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Plant Love in The Lion King

by Arielle Ness-Cohn

Euphorbia bussei, one of Arielle's favorite plants in The Lion King (photo by Andrew Dreelin)

Many Plant Love Stories take place outdoors, but some of them happen at the movies!

We are very excited to share behind-the-scenes plant love from Arielle Ness-Cohn, Assistant Art Director of the new Lion King movie. Arielle worked to create the plant communities used in the film, and based on real Kenyan ecosystems.

We asked Arielle some questions about plants - real and virtual - and we’re sharing her answers here!

PLS: What was your experience with plants before The Lion King? Do you have any early life Plant Love Stories?

ANC: My experience with plants before The Lion King was probably as close to anyone’s who grew up loving nature and loving the outdoors. So not much other than appreciating the green world around me. I’d taken a number of biology classes so I had a good basis for understanding a bit about plant life cycles, biospheres, climates, etc. but nothing major.

Really, it was needing to focus on the incredibly specific details in every plant, tree, and grass in the movie - since we had to build them from scratch - that opened my eyes to seeing plants in a whole new way.

I’d had a bit of experience in species identification and had a start understanding key components of some species while working closely with the Art Director and Greens department on another movie, Kong Skull Island, where we had to create a field of tall grass to match a field that had already been shot in Australia, and an algae-covered swamp to match a swamp shot in Vietnam. So that was probably a good jumping off point.

PLS: Can you describe the work you did with plants on The Lion King?

ANC: It was my responsibility, guided by James Chinlund, our Production Designer, to manage the process of creating the background plants, trees, and grass species in the film on the art department side. Audrey Ferrera, the Sets Supervisor at MPC, helmed the previs and modeling team on the vfx side.

Our process started with getting reference images and photographs from James from his scout to Kenya. We dissected those images with our research team to determine which species grew where and made up which environments in The Lion King. Then we pared down the most important species that together created the different looks of each environment, and helped direct the illustrators and modelers on important features of the species, like where they grew, how they interacted with the other species nearby, how and where they should be dressed into the sets. We wanted to create as realistic plant life environments as possible in the world we were building.

PLS: People sometimes think of plants as part of the background, and not always as living things in their own right - did you feel this was the case in The Lion King?

ANC: Not at all. I think we all had to wrap our heads around thinking of plants and trees in a completely different way. They were a featured part of the story because they were no longer playing the role that most people experience in everyday life, that they’re the background, that they’ve been here all along.

We actually had to build every single plant and very purposefully place them into the sets. And in so many of the sets the trees and plants almost become the set itself: in the grasslands there’s often nothing around until a character stumbles on a bush or a tree sticking out of the landscape. In the jungle, the opposite is true, it’s the trees that create much of the look of the forest around us.

I would say though that I might have been the most significantly changed in the way I think of plants in the world, since I was the one so focused on that aspect specifically. But I definitely managed to get others to join in on the excitement (I even posted an article about noticing the trees at my desk for others to read), and the research team was 100% on my side.

PLS: What types of plant communities did you build as part of the movie?

ANC: We contained the film to 19 distinct plant communities, plus a section of dead trees and plants for when the Pridelands get destroyed later in the film. These plant communities ranged from the open grasslands, the more shaded foothills of Pride Rock, to each of the wooded and sandy areas of the riverbanks, out to the marshlands and the drier more rocky areas of the Pridelands. The jungle transitioned from the desert, to the moorlands, into the dense wet tree covered jungle zones, out to the meadows, and up top to the alpine pools. We did the best we could to honor the real zones of growth on these African mountains, and savannas.

PLS: Are all plants depicted based on real plants or if some are imaginary?

ANC: Every single plant was built off a real species. There were a few plants we had nick-names for, just for the sake of casually speaking about them, but all of our plants were listed by their scientific names. It also made it a lot easier to go back and find out more information about them, or look for additional reference material, by sticking to the genus-species nomenclature.

PLS: Were plants used to help set the “mood” of any scenes?

ANC: I’m not sure that any plants were really used to set the mood of the scenes, but there were definitely different environments and coloring chosen purposefully for different points in the film. For example the Can You Feel The Love Tonight scene is a very magical moment between the characters, so setting that in a mint-green meadow filled with soft grasses and flowers at magic hour was an important choice. And still that was based on real scouting and reference images of African plant communities.

PLS: What were some of your favorite plants in the film?

ANC: I definitely have a few favorite plants, and they are all the funky looking ones that now look normal to me but when i first started this process, felt like they were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and i could not believe they were real! In the Pridelands I’d have to say the Euphorbia bussei tree with its wiggly succulent arms. In the jungle I absolutely love the Dendrosenecio adnivalis and the Lobelia bequaertii, look them up they are the coolest looking things! Looking back through all of these plants now I’m rediscovering what love I have for each of them, there are so many more i want to name, but i’ll stick to those for now :)

Dendrosenecio adnivalis (at left with bright leaves) in Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Uganda (photo by Manuel Werner)

PLS: What was the most frustrating thing about working with plants on the movie?

ANC: The plants needed to look different and unique for the world to feel real, and we needed to get the coloring just right so that they felt a part of nature and not a man-made creation. But at the same time we only had so many resources to do that. So one of the hardest things was figuring out which species were higher priority than others in needing to have multiple models, shapes, and textures to make the world feel full and honest.

PLS: For plant lovers that saw the original Lion King, what are some similarities and differences they can expect with regards to plants?

ANC: It is so funny going back and looking at how the cartoon plants were drawn in the original film. There are definitely a good amount of plants in the original but we have way more in this version, and they are incredibly accurate. Looking back at the original film there are two story Acacia trees! At least they were incredibly creative!

PLS: What was the most surprising thing you learned about plants working on the movie?

ANC: I learned that plants are just like people in a way. That as human beings we all belong to the same species - and we all look different - so it absolutely makes sense that plants that are the same species will have tons of different features from the next plant over! Of course not every tree in the forest looks and grows exactly the same, but it takes studying the differences to really start to understand what that means and to really let it sink in.

Arielle Ness-Cohn (left) and PLS's Becky Barak (full disclosure - we're cousins!)

Arielle Ness-Cohn is an LA based Production Designer and Art Director. She studied Theatre and Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and earned her MFA in Production Design at the American Film Institute. Arielle has since designed for film, television, and commercial productions, notably the HBO docuseries McMILLIONS (2020) and the feature film THE BLOODHOUND by Love & Death Productions (2018). Arielle has also Art Directed and Assistant Art Directed on film and commercial productions including Disney's THE LION KING (2019), which was the first feature film ever shot entirely in virtual reality. Arielle is a designer striving to use the natural and man-made beauty of our world to share the personal, societal, and cultural stories of its people.

Photo Credits:

Euphorbia bussei by Andrew Dreelin from iNaturalist

Dendrosenecio adnivalis, and other plants by Manuel Werner from Wikimedia


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