How thrilling to visit Disney Animation for a Zootopia exclusive interview with Byron Howard, Clark Spencer and Rich Moore as a part of #StarWarsEvent. Post sponsored by Disney. All animal loving opinions are my own.
Why Zootopia Is Unlike Any Other Disney Animal Movie | Exclusive Interview
Bambi. Jungle Book. Dumbo. Robin Hood. Lion King. Finding Nemo. You might be saying “Yeah, yeah. Another Disney animal movie. So what?”
It’s true that Disney is no stranger to the animal world. In fact, I would say that a hefty portion of Disney’s success rides on those famous Disney animal characters. But when Director Rich Moore, Director Byron Howard and Producer Clark Spencer were given the task to “create an animal movie like no one has ever seen before,” they knew they had to think outside of the box. Waaaaay outside.
See how research, technology and little creativity have breathed life into Disney’s newest animated animal film, Zootopia. “Hop” inside this exclusive interview with the creators and the stunning results of the 1st Disney Animal Movie of it’s kind. How different is this film? I’ve got 6 huge differences.
Sitting with these three men, I was overtaken by their resumes. Tangled. Bolt. Wreck-It-Ralph. Lilo & Stitch. And now, these 3 Disney Animation legends come together for the ultimate task, the creation of Zootopia. Many hours, 190,000 thrown away storyboards, and meetings with John Lasseter have blended together for this 2016 Spring film.
In the Beginning…There Was Research
15 months of research to be exact. You would have no idea that Zootopia brainstorm began as soon as Tangled ended. This interview started out with a slideshow presentation. And if you’ve never sat at a Disney slideshow presentation, it basically puts all other PowerPoints to shame. Weaving in fascinating scenes from the movie, clever GIFs and perfectly placed jokes, the room was filled with awe and laughter as we got to see never before seen and raw footage of Disney’s Zootopia, the newest Disney animated film scheduled to open this Spring. So how did these guys get from nothing to a creative genius level of filming? Research. Lots of research.
And after finishing “Tangled,” Byron was thinking about what kind of story he wanted to tell next. He kept coming back to these great animal films, and he kept drawing animals over and over again. And we finally came up with this idea of an animal city called “Zootopia.” John loved the idea so much, he literally got fired up and he [John Lasseter] hugged him because John is also a huge fan of talking animal films. John was just very excited that we’d be going back into this realm. And he charged everyone on the team with creating an animal movie that no one has ever seen before.
With Zootopia, the Director spent 15 months studying animals. Our research took us incredible places starting with our own Animal Kingdom down at Walt Disney World where they have a huge array of Animals and some of the best animal experts in the world. We were able to get right up to the animals and observe their behavior up close. [The] Animal Kingdom and their experts, they really taught us so very much about these animals.
But once we’d seen the animals in a man made facility, we wanted to see them in the wild as well. So we went to Africa. We went to Kenya to study animals on a Savannah, get a sense of their movement and their natural environment. As we got closer to the animals, the animals got closer to us.
Why all of the research? Because every creative spark comes from facts. New technology, new methods and ultimately a new Disney animal film was all inspired by research. Which leads us to Zootopia and the 1st animal film of it’s kind. There’s 6 reasons why Zootopia promises to be unalike any other Disney animal movie. And to think it all stems from research….
Animal Fur Obsession
Could you imagine Disney animators studying animal fur with a magnifying glass? Yuck! But these diligent creators took many days obsessing over animals and their fur. It wasn’t enough to create an animated animal. It was the creation of an animal at the very “root” of its being (like the clever pun insertion?).
We were inspired by these trips to make our characters feel like the animals they are, and capture what makes them so amazing. We wanted everything from the big city of Zootopia to the individual strands of fur on each animal character to feel believable. So that led us back to research again, literally researching fur at a microscopic level. For example, an individual strand of fox’s fur is dark at the root and it gets lighter as it goes to the tip, and that’s what gives it its overall red coloring. And here’s a fascinating one. Polar Bears’ fur is not actually white. The individual strands of fur are clear. It’s actually clear and hollow.
So our Look team created millions of strands of clear hair to create our Polar Bear. It’s actually the light reflecting off those clear strands that makes the Polar Bear have a yellowish white coloring.
