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Media Essays: The Wildebeest Stampede Shot-By-Shot

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Welcome readers to something new for

For this essay, I'm doing a shot-by-shot analysis of a scene from my favourite movie of all time, The Lion King. It just seems appropriate that my first time doing this kind of analysis should be on my favourite movie. Also The Lion King's 30th Anniversary is a couple of months away so why not do something related to it in preparation? I DO have an anniversary post planned for the actual day, but that's another post for a later date...

This shot-by-shot analysis will be of my favourite scene from The Lion King, and that scene is none other than the wildebeest stampede. You may remember how I gushed about this scene in last year's 10 Most Memorable Disney Scenes list, so you may already know I quite enjoy it. And no, I don't enjoy it for morbid reasons before you ask. For goodness sake, I'm not that kind of guy! =P

So without further ado, let's dive into this scene and analyse it shot-by-shot to see what made it such a damn good scene for a damn good movie...

Setting the Scene

Scene 1

The scene begins with a slow camera pan up the gorge all the way up to the top in which we're greeted to the sight of this lush green field FULL of wildebeest. Already right off the bat, the viewers are treated to a look at the sheer size and scale of the set piece we're in and also the size of the wildebeest herd. For animal lovers, this is something they can enjoy too because this is an accurate depiction of wildebeest herds. Wildebeest really do live in herds as massive as this. Also notice how the wildebeest look more realistic compared to the other characters in the movie? That sets them apart from the rest of the cast as these aren't cartoon characters, these are real animals and it shows that whatever happens with them will be more serious than with the other animals. This establishing shot is also beautiful in how it builds up anticipation. We know already Scar's setting a trap for Simba but then we see this. We just think "What's he planning and how do these wildebeest fit in?" Given just how many there are, we can already tell that things aren't going to be pretty.

Scene 2

We next see the hyenas waiting to play their part of the plan, thus cluing the viewers in that they're players in Scar's scheme as well. Scar then shows up to give them the signal to go, looking suitably devious with that grin on his face and his mane blowing in the wind. He's like some commander giving his soldiers the order to kill here, or in this case start a stampede. The hyenas are given the go-ahead and then we cut back to Simba in the gorge. The cut here works as it yet again builds anticipation for what's to come. The hyenas are given the all-go signal, but what are they going to do? At this point, our attention is hooked and we can't tear our eyes away as we watch on to see what happens next.

The Execution

Scene 3

Back in the gorge, we see Simba by himself on the rock as Scar instructed. He's none too pleased with Scar's "little roar" comment. I imagine many kids related to him here because they too have been through this sort of thing, wanting to be taken seriously but the adults mock them for it, you know what I mean? Simba then gets his chance to prove himself as a chameleon climbs down from a tree and walks past him. Simba tries to scare it with his pathetic little cub roar but the chameleon doesn't notice. It's even drawn and animated with this suitably deadpan expression on its face as if it's bored by Simba's attempt, adding some visual humour to the scene. I can practically hear it just saying "You call that a roar, mate?" XD

Scene 4

However, Simba DOES scare the chameleon in the end, giving off his biggest roar yet. As we can see, the chameleon actually was startled by it given its change in expression and how it quickly runs away. Also this plays into the usual "Rule of Three" trope as this was Simba's third attempt to startle the chameleon and it worked. To further emphasize how loud that roar was, we even have some quick cuts to two different parts of the gorge, showing the echo bouncing off the walls, so to speak.

Scene 5

Naturally, Simba grins at his successful scare attempt. In this fleeting moment, he's proud of himself. He's proven he can be scary and he hasn't got a "little roar" after all. But as I said, it's a fleeting moment as...

Scene 6 a literal couple of seconds, his expression changes from happiness to anxiety as he suddenly feels something's not right. He can sense something's wrong, but has no idea what at first. All the while, he as well as the audience can hear a low rumbling noise and the music suddenly becomes tense as the mood begins to shift dramatically. Simba then looks to see rocks bouncing on the floor, another sign of impending doom approaching. He looks up...

