Engine, Zombie Studio and Blinkink have created a heartbreaking animated short for the Born Free Foundation that draws attention to the practice of raising lions “for the rifle” in South Africa. More than 70% of South Africa’s lions are born into captivity, forced to pose with tourists when young and then are later sold to trophy hunters to be shot in legal hunting facilities. The aim of the 2-minute film, called The Bitter Bond, is to encourage viewers to sign a petition demanding that the South African government outlaw the practice, while also making tourists think twice before handing over cash for selfies with cubs.
The Bitter Bond tells the story of a lion and a keeper, who at first, seem the portrait of happiness. As the lion grows so does the connection between the keeper and beast, before she sells him off to the highest bidder, who shoots him for sport. The film relies on misdirection, leading the viewer to trust the keeper before revealing her true intentions. “It’s this betrayal of our nurturing instinct that we thought would be most shocking and impactful for people, creating a film that stays with you long after you’ve watched it,” Engine creative James Hodson tells It’s Nice That.
The animation mixes background footage from a hand-built set with CGI character design, and took a team of 65 people around three months to complete. “We went with 3D animation for its fluidity and the room it allowed for expressive characteristics but combined it with the beauty and richness of detail from camera-captured, and motion-controlled scenarios,” Zombie Studio’s Paulo Garcia tells us.
The scenery, from the keeper’s house to every leaf featured in the wilds of the South African landscape, was built by a team of set designers and then captured with motion control using studio lighting. All of the camera footage was then exported to 3D animation software, where the characters were created and then added to the environment. “We love how hand-crafted the set feels. It gives it a sense that this is a real place in the real world,” says Hodson.
At first Zombie Studio created a lion character that was a “confident hunter – and magnificent creature that reigns over its territory,” says Garcia. However, this isn’t quite the reality of captive-bred animals, and so Zombie switched to a softer approach. “They are raised far from their real environment to be in constant contact with tourists and trained to be docile. We chose to portray the lion in a more understated and innocent way, which emphasises just how cowardly the final act in the film is.” James Hodson adds, “He feels fuzzy, almost like a child’s toy. This acts to disarm the audience so you feel like you’re watching a really sweet story about a lion and his best friend, which makes the grim reveal even more compelling.”
As the film progresses, the colour palette moves from pastels to intense colours, “escalating the sense of loneliness and confusion until the final, ultimate betrayal,” says Engine creative Jason. “It leads us to the idea of the great betrayal: the fact that humans, who should be guardians of the wonderful animals on our planet, have betrayed that trust and shunned that responsibility.”