We also had to tackle the natural dreadlocks of the yak and the filthy wool of your average sheep and mousey softness of the Arctic Shrew. Animals in Zootopia have completely different fur groomed based on their actual individual strands of fur. So that detail the Look Teams are putting into fur, skin, and textures is absolutely astounding.
What was the hardest animal fur to develop? Rich Moore spills their dirty little secret.
Well one of the things was the sheep. [They were] one of the first ones because the sheep play a big part in the movie. Early on, they did this standard looking CG sheep fur which kind of looks like a carpet. It kind of looked like a sheep but that was one of the first characters that we did where we were like OK, it’s not good enough. We need to go and actually look at the real animals. So we sent our groomers to a petting zoo where they photographed sheep up close. They’re really filthy. If you look at sheep, they’re very dirty animals. It’s yucky. It’s got twigs mixed in. And when they came back in a couple of weeks and what they had, what winded up in the movie, was this beautifully filthy fur that came out, and it looked exactly like sheep.
New “Keep Alive” Animation
While animals are certainly living things, it wasn’t enough to create live animals for this film. The creativity dug deeper into making the whole Zootopia feel alive 100% of the time. That led to the creation of “Keep Alive.”
I also wanted to make sure that the world of Zootopia, not just the characters in it, felt alive. To help accomplish that, we created technology that we call “Keep Alive” where the world always had some level of movement. We created a wind simulation that allows us to place vegetation into an environment and have the individual leaves and branches move. By putting just a slight movement on a shadow, you’re going to feel that the world is alive. While the average viewer is not going to notice it, they will feel it.
But wind doesn’t just affect trees around these characters. It has to affect the characters themselves, especially since all of them have fur. The world is gonna feel alive. We need to see movement impact our characters as well. So we spent 9 months with our Research Dream Team creating a wind simulation system that would impact the fur on our characters. This simulation takes into account the shape of the animal and the wind strength and direction for this very realistic result.
When Zootopia comes out, be sure to check for this new “Keep Alive” technology in every single scene.
From All Fours to Upright
From 4 legs to 2 legs. The animators tackle some of the biggest challenges of preserving natural animal movements within a fictional story.
How do our Animators create the same believable animal movement once that animal goes from walking around on 4 legs to up on 2 legs? Well, here’s how you do it with a camel. When we were out in the wild observing the giraffes run, it actually looks like they’re moving in slow motion. It’s this beautiful graceful movement.
Showing us many different walking sequences they developed, it was so interesting to incorporate the research of animal movements from the real world into this fictional city. And every single one of the 50 species in this film has it’s own unique “footprint” in this world. No two animals species walk in the same way.
True to Size Animal Scaling
Scaling an animal for an animated film is no easy feat. But please note, no mice were harmed in the making of this film.
Clark Spencer: Zootopia is a world created for and designed by animals not by humans. Because this city has animals of every shape and size from jumbo to itty bitty, from the elephant all the way down to the mouse, which you can see by this very scientific chart, this scale was going to be a very important ingredient. From the beginning, we all agreed we wanted to be able to have the true size of each animal. What’s interesting is in most animal movies just go to a generic size, it’s just simple. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to use the true size of the animals.
Rich Moore: I think people don’t quite see how hard [scaling] is because think about where the camera has to get placed. You have that scene with Nick and that huge Elephant and that little teeny finnick fox and you think well, you can’t just do your normal over the shoulder with a camera because these characters are magnitudes different in terms of height. So where do you put that camera? If we just said all those Characters would be about the same height and draft a little taller than a tiger. Or they’ll be a little taller than a fox. It would have been way easier.
So how do you scale animals in Zootopia? Clark Spencer gives us a few examples.
The wildebeest is the same size as your average human. But the scale of a wildebeest to a mouse is 1:24. In other words, it’s the height of 24 mice as you see on the right side there to equal the same height as a wildebeest. And the height of a giraffe, that same mouse is 1:95. You can barely see those. They’re actually 95 mice lined up there which means we have to think about how these different animals of different sizes move and live within this world of Zootopia, that Zootopia had to be built for everyone.
