The Lion King SE Launch Party
Yesterday Disney held a special press event at the CC Club in London to unveil their forthcoming Region 2 DVD release of The Lion King Special Edition. With a sense of Lion-like pride I bravely stepped forward to make the journey to London and represent DVDTimes at this event and having now recovered from the crowded train journey home am ready to make my report.
Arriving at 11:30am I was pleasantly surprised to find a well organised event put on by Disney’s always gracious press representatives. This initial impression continued throughout the day as everyone had the opportunity to sample the disc, pose questions to those involved with the film and enjoy the main presentation where the special features of the DVD were highlighted.
With an addictive tropical fruit cocktail in hand the event began for this reporter with a demonstration of the DVDs main talking point, the all-new Disney Enhanced Home Theatre Mix. This new audio track is present on the disc alongside the original 5.1 Theatrical mix; both were created by Terry Porter. To showcase this alternate 5.1 mix a special Home Theatre room had been set-up that housed the kind of equipment that makes home enthusiasts quiver in their boots. A gorgeous 50" Plasma screen was accompanied by a top end audio system upon which a specially created demonstration DVD was being run. This disc allowed the Disney DVD representative to play two specially selected sequences from the film, first in the Original 5.1 Theatrical Mix and then in the new Disney Enhanced Home Theatre Mix (DEHT).
The first sequence was the Wildebeest Stampede, a pivotal moment in the film that also has great 5.1 potential as we see a massive herd of Wildebeest careering down a valley with the viewer placed right in the middle of the action as Mufasa rescues his trapped son from impending doom. The Original 5.1 Theatrical Mix was played first and failed to truly impress as it showed its age and was not as aggressive as you might hope. Switching to the DEHT Mix revealed a track with a far greater sense of immersion as the thunderous sound of the stampede literally shook the room with incredible use of the sub-woofer, while also engulfing you in the action through a more dynamic use of the surrounds.
The second sequence used for demonstration purposes was the Can You Feel The Love Tonight? musical number. Introduced to us as the sequence which Terry Porter felt best showed off his work, we first heard the Original 5.1 Theatrical Mix that sounded perfectly fine, if a little light on surround usage. Then we heard the DEHT Mix that once again managed to bring a greater sense of immersion to the viewer as the musical numbers audio chorus and instrumental accompaniment are projected around the surrounds leaving the viewer with a sense of being in the middle of a choir. Enhancing the mix further are some well placed percussive segments at the start of the sequence and the fine decision to only project the chorus and music to the surround speakers, keeping character vocals to the front which helps to maintain the original tracks integrity.
Having been impressed with the Disney Enhanced Home Theatre Mix (which for the record, IS presented in DTS on the R2 release) I then managed to grab it's creator, Terry Porter, to discuss his work. After expressing my thoughts on the new mix we spoke about the evolution of The Lion King's audio tracks, as Terry created the Original 5.1 Theatrical Mix back when the film was first released, and has since created a new mix for the IMAX release and of course now has a DEHT Mix under his belt for the DVD. Terry explained how after creating the IMAX mix he had bought a new 5.1 setup for his home and realised that much like the IMAX environment, a Home Theatre setup is far more controlled with very little variation, whereas Cinema’s have multiple configurations meaning a broader mix has to be created. With this idea in his head Terry worked on a demo, pitched it to the execs at Disney and was given approval to create a new audio mix specially designed to take advantage of the Home Theatre environment. With absolutely no restrictions Terry was able to create a new audio track that allows the consumer to show off their setup with the main emphasis being on immersing the viewer, though he was also very quick to stress that his DEHT Mix should not be referred to as ‘better’, simply as an optimised mix for the home. Alongside the fact that absolutely no new elements were recorded for this new mix Terry demonstrated his insistence on maintaining the original soundtracks integrity.
