Behind the Work: How ArtClass Honoured The Lion King’s 25th Broadway Anniversary
Director duo Jams x Bash speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about translating nostalgia, love and legacy into a cinematic celebration of the show and its New York home.
To celebrate the quarter-century milestone of the Broadway musical production of ‘The Lion King’, ArtClass’ Brooklynite directors Jamaal Parham and Bashan Aquart, known as ‘Jams x Bash’, filmed a branded short film, titled ‘Generations’, which weaves two stories from 1997 and 2022 to showcase the long-lasting legacy of the show.
The emotional spot commemorates the production’s power to connect generations, bringing them together over a common love and appreciation of the visuals, music, and the story told in ‘The Lion King’. Intercutting from 1997 to the present day through some inventive filmmaking and editing (also done in-house at ArtClass), the film explores the bonds it has forged with millions of families globally and utilises the vibrant colours, characters and sounds of the production to embody the excitement of the show itself. Shot entirely on location in New York, the film also highlights the place that ‘The Lion King’ on Broadway holds in the hearts of New Yorkers.
To discuss how they built a detailed world for the film’s characters, time travelling through intricate camera work between two time periods and the challenge of communicating the in-the-moment energy and grandeur of theatre, Jams x Bash spoke with LBB’s Ben Conway.
LBB> What was the initial creative spark for the ‘Generations’ campaign? What was the brief like?
Jams x Bash> The brief from Disney was pretty clearly defined from the jump. They came to us with a story of mothers and daughters experiencing ‘The Lion King’ at two different points in the production’s 25-year history, but had an open mind and wanted us to take that story and find the emotional promise. That really allowed us to do some worldbuilding. We really love worldbuilding, and we were stoked to have the space to dig into that level of detail. Our spark always comes from character, so the first step was exploring who these women are, who this family is, and what this show and this city means to them. We knew if we nailed the specificity of these women’s characters, the story would become universal and everyone could find something of themselves in their experiences.
LBB> What were some of the visuals and ideas you had immediately? How was the ‘Generations’ concept developed with the similarities and differences between the mother and daughter’s experiences?
Jams x Bash> The very first idea that jumped out at us was the Times Square sequence. We wanted to find a way to tell two journeys to the theatre as one story, without solely relying on split screen. The idea of the camera rotating and time travelling from 1997 to 2022 in one shot got us really excited. The visual language and tempo kind of built itself out from that initial inspiration. We also knew that we wanted to tell this story in these big widescreen close-ups. There is very little dialogue in the short, so the actors’ faces have to tell the whole story in a very subtle way. Once that notion was locked-in, it became trying to find all the places that we could create these match cuts on Maya between ‘97 and ‘22 that would function as subtle breadcrumbs, hinting that she might be the same person. That was a lot of fun.
LBB> Those transitions between the present and past are such inventive cuts – how were these shots achieved?
Jams x Bash> We really love to mix traditional and modern filmmaking techniques in our work. The subway shot is a really good example of that. On set, we shot the scene twice on two different subway cars: one from the ‘90s and one that was more modern. Our DP, Mike Townley, rotated the camera from one side to the other as our AD, Jermaine Sumra, called a count to keep pace. It was like a makeshift motion control – something we absolutely would have used, but a rig of that size would not fit in a New York City subway car. So we had to be a little inventive.
Once everything was captured on set, the folks at ArtClass post production stitched the two shots together so it looked seamless. From start to finish, that was probably one of our favourite sequences to shoot. We figured out how to get each of the characters in just the right spot, so Maya mirrored herself physically in the shot, while ‘97 Maya and Frankie mirrored each other emotionally. Then, we ended the sequence on the reflection of the 1997 skyline and the World Trade Center. Putting that all together and shooting it on a moving subway car – it was a mix of storytelling and character work, analogue techniques and subtle VFX. That’s the kind of stuff that really gets us excited.
LBB> The set, lighting, and costume design must have been a big part of differentiating the two time periods – what decisions did you make with regard to these aspects? And who did you work with to achieve these different looks?
Jams x Bash> From the treatment stage, we started building a document that was a place for us to collect all of our visual research. It had everything from colours, costumes and design elements to lighting references. If it sparked something in us, we would throw it in this document. It became our bible.
Roxy Martinez-Michaud was our production designer, and we’ve worked with her for a few years, so she really gets our process. She does so much storytelling in the way she and her team build and dress these sets, and you really can see who these characters are by the life-layer that exists in their spaces. It was a lot of fun designing these rooms, picking the posters for the walls, or laying out the desktop of a computer in 1997.
Pamela Shepard was our costume designer. And again, it came back to worldbuilding… everything was informed by the interior lives of these women – built on a level of authenticity that you don’t always get to explore in commercials. We had a really interesting challenge in that late ‘90s fashion is really popular again, but Pam was great in finding ways to make ‘97 Maya feel authentic and not like someone inspired by TikTok trends in the present day.
The client had so much trust in us and faith in the concept that they weren’t overly noting the choices; the end result was something that felt very cohesive and whole, and not like a collection of compromises.
