How 1994’s The Lion King had to be completed in people’s spare rooms

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The bumpy production of 1994’s The Lion King hit a further challenge with just months before the film’s release.

Like many much-loved films, Disney’s original The Lion King was a movie that went through its fair amount of production troubles. I’ve covered some of them in an earlier episode of the Film Stories podcast, not least the moment when the infamous first trailer hit cinemas, around six months ahead of release.

Instead of running a special trailer, Disney decided to release the incredible opening sequence for the film, and pretty soon had a sensation on its hands. The problem? Those opening minutes were the only parts of the film that were complete and in shape. The rest needed an awful lot of work.

The last leg of the film’s production thus became the usual race against time, albeit now with a great swathe of expectation from audiences. The also-in-production Pocahontas was expected to be the studio’s next big animated hit.. Once that trailer arrived, though, it soon became clear there was a huge amount of interest in The Lion King instead.

Yet there was an external factor that also hit the film’s production, and hit it hard. With six months to go until the film was due in cinemas, a big earthquake hit the Los Angeles area, where the movie was being made. It struck in January 1994, and led to 57 people losing their lives, and over 8000 injuries.

Of secondary importance to that was the knock on across a bunch of film and television productions. Murder In The First, for instance, was being shot just a few miles from the epicentre of the quake, and its main set was destroyed, needing to be rebuilt.

There was an impact at Walt Disney Animation Studios too. The transport infrastructure in and around the Los Angeles area was, as you might expect, significantly impacted by the earthquake and its aftershocks. This, in turn, presented a huge problem for the animators who were furiously trying to complete the film. Many simply couldn’t get into work.

This was before the internet infrastructure made any kind of agile working concept that feasible, but drastic action needed to be taken. The public transport system wasn’t at its best, but some animators managed to make a daily trek into the studio by train. Others simply decided to sleep at the studio.

But there was a point where the studio effectively needed to be shut down too, and thus there was only one option: for people to take the movie home. That drawings were being completed on the kitchen tables or in the garages of the animators, as the production team were left having to shuttle the necessary artwork around people’s homes, just to be able to stay on schedule.

The same animators were, of course, worried about their own home, not least with aftershocks and shakes continuing for a little while afterwards. Unbeknownst to many of them, what would soon become the biggest animated movie of all time was being completed in whatever spare space they had in their house.

All of this too was in the film, rather than digital era, and thus physical reels of film needed to be stored and kept safe. It was a monumental effort, in very difficult circumstances, that got the film finished.

Over a decade later, as an aside, director Gore Verbinski would do things a little in reverse. He started putting together the nuts and bolts of what became Rango in his garage, before ultimately inking a deal with Paramount and taking his artwork into the studio rather than out of it. Rango would have a happy ending too, going on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The Lion King’s more recent remake, of course, would be no small success either. This too was put together in Los Angeles, with not a shred of African footage in it. That one was just a little less perilous to put together….

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