A City Designed By Animals…and A Bit of Humor
No animal built city would be complete without it’s districts, because after all, they can’t be trusted to keep predator and prey together all of the time. See how each district is different from the other.
One of the coolest things about the city is how it’s designed. Zootopia has different neighborhoods that celebrate different climates and cultures. For the desert animals, there’s Sahara Square which is huge and hot and dry. It’s just this beautiful, beautiful area. And it’s this really kind of upscale area like Dubai or Monte Carlo, all kind of rolled into one. You’ve got these really high end shots, these beautiful hotels. What’s the name of the game here? Very sunny.
This is beautiful and chilly Tundra Town where the cold weather animals live like polar bears, moose, and arctic shrews. And in Tundra Town, they have coolers under the sidewalk to keep everything frozen. And they’ve got what they call a 3 o’clock blizzard every day. What’s great about this location is what we get to reuse a lot of that Snow left over from “Frozen.”
There’s the Rainforest District. And sometimes, it takes a long time to get from the top of the canopy to the 4th floor so sometimes we just put the blimp like that right there. How do you get a desert and tundra in the city next to each other? We actually turned to research and we asked the experts. We talked to an Air Conditioning experts and [they] said “Listen, if you had enough money and enough determination and these animals, you could build an enormous air conditioning and heating wall which you see dividing Tundra Town at the top. On one side was hot air and on the other side was cold air. The run off from Tundra Town actually feeds the steam canyon that keeps the Rainforest nice and humid.
There’s a little itty bitty neighborhood called Little Rodentia which is like Greenwich Village but only about 2 feet tall and this is where all the little mice live. There’s Bunny Borough which has millions and millions and millions of super cute bunnies. And do what bunnies do is they make more bunnies. We all know what’s going on inside those patches. They’re all families here.
Not Your Average Disney Themes
Using the animals in the film, the creators touch on how each animal fits their usual stereotype, leading to bias and distrust. It’s the job of the characters to show these themes and to also break through barriers to prove how one should never be defined by the world.
Clark Spencer: Zootopia seems like a Utopia but like our own world, the city isn’t perfect. Under this beautiful exterior, Zootopia has its own problems. The animals are quick to put each other in a box, stereotype one another.
I would say big one for me that I really take from is the theme that we define ourselves. The world may have an opinion of us but it is up to you to define who you are. The world does not define you, you do. That’s the theme that I went away with. Both of the lead characters Nick and Judy lived their whole lives with people and animals telling them who they should be and struggling against those limits. It’s all threaded throughout the whole film. As great as the city is, it has a lot of barriers that Judy runs into because of her size, because of where she comes from, because of what people believe she knows or believe she’s capable of. To see her overcome that is really the journey of the movie.
Rich Moore: With this idea of “don’t let the world define you,” it can be interpreted in so many ways. I think that’s been the amazing thing for us to watch with the audiences, is that people talk about is it about stereotype or bias? Is it about letting yourself be defined? Is it about being determined? Judy’s a very determined character. Is it about a woman trying to show that she can do something? Is about somebody who’s small and saying I can do something even though you see me as a small character, I can be big too?All these things come from your own personal point of view as to what you yourself may have experience and I think that is kind of a surprise for us to see how people are interpreting all this one idea in different ways depending upon what their own experience is.
Zootopia wasn’t all of the fun for my latest Disney press trip! Check out the exclusive #ABCTVEvent and #StarWarsEvent interviews and coverage too!
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens Movie Review | Safe for Kids? (no spoilers)
- Exclusive Harrison Ford Interview
- Exclusive J.J. Abrams Interview
- Exclusive Daisy Ridley Interview
- Exclusive John Boyega Interview
- Exclusive Luptia Nyong’o and Oscar Issac Interview
- Exclusive Kathleen Kennedy Interview
- Photo Tour of the Star Wars Global Press Event
- Galavant Interview
- The Bachelor Host Chris Harrison Interview
From walls 5,000 mice high to galloping giraffes to impressive city landscapes, Disney Animation takes Zootopia to a whole other level. Be sure to save the date of March 4, 2016 for Disney Animation’s newest animal movie, Zootopia in theaters.