When Disney Television Animation execs decided to create a series spinoff from the classic film “The Lion King,” they turned to veteran voice director Kelly Ward to ensure the vocal performances in “The Lion Guard” would roar to life.
The series premieres Friday, Jan. 15, with back-to-back episodes beginning at 9:30 a.m. on the Disney Channel.
“The Lion Guard,” which has a decidedly ecological spin, follows the exploits of Kion, the Prince of the Pride Lands and the second cub of the original film’s Simba and Nala. He and his friends — a cheetah, a hippotamus, a cattle egret and a honey badger — make up the Lion Guard to protect their homeland.
The series initially kicked off with a TV movie, “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar,” last November. It drew impressive ratings for the Disney Channel, averaging 5.358 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s “live plus-3” estimates.
Ward has guided voice actors at Disney for many years in such animated series as “101 Dalmatians,” “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
“I think the greatest challenge here is to remain true to the original, to keep the standard as high as we possibly can,” says Ward. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”
“The Lion Guard” has a large cast, peppered with star-power, including Rob Lowe as Simba, Gabrielle Union as Nala and Blair Underwood in a recurring role as a villainous crocodile.
But it’s the child actors who play the Guard members that are the backbone of the cast. Max Charles plays Kion; Diamond White plays cheetah Fuli; Dusan Brown plays the hippo Beshte; Atticus Shaffer is Ono the cattle egret; and Joshua Rush plays honey badger Bunga.
“We were tireless in our efforts to cast the young actors, the Lion Guard themselves,” explains Ward. “They are all minor actors, and all of them are exquisitely talented and nuanced.”
Ward explains just how collaborative animated projects are, with each piece of the project informing the others. “There are many types of directing in animation. The first director is very legitimately the writer because a lot of what they write becomes translated into visuals by the storyboard artist, who becomes the second director because he’s directing the visuals and distilling the visuals into actual pictures,” he says.
“And then my job is to come in and help match and get the essence of the story in the vocal performances, which then inform the storyboard artists as well. It’s kind of a lovely ballet of interwoven parts where a knowledge of writing and a knowledge of storyboarding and drawing, a knowledge of editing all really help me do my job and convey to an actor exactly how to nuance their performance. And then the actor, of course, is given great freedom especially in a single mic situation to select and give his performance nuances we might not have thought of.”
While live-action casts typically work together, voice acting gigs for animated projects are often solitary affairs, so Ward works with each of the actors individually.
“It used to be that we’d direct ensemble casts, and sometimes we still do that, but it’s become much more rare these days,” says Ward. “We tend to direct actors one at a time on a single mic. We’ll take their tracks and then gradually assemble the radioplay once we get all the actors recorded. The challenge is to keep those performances in your mind so you can create conversations, so that it really sounds like the characters are talking to one another.”
The series is unusual in many respects for an animated show directed at 2- to 7-year-olds. Each episode is 22 minutes long, whereas traditionally episodes are broken into 11-minute segments. “That’s unusual for this age group,” notes Ward. “The accepted wisdom is that you don’t want to tax young viewers’ attention spans.
“But our show is very craftily built,” he adds. “About a third of the way through each episode, there’s a song that acts as a kind of palette cleanser for that attention span. It’s not done scientifically or with any kind of guile. It’s just something we’ve found to be very successful at keeping the audience engaged.”
The tone of the show is different as well, which is why the vocal performances are so important. “Tonally, it’s not really a cartoon,” says Ward. “It’s hard to convey when [a guest actor] comes in and isn’t in touch with that tonality. If they are from a more cartoony background, sometimes we need to make an adjustment. The show is not unfunny,” he adds. “It’s a humorous show, but keeping the tone of the show in balance is another challenge for us.”
The series won’t shy away from the darker, sadder aspects of living in the Pride Lands. “We’ve been given great latitude to be challenging with the harder story issues,” explains Ward. “The whole overriding issue of the circle of life is very present in this series to a degree. It doesn’t pull any punches. It would be wrong to deny the series its DNA. It’s important to take the baton and carry it forward even though we’re sensitive to our young viewers. To do otherwise, I think, wouldn’t be an honest product.”
Production has mostly wrapped on the series’ first season, and Ward has moved on to another new Disney project, “Mickey and the Roadster Racers,” which features classic Disney characters Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Pluto, among others.
Ward has nothing but praise for all the actors he’s worked with, especially the journeymen voice actors who rarely step into the limelight. ”Your Jim Cummingses, your Tress MacNeilles, Jeff Bennetts, Maurice LaMarches, Russi Taylors of the world come in and cut right to the heart and essence of a moment, and subtle adjustments in their treatment of a line or the way they reconstruct the line will make it something we could never have pre-planned,” he says.
Ward was an actor, himself, for several years before finding his way into the animation business. He’s known for his roles in such films as “Grease” and “The Big Red One,” as well as roles on several TV series. “I overlapped a bit doing some spec writing for various projects and wound up getting an offer to come on staff at Hanna-Barbera.” He went on to write and produce there, and “I kind of got bitten by the bug to do some directing myself, because it was pretty clear to me that the lexicon actors use was something that I had ready to hand.”
He came to Disney to work on the “101 Dalmatians” series in the late 1990s, then went onto other projects elsewhere before coming back to work on “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” “I was brought in to work with that classic group of characters, which was a dream come true. Anytime the Disney company calls and gives you the opportunity to work with Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and Donald and Daisy and Goofy, that’s a real treat.”