In appreciation of ‘The Lion King’s’ true star: the dung beetle

Plus other scene-stealing background characters from the film.

You may be intimately familiar with the lions, hyenas, meerkats and bush pigs of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, but what about the gazelles and flamingoes? Or the bush baby? Not to mention the puddle frog. Or, of course, the dung beetle?

Those are only some of the many, many CG background characters crafted by MPC for the film. Not that they were really treated as background characters; the VFX studio still modeled, textured and rendered them to be as photoreal and hero quality as any of the other animals or environments.

Here’s how just a few of the star extras of The Lion King were brought to life (and which ones unfortunately didn’t make the cut).

Covered in dung

When you’ve got an insect rolling a piece of dung along the plains of Africa, it has to look right, or it will look…disgusting. Not to mention, the dung beetle plays a pretty special role in The Lion King, since a piece of Simba’s hair gets caught up in its ball of dung, alerting the wise Rafiki to the fact that the son of Mufasa is not dead. “The trick with him,” notes MPC’s Lion King character supervisor Ben Jones, “was this balance of disgusting, cute and funny. The way those beetles move and the way that they roll over, it’s pretty cool.”

The disgusting bit perhaps is that real dung beetles are mostly always covered in dung themselves. This needed to be represented in the character, along with what can also be a relatively shiny beetle shell containing a surprising amount of variation on its surface, plus elaborately folded-up wings. Then, there was the ball of dung.

“The team at the studio were fighting over who was going to look after the dung ball,” recalls Jones. “You can’t find much research on that on the internet. Again it was this balance, because you can so easily go the wrong side of disgusting.”

Cute factor (but not at first)

A bush baby makes an appearance in the oasis that Timon and Pumbaa bring Simba to. Many audience members’ first reactions to the animal is one of super cuteness as it jumps to catch a butterfly, but cute was not initially how MPC’s artists, located between London and Bangalore, found the bush baby. In fact, the creature’s huge eyes and slightly unusual face originally had some angles making it look like a scary vampire.

Jones says that appearance stemmed from some of the dark natural coloration and camouflage around the bush baby’s eyes. “Subtle changes of that allowed us to knock the vampire look on the head. The vampire version of this guy had really prominent orbital bones around the outside of its eyes, so we went for more of a coloration around the eyes instead.”

Another challenge was that the bush baby needed to be covered in thick fur, including on its head, even though it has a very small skull. Here, MPC’s model and groom teams worked closely to perfect the look and maintain the bush baby’s cuteness.

Feathers are complicated

One of the film’s opening sequences features hundreds of flamingoes flying across the African savannah. Although MPC had to craft a host of different birds for the film, Jones acknowledges that “feathers are always so complicated. It’s the way that they layer together, especially when the wings are closed.”

“That was probably the most difficult thing with the flamingos,” adds Jones, “because they make such an iconic and simple and elegant shape when the wings are closed and when they open them up the wings are two or three meters wide.”

Over several projects, MPC has been relying on its proprietary toolset called Furtility to build feathers (as well as hair and fur). This work is done by the groom team, which treats feathers as two components: quills and barbs, which act like a top-level groom with a sub-groom attached to it. “We took the Jungle Book technology and we pushed things up a couple of versions. It made it easier for our artists to be able to achieve what they wanted.”

Elegant gazelles

When tackling the gazelles in the film, MPC’s artists found that they were very quickly able to get to the right look and feel from reference they had of the animals, a result that Jones attributes to the fact that its short fur enabled the team to more easily see the gazelle’s structure and form (ie. there was no thick coat of hair or fur to get in the way).

“It meant you were really able to understand the anatomy much better,” says Jones. “And we could also get all the little swirls and direction changes of the fur on their backs directly from reference, which made things easier.”

At one point, a gazelle offers an almost wry look to the camera in reaction to Timon and Pumbaa singing. This was made possible by the fact that even these background characters were rigged with full facial shapes – “they could even deliver dialogue if necessary,” notes Jones.

The double life of a puddle frog

Between The Jungle Book and The Lion King, MPC has now built a lot of animals, and of course with a vast library of characters, it is able to re-use some models if necessary. The puddle frog was one such creature, which received additional skin detailing for some of his shots during the ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ scene.

“I think Jon Favreau had always liked this frog from The Jungle Book where it jumps on a rock and this drip of water lands on its head,” details Jones. “So we were like, ‘Let’s take that guy and we’ll give him a make-over and turn him into an African puddle frog. We went to town on the details of the skin, the textures and the slimy-ness of the skin.”

Some animals didn’t make it…on screen

While the puddle frog got a second life in The Lion King, some animals found themselves on the cutting room floor. “At one point there was going to be a red locust, he unfortunately didn’t make it in,” relates Jones. “But we got a green cricket instead! And there was a gopher who was going to appear, but he didn’t make it.”

Still, Jones is ecstatic with how well the background characters integrated with the foreground characters, and in some cases – like the dung beetle – became huge talking points among audiences.

“Everyone also always mentions the slow-mo shot of the bush baby catching the butterfly,” he says. “It’s like, well, two little background guys, hey? Amazing.”

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