key visual scene,
it says so much about not only their relationship but also the great responsibility Simba has in following his father's "footsteps" in becoming the next king of the pride. To me, that is great filmmaking!

What are your thoughts on the direction animation has gone since The Lion King?

It's a little bittersweet for me. I love 2D hand-drawn animation and it's hard to see the world of animation turn so much to CG animation. But I also love what CG animation has done for filmmaking in animation too. I think there's room for both techniques in the world of animation and I hope to see it balanced out more in the future.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I think I have the best job in the world! I love bringing characters to life through animation. It's a great feeling to go to a theater and sit with an audience that is seeing a movie I worked on and hearing them laugh or cry at a character I helped create. It's probably the biggest perk of what I do that I can move people in an emotional way.

In countries where animated films are hard to survive, it is very difficult for young animators to pursue their dreams. So what do you think that these people should do to keep themselves motivated, before their passion runs out?

I think for animators in countries where it is difficult to find work making animated features it is important not to give up. There is a great big world out there through the Internet, so find different ways to get your animation out there to the world such as animated shorts for the Internet or commercials with animation. Keep your head high and find a way to meet your audience.

Are there any rituals like listening to a genre of music or watching a film that you would do to get in the mood to work on animating a character?

I don't know why, but I remember Mike Surrey (who animated Timon) and I listened to a lot of Broadway musical music while animating Pumbaa and Timon. Mike and I shared an office together and would listen to the music out loud all day long. We would sing along to Les Misérables or Miss Saigon while animating our characters. Maybe it helped in animating our character singing "Hakuna Matata"... I don't know.

What were the big lessons you took from Lion King?

The theme of the movie that Simbaa learns is that "we all have a purpose in the great circle of life". It is the thing that he tries to ignore halfway through the film but ultimately it comes back as his responsibility to his pride and family. I think this is a great and universal lesson that really helped this film become the universal success that it is.

Newly grown-up Simba sings "Hakuna Matata" with his carefree new best friends Timon and Pumbaa in "The Lion King."

How surreal is it to have been part of the most successful animation movie ever to have been made by the most prestigious animation studio in the world, ever?

Very! Not a week goes by, that someone doesn't come up to me and want me to draw Pumbaa or tell me how The Lion King affected them. For a film that was considered the "B movie" by the studio and with a staff, like myself, that were mostly new talent, working on a very different kind of story for Disney, it is surprising to see the reaction over the years.

What are your thoughts on the production system whereby specific characters are assigned to specific animators (or teams of animators with a supervisor)? This was done on The Lion King and many of the stronger animated Disney movies, but it's not always the way animated films are produced. Do you favour this system over the alternatives?

Yes, I do. Back when we were making The Lion King at the Disney studios it was common for animators to be a "cast" on a character by the directors just like live-action actors are cast for their parts in a movie. Some animators are better with comedy characters, lead stars, women or villains. I was always "type-casted" as a comedy character guy, which I loved. The system is good because animators really are considered "artists with a pencil" so they have natural skill sets in how they draw and make their animation that connects better to certain character types. For me, this still is the best way to work on a film.

You directed Mulan in 1998 along with Barry Cook. Any interest in directing more animated features?

Yes, I have developed several films since Mulan that for whatever reason have not made it to the screen yet.
I am currently directing a new CG feature right now that I am excited about. I can't tell you anything about it yet... but soon... very soon.

How did you get started as an animator?

I loved to draw ever since I was a child. I used to draw with my brother as much as most kids go out and play sports. The love of drawing later combined with a love of movies that lead me to animation. I went to a great college called California Institute of the Arts to study animation and was picked up by Disney right out of college. From there, the rest is history!

Tony, any final thoughts on The Lion King as we close out this virtual roundtable?

The Lion King for me represents a great time in my life personally as a young animator. I am so happy that I get the opportunity to reminisce on that time with the release of The Lion King 3D. It's been 17 years since I worked on Pumbaa for the film but for me it's like visiting an old friend. So much has changed in how we make movies in animation and yet so much has remained the same. The essence of making animated movies is still about taking the audience on a magical journey to a place they have never before seen through the eyes of characters that are appealing and endearing. I think The Lion King is the best example of that.

The Lion King is now in theaters. It hits DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D next week. Look for more interviews and our full Blu-ray & DVD review soon!

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Published September 28, 2011. Interview conducted September 16, 2011.