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Canadian animator helping to bring new 'Lion King' to life

Last Updated Jan 15, 2016 at 3:00 pm PDT

“The Lion Guard” premieres Sunday morning on Corus Entertainment's channel Disney Junior. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Disney Junior

It’s taken over 20 years, but an animated children’s series has finally been spun off from Disney’s Oscar-winning classic “The Lion King.” And a Canadian animator is helping to bring a brand new lion cub to life.

“The Lion Guard” premieres Sunday morning on Corus Entertainment’s channel Disney Junior. Ontario-born Howy Parkins (“Jake and the Never Land Pirates”) is the supervising director for Disney Television Animation.

The voice cast includes Rob Lowe and Gabrielle Union as grown up “Lion King” favourites Simba and Nala while Max Charles — a 12-year-old actor with credits on everything from “Family Guy” to “Robot Chicken” to “The Strain” — voices their second-born cub Kion.

Kion is pronounced K-eye-on, not Key-on like the Toronto Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon — something hockey nut Parkins had to keep reminding his fellow Canadian-born animators of.

“I grew up with the Leafs and Davey Keon and wore No. 14 on the back of my hockey jersey,” he says. Every time anyone working on the series referred to the character as ‘Keon’ they had to put a dollar in a jar.

“We’re up to 65 dollars now.”

Much of the animation for the series has been produced at Ottawa’s Mercury Filmworks. The Emmy-winning production house has put a new spin on Mickey Mouse cartoons for Disney and has animated other shows such as “Atomic Puppet” for Teletoon.

Most of the animators there, says Parkins, are graduates of animation programs at schools such as Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., and Algonquin College in Ottawa.

“They’re very talented,” says Parkins, himself a Sheridan grad.

Parkins and the other lead animators in Burbank, Calif., near the Disney Studios, design the main characters and backgrounds. They then hand off the actual animation work to Mercury in Ottawa.

“We have so much respect for each other,” he says. “We joke they’re in the studio somewhere — they’re just a little further down the hall.”

To capture the spirit and look of the original 1994 film, Parkins and others dug into the Disney archives.

“They gave us full access to the early model sheets,” he says. “We really immersed ourselves in the world of ‘The Lion King.'”

Parkins took special care to get the African-based backgrounds and “big sky” look just right.

“I really felt the environment was just as much a character as Simba or Mufasa.”

Helping with that was another Canadian, Barry Atkinson, who worked on the original feature.

“He came on board for a while to help us get that look.” Things were then passed on to the background crew in Ottawa.

Parkins graduated from the Sheridan program in 1984. In the years before computer animation revolutionized the industry, feature and TV animation were at a low point. Disney hadn’t had a feature hit in years. Parkins remembers friends giving him a hard time for switching from graphic design to animation.

His leap of faith, however, landed him on solid ground. Toronto-based animation house Nelvana was just about to bust out with several children’s TV hits, and Parkins went straight from Sheridan to working on “Care Bears.” He moved to L.A. and worked on the film that really revived feature animation, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” That led to character and layout work on the first few seasons of “The Simpsons.”

Many new animation releases, such as “The Peanuts Movie,” are rendered in 3D but “The Lion Guard” was made in traditional 2D to match up with the original movie.

Besides, says Parkins, “2D has lost its stigma” as yesterday’s style. Pointing to edgy 2D animated efforts popping up on digital platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, Parkins sees a bright future for Canadians graduating from animation programs whether they’ve studied 2D or 3D.

“The main thing is the story,” he says. “When you have a perfect story as we had on ‘The Lion King,’ it’s always watchable.”

— Bill Brioux is a freelance columnist based in Brampton, Ont.