LBB> Let’s get technical – what were your camera and lens set-ups like for this campaign? Did you work with any interesting/fun rigs or technology?
Jams x Bash> We decided very early on that this story needed to be told on a big canvas. This production has run for 25 years, it’s truly a landmark in a city full of landmarks, and we wanted to honour that staying power on an emotional and optical level. We tested a few cameras and briefly flirted shooting 35mm anamorphic. Ultimately we landed on the Alexa 65 with a mix of the DNAs, Prime 65s and the 65 Vintage series lenses. It’s an amazing camera that renders skin tones beautifully and just captures emotion in a close-up that hits on a different level. It’s not a camera we would use for everything, but we did some pretty extensive testing… It really was the perfect tool to tell this story.
We wanted a specific look and feel to the light because we were playing with this odd mix of late-fall daylight and that crisp warmth you get in New York. Those lenses could really capture that naturally without having to fake it in post. It’s one of those little details that you know if you’re a New Yorker. You know how the light feels and what that does to you emotionally. It was important for us to get that right. If it’s fake, or the audience sees past the illusion, the whole thing kinda falls apart.
LBB> ‘The Lion King’ is quite the IP to work with! As a hugely popular Disney property, how did you want to portray the musical in a modern and refreshed way after 25 years? And equally, how did you want to commemorate and celebrate its quarter century of history?
Jams x Bash> For us, it wasn’t as much about modernising it as it was about taking that feeling – that warm memory, nostalgia and love – and making it cinematic in a way that would be evident, even to people who are completely unfamiliar with the show. Literally everyone on the crew had a memory or connection to ‘The Lion King’ and we felt a responsibility to not only honour the brand, but to honour the experiences that millions of people have had when they walked through those doors.
A quarter of a century is a long time. For us, the legacy was not only about the show, but about New York. This show has been here through some of the biggest ups and downs over the past 25 years. It’s part of the fabric of the city, and we wanted to firmly place the story here and highlight the growth and change over the life of the show.
LBB> The musical has an immense soundtrack – how did you incorporate the music into the spot?
Jams x Bash> Our plan from the beginning was to drive this story with music, but in a way that comes off as surprising and unexpected. One of our favourite moments in the score by Barking Owl is when you hear the first hint of the ‘Circle Of Life’ melody. One of the notes that we kept trying to hammer home was to make the music less literal. We wanted it to feel like a memory, the way you experience the music in your head when you’re remembering seeing the show with a loved one. The other element we knew we had to highlight was Rafiki’s call at the top of the show. It’s such a powerful moment when you hear and see it in person – it’s the one thing you remember from the show, if nothing else. Our editor, Tyrone Rhabb, and the composers at Barking Owl really took that direction and ran with it.
LBB> The musical is also well known for its captivating wardrobe and set design – how did you select which shots to include from the musical itself?
Jams x Bash> We wanted to find the best way to communicate the grandeur and artistry of the production in a way that read cinematically. One of the hardest things with shooting Broadway is translating the two mediums. Theatre is so in-the-moment. The energy exchange between the performer and the audience is very much a real thing. You don’t have that same energy exchange in a commercial, so for us, it was about picking the right moments that could communicate those feelings.
LBB> Both the musical shots and the scenes of Maya and Frankie getting ready/travelling to the show are packed with vibrant colours, warmth, and light – how did you pack so much life and vibrancy into the film?
Jams x Bash> The show itself has so much colour, life and texture. It was one of our driving creative principles to weave that throughout our story. It was a lot of fun creating colour stories for our characters that were inspired by characters in the show. Another reason we loved shooting on the Alexa 65 so much is that it’s really able to capture that broad spectrum of colour and texture, and have these elements work together in a harmonious way. In the end, our colourist, Mikey Rossiter, did a wonderful job unifying all these elements into a look that not only differentiates 1997 and 2022, but tells one cohesive story from beginning to end.
LBB> What were some of your favourite moments from directing the cast and the production process generally? Any fun stories or lessons learned that you can share with us?
Jams x Bash> This was just a really fun shoot overall. Everyone came to work each day with the spirit of love and creativity. Almost everyone on the crew had a fond memory of the show, so we all brought our A-game to honour that. On top of that, it’s always a wild and insane experience shooting in New York City. It was important to us and the client that we actually shoot this story in New York. Actually being in the streets, at the theatre, and in the subway brings a lot of challenges, but also brings an authenticity and these happy coincidences that create a special kind of film magic that you can only get in New York.
LBB> What was the biggest challenge you faced on this project and how did you overcome it?
Jams x Bash> The biggest obstacle on any project is always time. We’re always fighting the clock – whether it’s only having a limited time to shoot a sequence with the MTA, or finishing a scene before the sun comes up. There are those times when inspiration sparks and you want to capture that lightning in a bottle, but there isn’t always time. For us, it was about continually going back to that initial inspiration of the show and making sure our decisions and choices were constantly pointing towards that and the legacy.