The story behind the making of Zootopia / Zootropolis

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With the announcment for Oscars drawing closer by the week we thought we’d have a look at Zootopia / Zootropolis one of the animated films which is sure to feature in the best animated film section having grossed over $1billion dollars for Disney and for which the animators went to incredible lengths to get its city of animals right even going as far to call on a load of mathematicians and architects to make six distinct ecosystems populated by more than 60 animal species as believable as possible.

Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore stared five years ago  when they pitched the film to Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter.  Howard had directed Bolt, and Moore did Wreck-It Ralph, but this was something which Disney had not made in many years.

“We’d done movies with some animals in them but as far as an all-animal movie, Robin Hood was one of the last ones way, way back when,” says Howard, referencing a big influence in his career. “John got very excited about it and we said if we were going to do this it would have to be completely different from anything you’d seen before.”

“We said, ‘secret life of pets’,” says Moore with a laugh. “What do they do when the owners leave? Turns out someone was doing that. We thought, ‘A panda – he does kung-fu, how about that?’”

Lasseter eventually gave it the thumbs up and 18 months of animal research followed with members of the crew travelling to Nairobi and Kenya to study animal cohabitation. “As we started working on this predator-prey idea that was there from the very beginning about two groups that don’t see eye-to-eye, that led us very quickly to this idea that the movie could be about bias,” says Howard.

Initially the main character was going to be Nick Wilde, the fox voiced by Jason Bateman before settling on the rabbit Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, as the main protagonist. “Rather than [focusing on] Nick, a member of society who’s been oppressed his whole life, what if we told a story of bias in a more subtle way from [the perspective of] an outsider?” says Moore. “Someone who has a very bright, optimistic view of this world, who comes here with the best of intentions. Through her job as a police officer working this procedural case, she starts to chip away at the underlying discrimination that exists between predator and prey and, not only that, realises that it’s in her too; that she has this fear of the other that she thought maybe was part of her parents’ generation.Lo and behold, what seems like a story about following your dreams is really a deep maturation story of this young rabbit trying to make her way in the world. That’s when we felt this had some meat to it and the story became much more exciting, and we’re not just telling a talking animals story – we’re making a Disney film and Disney films take time to make.”

World Trust founder Dr Shakti Butler and an expert on animal bias was consulted. “In doing research into what makes bias and discrimination a problem in society, we learnt more about ourselves over a period of years,” says Howard.“In the beginning, we thought, ‘Well, people just need to get along and get past it.’ But we did more research and [Butler] worked with us throughout the development of the film and really taught us that bias is so much more subtle than you think it is.Even our main character Judy Hopps, who is this Capra-esque character who believes in the world, realises that she has these fearful parts of herself that she’s carried around since she was a kid. But the fact that she steps up and owns that in a very emotional way in the film is one of the reasons people relate to it. She is a flawed character, as we all are. We all make mistakes and see that as a bonding part of our humanity.”

The directors were careful to avoid preaching the message and early test screenings showed they were on the right track. “We put a lot of time into the depth of those characters so they could really figure out that, underneath the surface, they’re very much alike,” says Howard. “We tried to put them at a disadvantage size-wise in the world. We made them small in a world full of animals that could potentially hurt them or kill them.”

During development fine tuned the plot whilst the art director of environments Matthias Lechner and production designer David Goetz concentrated on the city and their teams built everything that appears on screen; from cars to clouds and even blades of grass and it took a year alone to turn a sketch of Nick into a digitised model that the animators could manipulate on virtual sets once production began. “And during all that we’re having hundreds of recording sessions with talent,” says Howard. “We have the score and songwriting and vocal performances from the likes of Shakira. So we’re flying all over the place. You’re developing these worlds,” says Moore, “and you get into the production phase and suddenly hundreds of animators are working on it with effects artists and layout artists, who are basically the cameramen of this virtual world.We’re there to shepherd it because they’re all way smarter than we are in their own worlds, so it’s about talking about what the vision could be and pushing to get it to where it ultimately needs to be.”

Out of necessity new technology was invented to create the film’s animal characters and 64 species of animal which meant that animation technology was due for an upgrade especially when it came to realising fur.

“Fur was a huge [challenge],” says producer Clark Spencer. “We studied the fur of the species under a microscope because it’s all completely different. We realised polar bear fur is actually clear, not white. It’s the way the light travels through it that makes it [seem] white, so that’s how we created polar bear fur. You go in and look at fox fur and it’s dark at the root and gets lighter as it gets to the tip, so when there’s wind in the film you see that Nick’s fur actually has a dark undertone to it.We had to create technology to make the fur,” continues Spencer. “Usually we use human hair as a proxy and human hair has the same property, so we had to create new shaders to create the look of these different furs, whether they were coarse, or wet or soft as on a mouse. It was a huge thing to embark upon but we wanted it to look fantastic.”

So far Zootopia along with Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets has been one of the most successful animated films this year and will vie with both of those films to win the best animated film.

 

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