As the conversation progressed I asked why the UK Disney DVDs generally receive the DTS treatment, an answer Terry could not give as he is only involved in the creation of the 5.1 mix, and from there it goes on to be encoded in the chosen format (be it Dolby for the R1 or DTS for the R2). Adapting the question I then asked which sound format he preferred his mixes to be heard in upon Theatrical release, to which he immediately said pure digital, though sadly agreed this is something rarely experienced in the US let alone here in the UK. Elaborating on his response Terry went on to say that all of the formats have their drawbacks, Dolby uses more compression which tends to result in a 'less colourful' track that loses some of the finer details, DTS offers a higher encoding rate though it also has Bass Management which sees bass that was intended for the surrounds sucked out and sent to the subwoofer. Last but not least is the Sony format, SDDS, which Terry spoke very highly of but then explained how it is actually included on the edge of the print so in practice the sound can be affected by the handling of the reel, and is not widely used as a result.
Moving on to general chat I began to ask about Terry's work and much to my embarrassment I found that his career has been a long and illustrious one having worked on pretty much ever major Disney movie of the last 18 years or so, and many others before then. One in particular that cropped up while discussing the importance of maintaining the original mixes on DVD releases was The Terminator, as I used this as an example of a UK release that is lacking the original Mono soundtrack. This turned out to be a sore point for Terry as he created the original Mono mix for The Terminator and was disappointed to have not been consulted on the new 5.1 mix MGM created for the DVD release. He explained how that particular mix was very close to his heart as it was created in just two and a half weeks, with scenes such as the futuristic opening being created around James Cameron’s notes that merely pointed out the location of laser shots as the footage had yet to be completed.
As you have no doubt realised we spoke for quite some time as Terry was genuinely very enthusiastic about audio in films which led us to various topics of discussion from his personal favourites amongst his work (Rainman, Pretty Woman, Aladdin), forthcoming projects (Freaky Friday, Haunted Mansion), to more in-depth discussion on the nuances of creating these mixes. Before going on to name Aladdin as the film he would most like to do a DEHT mix for next, we also had a brief discussion on his work for the English Dub of Spirited Away, a film I’m sure most of you know is a personal favourite of mine. Fortunately I was delighted to hear that Terry had a wonderful experience on that mix as not only were the elements he had to work with of a very high quality but the film also provided him with something very different to those he traditionally works on (cue a brief discussion on the many differences between Studio Ghibli and Disney).
After thanking Terry for his time I made my way to the presentation area that had been set up like a mini jungle. To kick off the proceedings a traditional African percussion group entered the stage and put on a fine performance before the Disney press representatives took over to introduce the most requested Disney DVD release, The Lion King. Also joining them on stage was Don Hahn, the films producer and Terry Porter. They went on to explain why it has taken so long for this release to happen (collecting materials and going back to recreate the filmmaking experience) before once again focusing on the DEHT mix whereupon Terry took the stage and again emphasised the fact this was an alternative, optimised mix rather than a 'better' mix before going over the evolution of the DEHT concept.
Rounding off the presentation was a look at the various bonus features found on the disc. From the fully animated menus and interactive Virtual Safari section that are aimed at the family market to the supplementary disc that houses five Journeys that take you through different aspects of The Lion King Experience, there is plenty to explore. The Journeys were presented as being more than just documentaries; instead they are sequences that extract the personal experiences of the filmmakers and include interviews with collaborators on the film at every level of its development. These Journeys not only look at the film, its story and music but also at the stage show and the animals seen in the film (the latter is presented in a comical fashion by Timon and Pumbaa).
A fine day was had by all and The Lion King Special Edition looks to have been well worth the wait. Audio and visual quality was exceptionally good while the balance between bonus features for the kids and the adults appears to have been judged well. The only thing left now is to go through the perfunctory though most welcome press pack...
...but more on that later. Continuing with their promotion of The Lion King Special Edition I was able to conduct a short 10-minute interview over the phone with the films producer Don Hahn, though glorifying my amateur status once again I had no means to record this. Don was a pleasant chap and was happy to answer my questions, and though not in traditional interview Q&A form, here is what we discussed.
