While all productions have some element of set design, Andre Bazin would distinguish directors focused on mise-en-scene from those who preferred naturalism and fluid editing: the former would meticulously construct shots to produce distinct, if occasionally artificial imagery (Konigsberg 1998, p. 240). Animation as a medium lends itself to this style, allowing for a precision of staging unlike any other, but some productions want to have it both ways. In The Lion King 2019 Behind The Scenes Production Material (2021), for example, director Jon Favreau describes how digital tools allowed for a simulated randomness that made it feel less planned. In contrast, Animation Magazine‘s “Anatomy of a Shot: ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ from ‘The Sandman,’ (EXCLUSIVE),” largely explains how the use of traditional oil paintings mandated a style centered on mise-en-scene (Hulsing 2022). This study contrasts these texts and their tools, exploring how each legitimizes their use of mise-en-scene as intentional and meaningful to the final product, along with contradictions that occur through the raw flexibility of digital.
Production Designer James Chinlund describes how the previsualization process began with a script and storyboard like any other production, The Lion King employed illustrators to rapidly mock up high-resolution paintings from thumbnails and scribbles. This rhetoric emphasizes the intentionality of the mise-en-scene, establishing the mythology that every element on screen is intentionally placed, and therefore meaningful. Each of these digital sets were not self-contained, however, as every scene connected to each other in a spatially coherent savannah. Producer Jeffry Silver gleefully explains they built a video game in VR so that the crew could fly around like drones to plan shots. This apparently induced nausea for many, but Ben Grossman, Magnopus Virtual Production Supervisor, assured everyone that the body adapts to it over time. Robert Legato, Visual Effects Supervisor, explains that this technique allows for those happy accidents and random moments of inspiration that a person with a camera can have on set, which apparently justifies putting the crew through such a vertiginous experience. The result is an animated film that doesn’t feel designed, embracing a naturalism in contrast to the style Bazin described.
Animation Magazine‘s article on Dream of a Thousand Cats presents many similar points as The Lion King’s behind-the-scenes promotional, yet focuses on the blending of traditional and digital techniques to ground the mise-en-scene in something tangible. The director, Hisko Hulsing, is also an oil painter, working with a team of traditional artists such as Hans Versfelt and J.J. Epping to render each scene on massive canvases. Trained on alla prima, a technique that applies wet paint on wet paint, the team worked quickly with broad brushes. Hulsing collaborated with Untold, a VFX studio that specializes in photoreal animation to model cat skeletons and musculature before calculating and implementing skin weights, much like they did for The Lion King. The photoreal cat models would clash against the painted backdrops, so Merel van den Broek and Mirte Tas digitally textured them to appear as walking paintings. Tas drew the contours over the body of every single cat as well, to better blend them into a 2D environment and apply a hand-drawn quality Hulsing describes as “magical” (Hulsing 2022).
The Lion King described the raw flexibility digital tools possess, enough to induce their own kind of vertigo. Caleb Deschanel, director of photography, emphasizes they needed to build restrictions onto the set to make it feel more realistic, yet he fails to elaborate on what these limitations may have been. Between the environmental designers building sets without a clear understanding of where the camera will be, physics simulators moving objects in uncontrolled ways, and a small army of cameramen gleefully flying across the savannah, the text fails to establish its mise-en-scene as completely intentional. In contrast, each of Hulsing’s production decisions emphasized the limitations that each step imposed, such as the use of oil painting necessitating the use of texture and hand-drawn line, underlining the meticulous attention to detail each shot required. Here, the use of traditional tools grounded the limitless potential of the digital, massive oil paintings immediately express the scale, craftsmanship, and planning required, while the digital appears as another complimentary layer. Here the understanding of the production informs the spectacle; while Lion King presents photoreal cats in an unbounded digital sandbox, Dream of a Thousand Cats renders felines in painterly detail to illustrate its scale and craftsmanship.
BIG MOVIES behind the scenes. 2020. “The Lion King 2019 Behind The Scenes Production Material.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WupuXjvO9uA.
Hulsing, Hisko. 2022. “Anatomy of a Shot: ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ from ‘The Sandman’ (EXCLUSIVE).” Animation Magazine. August 6, 2022. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.animationmagazine.net/2022/08/anatomy-of-a-shot-a-dream-of-a-thousand-cats-from-the-sandman-exclusive/.
Konigsberg, Ira. The Complete Film Dictionary. United Kingdom, Penguin Reference, 1998.
Colin Wheeler designs motion media and animates as a freelancer, cultivating a lifelong passion for the critical exploration of animation as an artform and an industry. After completing his MFA in Animation at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he also acquired a Doctorate in Communications at Georgia State University. He teaches animation at Kennesaw, continuing to research the theory and practice of creativity as a discipline and a discourse.