With the recent release of the The Lion King on Blu-ray, we were invited to join an online roundtable with supervising animator Tony Bancroft. Bancroft, who also worked on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Rescuers Down Under, brought the character of Pumbaa to life in the film, in turn making one of the most beloved Disney characters to ever grace the screen.
We chatted about how he got into animation, what inspired his approach to Pumbaa, and what advice he has for someone wanting to work in animation. Read our Q&A below.
How did you get started as an animator?
Tony Bancroft: 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 combined with a love for movies is what led 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!
What was it like working at Disney Animation during that period?
TB: Boy, it was a great time. Many of us on The Lion King were young animators that 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 did not expect much from [the movie] at first so we felt creatively unharnessed.
Did you ask to supervise the animation of Pumbaa?
TB: No, actually I asked to work on Zazu originally. Pumbaa and Timon, even at an early stage of the film, were the break-out popular characters and they seemed out of my reach to even request as a first time Supervising Animator. Having just finished animating Lago the parrot in Aladdin, I thought, “Well, Lago’s a bird and Zazu’s a bird…maybe I have a shot!” I was totally taken by surprise when the director’s called me to offer me the character of Pumbaa! It was one of the happiest days of my life.
How much was voice actor Ernie Sabella used as a reference for the character?
TB: A lot. Early in the process of making the film, I flew out to NYC with Mike Surrey, the animator on Timon, where both Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane (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.
Did you have any other visual inspirations for the character?
TB: As animators we always start with the real thing first. I spent almost 6 months in 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.
What was the most difficult aspect of animating Pumbaa?
TB: Really trying to make a warthog appealing. They are the ugliest animal in the animal kingdom so trying to make him cute was an ongoing battle. I’m pleased with the results though.
Looking back at the character, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
TB: Not really…since I was a first time Supervising Animator my mistakes had to do with managerial things. I learned so much on this movie and it really changed the kind of artist I am now.
What sequence are you most proud of in The Lion King?
Tony Bancroft: 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.
Do you have a favourite character that you’ve worked on?
TB: Definitely, Pumbaa. I enjoyed all of the comedy characters I have worked on over the years (Lago, 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!
What were the big lessons you took away from The Lion King?
TB: The theme of the movie that Simbaa learns that “we all have a purpose in the great circle of life”. It is the thing that he tries to ignore half-way 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.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Tony Bancroft: 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 theatre 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.
You directed Mulan in 1998 along with Barry Cook. Any interest in directing more animated features?
TB: Yes, I have developed several films since Mulan but for whatever reason they 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.
What are your thoughts on the direction animation has gone since The Lion King?
TB: It’s a little bittersweet for me. I love 2-D 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 advice would you give someone wanting to get into animation?
TB: 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.
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