For over 100 years, Leo the Lion has introduced Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films with a triumphant roar as the studio’s mascot. But this week MGM revealed the first update to its branding since 2012, with a highly polished metallic gold finish, and for the first time, footage of a live lion replaced with a digital double.
The advent of photo-realistic computer graphics, ushered in by blockbusters like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park decades ago, finally gave Hollywood a solution to a problem it’s been dealing with since motion pictures became a highly profitable business. Bankable movie stars are still just human beings and eventually, they get old and stop making movies. Modern visual effects could, at least in theory, extend a movie stars’ career for decades, even after they’re dead.
As much as creating realistic human beings with a believable and emotive performance in a computer is a technical problem, putting a digital double of a deceased celebrity in a movie is a moral one. The families and estates of famous Hollywood stars don’t want Hollywood studios to have free rein over where these performers appear after they’re gone. Seeing Christopher Plummer show up in a Taco Bell ad in a few years wouldn’t exactly add to his legacy. So to date, we’ve mostly seen CG used as a way to de-age celebrities for flashback sequences, such as a younger version of Kurt Russel in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or a wrinkle-less Michael Douglas in Ant-Man and the Wasp, or as a way for actors to safely perform dangerous stunts without the need for extensive on-set riggings and safety equipment.
Few realize that the lion roaring in the current MGM logo has actually had that job since 1957, a total of 64 years, which is about 49 years longer than the average lion’s lifespan. And before the 1957 version, there were seven other different lions that played the part of Leo. Telling one lion apart from another isn’t easy for those who only see the animals in passing while wandering through a zoo, so occasionally swapping in a new lion hasn’t been a big issue for MGM. But the footage from 1957 is starting to look its age, and trying to make it look crisp and modern as we’ve transitioned from HD, to 4K, to 8K soon is becoming more and more challenging. So to future-proof Leo, he’s finally been replaced with a CG lion, created by a visual effects and animation shop called Baked Studios.
The fancy new animated logo was originally going to be introduced with the most recent James Bond flick, No Time to Die, but since its release has been pushed back several times as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic (from November 2019 to late 2021 now) Leo 9.0 will instead make his debut with Dog, a comedy from Channing Tatum being released in July, and Respect, an Aretha Franklin biopic that will be released in August.