The new remake of The Lion King is pretty much the movie that fans were wating for, at least if the insane box office is to be believed. While the critical notes of the film haven't been glowing, there is one area where most fans and critics agree, the photo-realistic animation is stunning. Of course to make a realistic looking lion in the new film, the creators of the movie needed some real life assistance, and they found it in a lion cub named Bahati who was a model for young Simba.
Bahati is a resident of the Dallas Zoo and it turns out that Disney used the little cub as a reference when creating their CGI Simba. Needless to say, Bahati is adorable as all hell, makes the cutest noises, and after watching the video below you're going to want to take her home. Check her out.
Using a live action reference to create proper animation is pretty standard practice. Disney animators have been doing it since the beginning of the studio. Of course, in the case of The Lion King, things are a little different. We're not talking about traditional animators. Nobody is sketching a thing and while things are all handled inside a computer, just like modern animation. the fact is that things aren't quite the same.
However, it seems things are similar enough that The Lion King used real lions as reference in creating the film's life-like characters. The Dallas Zoo's Facebook post says they sent Disney all kinds of footage from Bahati licking milk off her own face to walking around on wobbly legs, so that Disney could capture those behaviors perfectly in their digital creation.
It has to be said, Disney did a remarkable job with the animals technically. They look so much like the real thing that people have compared the movie to a National Geographic documentary with voice over added in.
Of course, while the visuals were stunning, they also caused a problem. The lions looked so real that having them behave in a more human fashion, as their animated counterparts had done, would have destroyed the illusion. This meant that simple things like facial expressions were difficult to create since animals can't look happy or sad in the same way humans do.
These issues aren't causing a problem for The Lion King at the box office. After only two weekends in North America the film is already close to breaking the billion dollar mark worldwide. It will become the fourth Disney movie this year to break that barrier, and will do it ahead of Toy Story 4, which had basically a full month of time before Lion King's release to build up the box office.
With a number of Disney animated films featuring animals, in addition to several projects from other studios, one expects the success of The Lion King will lead to more movies using similar technology. We know we're getting a Lady and the Tramp remake on Disney+ later this year and we'll probably get a sea full of photo realistic aquatic life in the upcoming The Little Mermaid.