Scene 7

...and there's the danger. We cut to an upward shot of the gorge and entering the scene from stage left is the wildebeest herd. Hundreds and HUNDREDS of them just charging down the gorge in a mad stampede to get away from their attackers. The sheer size of the gorge lets the viewer see just what a sheer drop they have as they run down the hillside. It sells the desperation of these animals that they're willing to throw themselves down a cliff this big just to save themselves from the attacking hyenas. Also as we saw earlier, the herd is HUGE and they're all charging down the hill towards Simba. Seeing the size of the herd earlier means we the audience already know how big the danger is for Simba. Ergo, as we can see, this. is. SERIOUS!

Scene 8

We then get a dramatic zoom-in on Simba's face, almost a metaphorical example of the danger approaching him. This has to be, in my opinion, the biggest "OH CRAP!" face I've ever seen on an animated character. This single shot, plus the small gasp of horror from Simba, sells the danger perfectly. Simba's in trouble, AND HE KNOWS IT! A herd of giant wildebeest are charging towards him and can trample him easily! For someone as small as Simba, this is the worst kind of danger you could ever find yourself in.

Scene 9

We then get this shot with Simba in the foreground and the wildebeest stampede in the background. This shot establishes the sheer size and scope of the terror Simba is faced with here as he's this tiny little lion cub alone with a huge herd of giant wildebeest coming his way. It's like being caught in the middle of the ocean by yourself and a huge wave is coming. You feel so puny and insignificant by comparison and can only anticipate its arrival. Also to further add on how terrifying this moment is, there's some subtle shaky cam movements here too, making it feel as if we're there in the gorge WITH Simba as this huge herd charges its way towards us. In real life, a herd of stampeding animals is enough to make the ground shake, so those little shaky cam movements end up making the danger feel not just big, but REAL too.

Fighting For Survival

Scene 10

Faced with only a herd of thundering giants, Simba has no choice but to cut his losses and run. But as we the audience can see, it's a hopeless folly as this tiny little lion cub has no chance of outrunning an entire herd of wildebeest. All the while, the look of terror on his face is clear as crystal. He is scared for his life and is quite literally running like his life depends on it. All the while, the wildebeest gain on him, animated of course with blank expressions on their faces more akin to a real wildebeest. Being animated and depicted more realistically makes them look like real wildebeest in a real stampede here, further adding that touch of reality to the scene that makes it feel even more intense as a result. If the wildebeest had that same stylized look as the other animals did, it wouldn't have looked as intense because they would just look like cartoon characters chasing after Simba and giving them easily readable expressions would've personified them too much so they wouldn't seem quite as intimidating. They look scary here because they look more like real animals and thus it's easy to imagine you yourself are being chased by this herd. And another note of realism here is that as the herd charges, they kick up clouds of dust that gets thicker and thicker as the scene goes on. Once again, this would happen with a real wildebeest stampede so it once again makes the danger of Simba's situation feel real, as well as intense. It's that little edge of realism that shows even animated films can be as intense as live-action (and yet ironically many people feel the wildebeest stampede in the remake feels less intense despite being more realistic).

Scene 11

Eventually, the wildebeest catch up to Simba and he's forced to find some way of keeping away from those hooves. The camera follows him as he sprints towards a dead tree and climbs onto it. Already as we can see, the stampede is so big that the dust cloud is obscuring the herd ahead. With Simba clinging onto the tree like so, he looks almost like someone trying to keep out of a raging river. In this case, it's a river of horns and hooves and the tree is pretty much his only lifeline keeping him out of danger. But the old and dead appearance of the tree already tells the viewer that it won't last long, thus keeping the tension raised. We know Simba's not out of danger yet, it's FAR from over, especially as there's plenty more wildebeest still stampeding through the gorge.

