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The Changing Definitions Of Animation, Live-Action And 'The Lion King'

What's the difference between animation and live-action? A pretty straight forward question you might think. But it's one that seems to be causing quite a lot of confusion around the 2019 redux of The Lion King.

Jon Favreau's film was reported as a 'live-action remake' of the 1994 Disney classic by many reputable outlets. This despite the fact that it doesn't feature real animals, real locations or a single human character. That would make it in fact, an animated remake of an animated film, right?

The confusion is understandable, in a way. The Lion King follows remakes of Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin, that are indisputably live-action- although they still rely heavily on animated elements. But it is most closely related to Favreau's own 2016 'Live-action' Jungle Book- a film in which the only live-action element was, in fact, the performance of Neel Sethi as Mowgli. At the time, Favreau impressed by refusing to underplay the importance of the artists who brought the animated characters to life, and comparing them to the animators of the 1967 Disney original. Fast-forward to 2019, and Favs is arguing his Lion King film (which has no live-action elements at all) should not be called an animated film  because "I think is misleading as far as what the expectations might be."  Because animated films can only be one thing, right? So, what happened?

It has to be pointed out that neither Disney's marketing, nor the director himself has ever called the film 'live-action'. But neither have they been quick to jump in and clear up any confusion. The original announcement said the film was made by Disney Live-Action- which is not a description I think they've ever used before. They are not specifically using the label, but they are actively encouraging the confusion (or at least not actively discouraging it) but for what reason? Surely it's a marketing thing. Preposterous as it may seem that somebody would be put off seeing a Lion King movie because its animated, those people exist. There are not insignificant numbers of adults who refuse to watch cartoons. Many of the same adults who probably flock to see Avengers: Endgame, and other movies which are actually significantly reliant on animation, ironically.

For some time there was secrecy about the way the new Lion King was actually made, so we weren't sure exactly what it was. Favreau has now confirmed that no performance capture has been used, so it is in fact animated, and there's no getting around that. So, animation that is aiming for photo-realism is no longer animation- is that the argument?

The animation industry has not helped matters itself. A few years ago,  several prominent figures in the animation world campaigned to get motion-captured films like Beowulf or The Adventures Of Tintin barred from consideration for several major Best Animated Feature awards. Today, to qualify for an Oscar in the category a film must meet the following criteria:

An animated feature is defined by the Academy as a film with a running time of more than 40 minutes in which characters' performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, a significant number of the major characters are animated, and animation figures in no less than 75 percent of the running time. 

By this definition, 2019 Lion King absolutely qualifies as an animated film. As would The Jungle Book. As probably would quite a lot of Marvel films for that matter. Will Disney submit the Lion King '19 for the category in the 2020 Academy Awards? I suspect not, as it doesn't fit their narrative and it threatens to overshadow Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2, their big hopes for the category next year.

But this definition underplays the value of animators in motion-captured films. Despite what Andy "Give Me My Oscar" Serkis would have you believe, it's a lot more than 'digital make-up'. If mo-cap isn't animation, then neither is rotoscoping. When animators base their characters on the performance of the voice-actors, is that cheating too?

Why does any of this matter? Marketing will always do whatever's necessary to try and get as many bums in seats. And for whatever reason, Disney has decided to downplay the fact they have made an animated film. Do labels really matter?

I have to lay my cards on the table and say I am not a fan of Disney's live-action remake strategy. The original Lion King is very dear to me, and I have no interest in a 'realistic' darker version that can only hope to be a pale imitation of the original. But it does exist and even if I don't care for its creative decisions, it is unquestionably, an incredible technical achievement. And what should be a giant leap forward for the medium is being overshadowed by this disrespect of the animation artists who made it a reality. And that's a shame.

We should be celebrating the artists like we have with any other animated film. Whether you create animation in a computer, or by hand. Whether it's frame-by-frame or based upon performance capture. Whether it's a full animated film, or as part of a 'live-action' film, it doesn't matter. All animators deserve to be celebrated. Because Mr Favreau and co, without them- you wouldn't even have a film.