Creative Constraints at Work in “The Lion King”

James Walpole/ May 12, 2018

If the Lion King was made today, it would probably be much worse.

When Disney created this film (which I recently rewatched for the first time in years) in the early 1990s, it didn’t have the plentiful, powerful CGI available to modern filmmakers. Artists assembled the scenes from traditional drawings and used systems like CAPs to provide coloring*.

You might think that the less advanced and more manual animation techniques available in the 90s might limit the greatness of a work, but The Lion King is another example** of the ways in which constraints enhance creativity.

The film has only 88 minutes of runtime, but that runtime is chock-full of intricate creativity. There are no scenes that don’t fit beautifully into the overall story. The songs aren’t wasted, the humor isn’t wasted, the imagery isn’t wasted. It all works together like a symphony.

When you see all this, you get the feeling of a delicate balance between elements. Granted, the film probably had great editors. But if it was just a bit easier to animate a sequence, add in some “big” scenes, or multiply characters using more advanced CGI, The Lion King might have lost its balance. It might have become too silly, too serious, or just too busy with all of the “seemed good at the time” ideas of the animators.

Luckily for us, technological constraints provided discipline and (in part) guided The Lion King on the path to film greatness. Go watch it if you haven’t seen it in a while. Today’s animated films could learn quite a lot from it.

* My understanding of the animation process is sorely lacking. Suffice it to say that animators had more constraints back then.

** Credit: I first picked up on this way of looking at animation because of Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures, in which he pays particular attention to the animations of Disney’s Pinocchio. As he notes, there’s no room for wasted screentime when the screens take so long to create.


James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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