Disney’s Virtual Safari Puts Timon and Pumbaa in Driver’s Seat

Lion King DVD Set-Top Game Repurposes Digital Assets for New 3D Experience.

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Timon and Pumbaa step into their own with Virtual Safari, which is included in the new Lion King special edition DVD. All images © Disney. All rights reserved.

Timon and Pumbaa have come a long way since their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like turn in The Lion King. Early next year, the zany meerkat and warthog star in their own Disney DVD premiere, The Lion King 1-1/2, but in the meantime they host Virtual Safari, a fun and fitting set-top game on the new Lion King special edition DVD thats a cross between the venerable Jungle Cruise and Indiana Jones Disney theme park rides. With a simple flick of the remote, viewers can choose between the jeep and jungle cruiser options and take a wild ride with their nervous guides as they navigate through dangerous territory, while familiar images from the movie dart back and forth. You may think youre in control of the direction, but Timon and Pumbaa are in the drivers seat (with Ernie Sabella reprising the voice of Pumbaa and a Nathan Lane sound-alike voicing Timon).

Thus, Virtual Safari marks the first time that Buena Vista Home Entertainment has partnered so ambitiously with its colleagues at Disney Feature Animation and DisneyToon Studios to produce a virtual set-top game of this type. Our quest was to expand the set top experience and, given that it was The Lion King, to try and do something that was a higher benchmark, explains Andy Siditsky, sr vp worldwide creative services and DVD production. We thought: wouldnt it be cool to create a virtual tour through The Lion King experience. We started thinking about various theme park rides land Timon and Pumbaa were our natural hosts. That led to different ways of doing it and different pieces and wondering where would you go?

We talked about a jeep tour and a boat tour and even a walking tour, but then it became too long. Working with re-recording mixer Terry Porter, we brainstormed [within our small group]. We worked very closely with the Feature Animation team in developing the animation and assets for this kind of experience. Honestly, we didnt know if we could pull it off. This had never been done before. We went down to Walt Disney World and hung out on [The Jungle Cruise] and read some of the scripts and really used those as our guide. In fact, I had a script that Disneyland had issued a long time ago. By doing this experiment as we did and ending up where we did, its given us a whole new avenue to create these virtual safari type of experiences.

Indeed, there will be another virtual game on The Lion King 1-1/2 DVD to be released Feb. 10, 2004. Only this time the roller coaster experience will be patterned after Mr. Toads Wild Ride, with a lot more humor and Lane on hand to voice Timon.

20% of Lion King was repurposed for Virtual Safari.

Siditsky adds that the initial challenge was how to make the game appealing as a set-top experience, since were competing with so many others, and how do we relate it to The Lion King and enhance the experience within this theme park-style ride on DVD. There was a lot of trial and error and the script writing was something that we wanted to make sure was engaging enough and had some adult humor too.

Meanwhile, from an animation standpoint, the trick was how to repurpose the movie into the game. The challenge on any of these things is to really try to get the quality up to the level of the movie, adds Dave Bossert, a producer/artistic coordinator on Virtual Safari, who served as an FX animator on The Lion King back in 95. You know youre never going to do that due to time and budget restraints, but thats the goal. And I think in this particular case, the lushness, the fun of it and the amount of information shows [after six months of work].

The creative success of Virtual Safari has given Disney impetus to include another game on The Lion King 1-1/2 DVD next year.

Bossert, who currently works at DisneyToon Studios, says they wound up combining traditional and CG elements throughout the game. For instance, when Timon and Pumbaa are in their jeep and get stuck in the famous Wildebeast Stampede, the animators put in a different environment. We took some beautiful backgrounds from the movie and cut them apart digitally and created a new jungle along the riverbank, layering in new materials.

Bossert suggests that this is the first time theres been such a synergy at the studio among the home entertainment and animation divisions and outside vendors. It was a very creative environment with a lot of conversations going on without the typical youre supposed to do this and youre supposed to do that. I spent a number of hours at John Ross shop at Gork Enterprises and it was a very collaborative process. We supplied them with digital images that were projection mapped onto billboards. They put together the CG elements and digital artwork and built the environments. I helped them match the look of the film, such as when repurposed monkeys jump up and down on the bow of the jungle cruiser.

Bossert estimates that about 20% of The Lion King was repurposed for Virtual Safari. We were able to use environmental bits from the movie so that it felt like you were going through part of the Pridelands as opposed to starting from scratch.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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