A Peek Into the Creation of Disney’s ZOOTOPIA

During my time in Los Angeles last month, I had the opportunity to chat with Producer Clark Spencer and Directors Rich More and Byron Howard of the upcoming Disney film ZOOTOPIA. I also screened a few clips from the movie, which had me laughing hysterically!

A Peek Into the Creation of Disney's ZOOTOPIA

Zootopia is a city like no other that’s comprised of neighborhoods that celebrate different cultures. There’s ritzy Sahara Square for desert animals, Tundratown for the polar bears and moose, the hot and humid Rain Forest District, Little Rodentia for the the tiniest mice, and Bunnyburrows for the millions and millions of super cute bunnies. The downtown area, Savanna Central, is a melting pot where a wide array of mammals from every environment come together—a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything. But when rookie officer Judy Hopps arrives, she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde, to solve a mystery.

Below is a portion of our Q&A!

On how ZOOTOPIA came about.

CS: We came up with this idea of an animal city called “Zootopia” and John [Lasseter] loved the idea so much because John is also a huge fan of talking animal films. He charged everyone on the team with creating an animal movie that no one has ever seen before.

ZOOTOPIA – Character CG Model Lineup. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

On the research for the film.

It begins with research and 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 and Animal Kingdom and their experts, they really taught us so very much about these animals.

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. Now to find out what a real animal society is like, we needed to go there, see them all around us. When we got out of that plane, we saw huge birds and giraffes and zebras way out in the distance. As we got closer to the animals, the animals got closer to us.

When we left Africa, our lives did change. We were inspired by these trips to make our characters feel like the animals they are, and capture what makes them so amazing. And we wanted everything from the big city of Zootopia to the individual strains of fur, each animal character to feel believable. So that led us back to research again, literally researching fur at a microscopic level. For example, fox fur is dark at the root and it gets lighter as it goes to the tip, and that’s what gives it its overall coloring. And polar bears’ fur is not actually white. The individual strands of fur are clear and hollow.

ZOOTOPIA - (L-R) Animation Supervisors Kira Lehtomaki, Bobby Huth and Jennifer Hager. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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 have way more than polar bears in this movie. We also had to tackle the natural dreadlocks of the yak and the filthy wool of your average sheep and softness of the arctic shrew. Animals in Zootopia have completely different fur groomed based on their actual individual strands of fur. That detail the look teams are putting into fur, skin, and textures is absolutely astounding.

I also wanted to make sure that the world of Zootopia, not just the characters who are 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.

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? When we were out in the wild observing the giraffes run, it actually looks like they’re moving in slow motion. It’s a beautiful graceful movement. We had seen how elephants utilized their trunks as an arm and we thought to ourselves, well how would an elephant serve you Ice Cream in the world of Zootopia?

ZOOTOPIA – Character Concept Art of Judy Hopps by Cory Loftis (Character Design Supervisor). ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

One of the most important and unique things about Zootopia is the amazing city, which all of these animals live. 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.

What’s interesting is in most animal movies that go to a generic size, it’s just simple. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to use the true size of the animals.

BH: We found every size of mammal and we had to accommodate the largest and smallest animals. Hotel Beds for example, they have to be able to sleep comfortably, a Rhino or a Fox. Newspaper stands have to have magazines for the elephants and the mice as well. 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. It’s this really kind of upscale area like Dubai or Monte Carlo, all kind of rolled into one. There is the beautiful and chilly Tiger Town where the cold weather animals live like polar bears, moose, and arctic shrews. In Tiger Town, they have coolers under the sidewalk to keep everything frozen and they’ve got what they call a 3:00 blizzard every day.

ZOOTOPIA – The modern mammal metropolis of Zootopia is a city like no other. Comprised of habitat neighborhoods like ritzy Sahara Square and frigid Tundratown, it’s a melting pot where animals from every environment live together—a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything. But when optimistic Officer Judy Hopps arrives, she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde, to solve the mystery. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia,” a comedy-adventure directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “The Simpsons”) and co-directed by Jared Bush (“Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero”), opens in theaters on March 4, 2016. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

What’s great about this location is what we get to reuse a lot of that snow left over from “Frozen.” Got barrels full of it. Also, there’s the Rainforest District as you can see here. 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.

RM: The best thing about having all these unique neighborhoods in this amazing sity is that you get to go on this incredible international tour all within one massive metropolis. So at first glance, this all seems great. Zootopia seems like a utopia but like our own world, the city isn’t perfect.

BH: The Animals are quick to put each other in a box. It’s a very tight window because elephants always remember. Weasels are sneaky.

On the music in ZOOTOPIA.

RM: Shakira’s song is a huge part of the Film. The score is also very, very unique. Michael G. Kino, who scored “Star Trek” and “Jurassic World.” About a year ago, we went and talked to him about doing this movie and he was the best choice for us because Michael needed to do something very, very diverse because every time you go to a new district, it needs to have a certain flavor and there’s an exotic feeling to Sahara Square and a different feeling to Tundra Town.

BH: Shakira is the one character you’ll see singing but it’s not a musical from that standpoint. The music is a huge component of establishing this world.

On the most challenging parts of the film.

BH: I think it’s story. Story is always the toughest thing for us because we all care so much. These movies are very, very time consuming and our crew, we have about 6 or 700 people who work on each of these movies and they are honestly so skilled and they give all their time. They’re not going to see their families as much. They’re gonna spend all their time at work with us and we really want to create stories that are worthy of them so we really beat ourselves up trying to get the best story possible. That’s what the story trust is about.

ZOOTOPIA – Progression Image (3 of 4): ANIMATION – Once the rough layout is approved and production dialogue has been recorded, animators develop detailed movement of the characters. Animators are in many ways actors, giving each character his or her unique personality and maintaining consistency from scene to scene. Nick's sarcastic smirk involves a number of facial controls. For this scene from "Zootopia," rookie rabbit officer Judy Hopps and con-artist fox Nick Wilde wait … and wait … and wait as the not-so-speedy sloth Flash, an employee at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles), assists them. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and produced by Clark Spencer, "Zootopia" opens March 4, 2016. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ZOOTOPIA opens in theatres everywhere on March 4th!


Disclosure: Disney sponsored my travel, accommodations and activities during my stay in Los Angeles.