In the demonstration of the bonus features on the disc I noted that Don had recorded various introductions and interviews, when asked how much creative input he had on the disc Don told me that he was “heavily involved”. They started by looking back at The Lion King, then worked to bring the various collaborators on the film together including himself, the director and the musicians involved in order to put together a first rate DVD that takes advantage of the format in the best ways possible. When questioned about the finished product and whether there had been anything he wanted to include but couldn’t Don expressed his praise for the DVD. “Quite often you start out and hope to get as much as possible on the disc but always fall a little short, with this two-disc set we really did get everything on there we wanted to.” Going beyond basic EPK materials from 10 years ago Don said how they looked at the original archive footage from trips to Africa, material created over the years for the subsequent home and IMAX releases and then most importantly brought the main collaborators back to record new interviews to recreate the filmmaking process.
The ‘Special Edition’ release of The Lion King includes an alternative extended cut that features a new musical number, The Morning Report. Performed by Zazu, a character originally voiced by Rowan Atkinson I asked Don if they had managed to bring him back in for the new recording and why exactly they decided to add to an already well received movie. “Unfortunately we could not get Rowan as he was busy with his spy movie (Johnny English).” Don went on to explain how the new musical number was seen as an optional extra that had worked well in the stage show and would make sense as a piece of added value to the DVD release. “We were not trying to fix the movie”, hence the inclusion of the Theatrical Cut on the DVD. Which version is Don’s preferred cut? “The original, it’s the nearest and dearest to my heart.”
Moving to the films straight-to-video sequel I asked if Don had any input and if he felt a theatrical sequel would be better. “I had no input on the sequel, after spending three years on the original it was good for me to move on.” Don expanded on this by saying how the original was so well received that any sequel would have much to live up to, though he did like The Lion King 2 and said that another very funny sequel is on the way next year. For Don the reception these movies and the original are receiving on DVD showcases The Lion King phenomenon, one that is set to continue as the stage show opens in more and more countries around the world.
When asked how he felt about Finding Nemo taking the top spot away from The Lion King as the most successful animated movie at the US box-office Don responded with a surprising “I think it’s about time really!”. Elaborating on this Don explained how he loved the movie and that Andrew Stanton (director of Nemo) and many of the guys at Pixar are friends of his, so was thrilled to see it do so well.
With traditional animated movies seeing a decline in the US (both Disney and Dreamworks have been suffering of late) I asked if Don believed CG animation would eventually render 2D techniques obsolete. “I think the success of a movie is based on storytelling and catching the imagination of the audience, if you can succeed in those areas then a traditional animated movie can still do well as Lilo & Stitch recently proved.”
Looking once again to the recent decline of traditional animated features in the US I asked if Don’s return to live-action features after 15 years in animation with The Haunted Mansion was a result of this. “The Haunted Mansion was a very personal choice for me.” After working here in the UK on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Don explained how he loved the concept of mixing live-action with animation, so along with the fact he was given the opportunity to collaborate with Rob Minkoff again (the director of The Lion King) Don felt The Haunted Mansion was an obvious choice for him.
Having seen a feature on The Lion King DVD where Don was expressing his interest in his own DVD collection I decided to round things off by asking if he had any particular favourites amongst his collection, and if there were any DVDs he was awaiting with great anticipation. “Definitely The Matrix”, then in terms of Disney releases Don cited “the Fantasia Box Set is just fantastic, as is the Toy Story Collection”. His most anticipated “would have to be The Lion King, I know it’s horribly self-indulgent but I can’t wait for its release so everyone can experience the movie again.”
I’d like to express my thanks to Don Hahn, Terry Porter and the PR team at Disney for this wonderful opportunity to discuss one of the greats in animation history. Thanks also to Matt Day for his help with the interview questions.