Scene 12

After Simba climbs onto the tree, we get a shot of Mufasa and Scar running stage right towards the gorge and then get this absolutely lovely shot of Zazu swooping down into the gorge and flying above the herd to look for Simba. We're approximately two minutes into this scene and as Zazu surveys the scene below, we can already see how endless the herd looks here, just nothing but wildebeest as far as the eye can see, which exemplifies not only how large the herd is, but how fast they've travelled in such a short span of time, and they're not even halfway done yet! The animators and storyboard artists really depicted so brilliantly just what a massive, almost endless threat this stampeding herd really is.

Scene 13

After Zazu tells Simba to hold on for Mufasa's on his way, Mufasa and Scar enter the scene from stage right to see the scene for themselves. I love how convincing Scar's acting is here. Take this photo out of context and he ACTUALLY looks as worried as Mufasa does, even though the whole situation was HIS plan to begin with! Mufasa's expression is picture perfect here too, the proper look of pure terror that a parent has when their child is in danger.

Scene 14

And just as any parent would in this situation, Mufasa dives down into the gorge to save his son. This beautifully demonstrates Mufasa's courage and love for his child. Here he is, risking his life by diving down into a dangerous situation with one thing on his mind: save his son. His life is forfeit if it means Simba gets out alive. Also it further raises the stakes of the scene, making things even more intense for the audience. Now TWO lives are at stake instead of just one.

Scene 15

With the herd running from stage left and Mufasa running from stage right, Mufasa makes his way towards Simba and then gets knocked down by one of the wildebeest. With the benefit of hindsight, it's almost foreshadowing to how this scene will end. It also shows how dangerous a stampeding wildebeest herd can be. Up until this point, Mufasa looked like this powerful lion with very few that can stand up to him, and yet here he is being effortlessly knocked down by the wildebeest. It's our first time seeing him look so powerless and vulnerable. This is a force so big and unstoppable that even HE is no match for it! As demonstrated by that moment, the situation is as dangerous for Mufasa as it is for Simba, further making it clear that both their lives are at risk here.

Scene 16

Despite being tackled by the wildebeest, Mufasa is still standing and as one wildebeest barges through the tree, Simba is sent rocketing through the air, but Mufasa catches him in his jaws. With his son in hand (or mouth in this case), he makes a dash through the herd to try and get to safety...

Scene 17

...all the while Scar is prowling atop the cliff, watching everything unfold with that quiet, observant stare on his face as he awaits to see what happens to Mufasa and Simba. This shot is chilling for it reminds the viewers that the wildebeest isn't the only danger to Mufasa and Simba here. There's still Scar who poses a threat...

Scene 18

During the rush to safety, Mufasa collides with a wildebeest and drops Simba. Simba is now back where he started, in the middle of the stampede and having to avoid being trampled on. However, Mufasa is able to retrieve him and leaps out of the shot with Simba. After he leaves, a wildebeest then suddenly trips and skids to a halt, resulting in an extreme close-up in where we can't even make out its face, only the top of its head and its horns. This was an effective shot for it reminds the audience that this situation is as dangerous for the wildebeest as it is for the lions. They can still fall over and get hurt and with this one tripping over, it could potentially get trampled on too, so it's as much at risk of death as Simba and Mufasa are now. This shot says so much at once: whether you're the lions or the wildebeest, danger is everywhere and anyone can get hurt or killed here. NOBODY is safe.

Scene 19

Mufasa is finally able to get Simba to safety, leaping up to a nearby ledge so he's out of harm's way. But before the audience can breath a sigh of relief, Mufasa is carried away by the wildebeest. The danger is over for Simba in the sense that his life is no longer at risk, but now there's a fresh danger present for him: the danger of losing his father. We get a fantastic face shot of Simba as he cries for his dad and then for a few tense seconds, we're given extreme close-ups of him looking through the herd in search of his father while going back and forth to the stampeding herd. Even the music builds up and up here, sounding appropriately tense and fast-paced as we anticipate Mufasa's outcome. The audience is in Simba's paws here: is he dead? Will be make it out alive? This once again feels like foreshadowing for how the scene will conclude. Twice now Mufasa's been knocked down by the herd...

