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Great Animated Performances: Zazu as Supervised by Ellen Woodbury
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My favorite Zazu scenes are the ones that introduce him in Scar’s lair. These establishing scenes are wonderful for a number of reasons, starting with how his weight quite apparently differs from Scar’s. There is a feel to his movements that automatically delineate him as lighter and les dense. It isn’t merely a matter of comparing sizes; it’s the almost tangible feel for his actual volume and mass. He is lighter on his feet, quicker in his moves, and altogether more fragile, in spite of his hefty ego. Take note of how he feels heavy with the added weight of Lion drool when Scar spits him out, coated in slime. Without the effects animation the action would still give the perfect illusion of this character bogged down under the weight of something.

His large bill - made marvelously flexible without ever losing its sense of being distinctly harder than the rest of him - responds to gravity as a bird’s light and hollow bill would. On the same hand, it is not a mere beak - small and fragile. It has substance appropriate for a hornbill, and it also serves as one of Zazu’s ever-shifting centers of gravity.

All of these things show the depth of understanding about birds in nature that Woodbury brought to Zazu. Research applied to practice. Not as easy as it sounds.

Ultimately, it is the acting in these scenes that shines the brightest. Zazu’s thoughts are on screen, showing us - rather than telling us - what he’s thinking and carried through with each action. Emotional life is the engine that moves this machine. He is a complete thinking and feeling personality. No movement seems random; every shift of his weight from one leg to another is an organic move that springs forth from his intentions.

The gem of these scenes, for me, is the acting and animation for the dialogue “Yes, well, as slippery as your mind is…? Zazu is tucked safely between Mufasa’s front paws, and with his wings serving effectively as arms - each feather acting as a digit on a hand, the animator begins the action with a picture-perfect pose. Wings/arms move to fold across his chest as his head pulls up and his neck elongates - displaying the superiority he is feeling. His eyes are closed, and his beak settles into a smug and satisfied little grin that telegraphs the sub-text of “so there!?

Eight frames - five drawings - the first two on ones, the last three on twos. Subtle, simple, perfect. Next, his head tilts down and he shakes his little beak in disapproval, and opens one eye up to Scar as if punctuating his disapproval, and then the other eye, pointing with one wing and snapping his beak closed. This portion of the phrase is 29 frames to itself and mostly on twos except for one little drawing - #19 (also frame #19 as it comes between the 18th and 20th frames - which are drawing 17 and 20) and then slips in two more drawings on either side of drawing/frames 32 & 34 before finishing off on twos as he hits the P in “sliP’ery.? These three drawings are an excellent example of knowing exactly when to add a drawing in order to make a phrase better - by which I mean more specific to the character. These drawings actually are critical for making Zazu think and not simply move about. They finish the attitude that the key drawings or extreme poses of this phrase seek to tell us as an audience. This is the thinking and the feeling Woodbury hopes that we ‘get.’ And we do! Now comes the sweetest part of this nugget - a little waddle that consists of a simple shift of weight from one leg to another as Zazu takes two steps forward, crouches down and lifts himself up off the ground to take flight. All the while he is speaking and keeping his eye contact with Scar. Watch as Zazu’s words as much as his muscles seem to lift him off the ground. The move of the head and the wide, exaggerated vowels on “As your mInd Is..? particularly on the two I’s - almost propel him forward and get tossed ahead of him. The character is quite literally throwing his words at his object of derision. It tells us so much about how Zazu operates and what his weapon of choice is: language. The follow-through and overlapping action of his tail and crest are the kind of skillful details that round out the action and..well, call me a geek but I just love this little phrase of animation.

(c) Disney Enterprises

So where does Ellen Woodbury go from here. Her subsequent performances are all truly wonderful, but she has not yet again been showcased as well. Still, she delivers unique and specific performance after performance and there’s great reward in that. Before we conclude the afternoon I take this chance to ask her about what she sees in her own future.

So here you are, mid-career as it were. What does it look like from where you are now? Is the industry still as exciting and challenging to you? Are the hopes and desires different at all?

Of course it’s different. Having been through so much it can’t help but influence the present and to an extent color how I see the future. I think it’s good that we changed to computers, because of what I said earlier - that it gives you a new eye on animation and kind of a re-evaluation of what you do and how you do it. I think that’s exciting, and I think it’s very cool to learn a new medium. It’s kind of like when we were first starting out, Steve Hewlett and I got this first CG animation course going at Disney. It was after the first couple of sessions it felt like you had been walking through the jungle and came across this lost valley that nobody knew about. I mean obviously some people knew about it and knew it was there - but I never knew about it, so for me personally it was like finding this new, unexplored territory. It was immensely exciting. Having gone through this, having gone through the pain and pleasure of learning a new medium, I feel like whatever happens I can learn how to do whatever it is that it takes to animate. Because ultimately I’m an animator. And if you’re an animator, whatever they’re going to do you’ll figure out how to do and do it! I like drawing, and in fact I’ve done more of my own drawing since I’ve started animating in computer than I’ve done in years. And I really enjoy it. I’m working on these little projects for me. And I have to do it or otherwise I won’t feel right. You know what I mean? Because I need to draw. But as an animator, whatever the medium is I’ll figure it out and I’ll do it, because what I like to do is to become other characters and bring them to life. It’s like the whole fantasy thing, like “well why do you animate?? Because I want to be somebody else! I mean being me is not that bad! (laughing) But it does have its sort of realistic down to earth qualities to it, and it’s much more fun to …to…to be whatever you want. You know? And that’s the allure of animation to me. It’s not…not like just the drawings, it’s…it’s the character. It’s becoming somebody else and getting away with it!

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-- Rhett Wickham

Rhett Wickham will return next month with another in his Great Animated Performances Series.

Rhett Wickham is a frequent contributor to Mr. Wickham is a writer, story analyst and development professional living and working in Los Angeles. Prior to moving to LA, Rhett worked as an actor and stage director in New York City following graduate studies at Tisch School of the Arts. He is a directing fellow with the Drama League of New York, and nearly a decade ago he founded AnimActing©®™ to teach and coach acting, character development and story analysis to animators, story artists and layout artists - work he continues both privately and through workshops in Los Angeles, New York and Orlando. He is most proud to have been honored in 2003 with the Nine Old Men Award from Laughing Place readers, “for reminding us why Disney Feature Animation is the heart and soul of Disney.? He can be reached through or by visiting

The opinions expressed by our Rhett Wickham, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

--Posted October 24, 2003




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