Scene 20

...but like last time, he gets back up again and he leaps onto the cliff face. Once again, we're able to breathe a momentary sigh of relief as Mufasa is now out of the wildebeest herd. But he's not entirely safe yet. He still has to climb up the cliff, and unfortunately...

Scene 21

...Scar is waiting for him at the top. This shot alone is enough for the audience to clench their seats in worry. We know something bad is about to happen just by surveying the situation here. It's also no doubt a cathartic moment for Scar when you think about it. For once, he's the one looking down on Mufasa and looking proud and mighty while his big brother looks scared and helpless. It's the perfect moment for him. His brother is right where he wants him and he wastes no time at all.

Scene 22

He sinks his claws into Mufasa's paws, earning a roar of pain from his brother. Then we get this incredible shot of the two in frame together, one above and one below, as Mufasa can only look up in shock and horror as Scar smiles deviously at him. Then he delivers the most chilling last words he'll ever hear in his life...

"Long live the king!"

(shudders) Jeremy Irons' delivery gives me the shivers every time! He could not have delivered that more perfectly. Also the line feels more impactful than it should do, because throughout this scene Scar hasn't actually said a word since he arrived at the gorge. Aside from warning Mufasa about the stampede, Scar has been silent the whole time this has been going on. He's been there just quiet and watchful as his plan unfolds and even when knocking Zazu out, he didn't say a word, and thus the first time he speaks again, it REALLY counted. If he'd had any other lines of dialogue before then, it wouldn't have felt as big, so the writers made a good call by not having him speak for so long before finally doing it again. Oh and I LOVE how his smile suddenly fades away as he speaks, giving his brother one last look of seething hatred, further spelling doom to him.

Scene 23

Oh and then Mufasa gives us the second biggest "OH CRAP!" face ever animated. Runs in the family, I guess. XD Jokes aside, I can't BEGIN to imagine what was going through his head at this moment. The look of pure terror on his face just hits you like a truck here! Just what the hell was he thinking seconds before death here..?

Scene 24

With Mufasa right where he wants him, Scar makes the kill. He throws him off the cliff and we're treated to this underneath shot as Mufasa plummets down to earth. As his body fills the screen, we transition to an overhead shot as Mufasa plummets, bellowing a scream of terror as death fast approaches him.

Scene 25

Before impact, we cut to an extreme close-up of Simba's eye as the camera zooms out, almost as if it's visually showing Simba's loud cry of "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" coming out of him. Speaking of, Jonathan Taylor Thomas deserves so much credit for that "NO!", it was so spot-on. After the zoom out, Simba is in full view onscreen but far away at the top of the mountain, showing the audience just how far away he is from his father falling to his death. Here he is, alone at the top and safe out of harm's way, but Mufasa isn't. Just the perfect shot to bookend everything here.

The Aftermath

Scene 26

Technically, this is the end of the wildebeest stampede itself, but I feel I should still cover the aftermath before we finish off. After Mufasa falls to his death, we and Simba finally get to see the end of the wildebeest herd. Simba jumps down back into the gorge just as we see the end of the herd disappearing stage right. What follows is a static shot of the stampede's aftermath while Simba wanders alone in search of his father. The herd is gone and everything is silent, yet we still feel the aftermath here. We see the remains of what's happened and the dust cloud hasn't even begun to settle yet. It's still lingering in the air. Simba starts off in this scene obscured by the dust cloud, calling out to his father and he comes clearer into view as he gets closer to the camera. Suddenly, he hears a sound offscreen and looks to his left, thinking it's his dad. It raises his and the viewer's hopes up to see that he's alright...

Scene 27

...but it was a fake-out. It was just a wildebeest that got left behind and is running off to try and catch up with its herd. I strongly suspect that was the same wildebeest that tripped over earlier and I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that. Anyway, the wildebeest runs past and we see a broken tree with something lying beneath it. At first, we can't really see it due to the dust cloud obscuring everything. But as the dust clears, it's unmistakable what we're looking at...

Scene 28

...lying dead at the broken tree is Mufasa. We once again hit the Rule of Three in story-telling for Mufasa got knocked down two times by the wildebeest already, and the third time was not so lucky for him. Here he lies, dead on the ground with his corpse framed in the shot to show the audience that he isn't getting up again. Simba does try to wake him up but it's a futile effort. Even he can see that Mufasa is gone. After a few feeble cries for help, he finally breaks down. Simba is utterly DESTROYED here. His father is gone and there's nothing he can do about it, all beautifully (and heartbreakingly) displayed by Jonathan's voice acting and the animation on Simba that shows him crying in despair.

Scene 29

In the end, all he can do is cuddle up to his father's body and let out his grief, lying under his paw as if his father's gone to bed with him and is cuddling up with him again. And audiences everywhere were crying as much as Simba was. This one shot here sums it up so perfectly: a tense situation that ended in tragedy and this is the end for Simba's innocence and carefree nature. This was where everything changed for him for the remainder of the film, and it couldn't have been executed in a more heartbreaking and crushing manner than this.

I...I need a minute guys. :'(

(pauses to collect himself)

OK, I'm better now.

What I find so funny about this scene is this behind-the-scenes fact about it. You see, Jeffery Katzenberg actually worked at Disney for a time from the 80's to the mid-90's before he left and founded DreamWorks Animation. When he was working on this movie, he ACTUALLY told the animators to make the scene EVEN SADDER! Apparently, the original version was several seconds shorter than what we got and after a test screening, Jeffrey pointed out he wasn't crying, hence they reworked it to make it what it is today. So I have to wonder, how did it look originally? What was it about the original version that made Jeffery tell the crew "make it sadder"? Well whatever he did, it clearly worked because this scene still emotionally destroys viewers even to this day and it's among the saddest Disney moments of all time! So...I guess we can thank Jeffery Katzenberg for making us cry like babies at this scene? Weird praise, I know, but it just goes to show that not everything he did during his time at Disney was bad. He did occasionally have good ideas or make good decisions, and making Mufasa's death as sad as it was, was one of them.


And on that "happy" note, we come to the end of this essay. The Wildebeest Stampede is unquestionably an impressive feat of animation, storyboarding, staging, directing and execution. Just about every second counts here and the execution is pitch perfect. The build-up is flawless, it hits all the right notes in being intense, exciting, scary and heart-breaking and the voice actors are on top form throughout here. I literally could not think of any way this scene could've been done better. There's nothing to improve on here, it's a perfect scene the way it is! If I had to name my favourite shots throughout the scene, I'd probably say:

1: The shot of the wildebeest charging down the mountain

2: The dramatic zoom in to Simba's shocked face

3: Zazu swooping down into the gorge

4: The back and forth between Simba looking for Mufasa and the wildebeest herd

5: Scar and Mufasa face-to-face before Mufasa's death

And finally the dramatic zoom out of Simba as he yells "NO!"

This is the kind of movie making magic I WISH I was capable of. As a writer and story-teller myself, I can only dream of writing scenes like this and if I ever made movies, I doubt I could do anything as perfect as this. The Wildebeest Stampede remains my favourite scene in The Lion King for so many reasons, namely the perfect execution and how memorable it is, and how it's probably the scene that solidified me as a movie-goer. Whenever I think of great scenes in movies, this is ALWAYS my first example. It is just that damn good...

And that's it for my first ever shot-by-shot analysis essay. I hope you enjoyed it and I welcome you all to share your thoughts down below. What are your favourite shots in the scene? Are there any movie scenes you'd like me to do a shot-by-shot essay on in the future? Do let me know.

Next time, I'll be doing an essay on one of Pokémon's most beloved and memorable battles throughout the anime. See you then media fans!

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Well this is a good first entry in this new possible series. You perfectly described how this scene worked and your explanation will stick by me and every time I rewatch that scene it'll make it better.

I wonder what other iconic scenes you'll delve into next

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