What if humans didn’t exist and never existed? What if, instead, a world of animals took their place? That world might look like Zootopia. The upcoming animated film from Disney imagines a place that, in theory, isn’t like anything we’ve seen before. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, producer Clark Spencer, writer and co-director Jared Bush, writer Phil Johnson, production designer Dave Goetz, and head of animation Renato dos Anjos took the stage at D23 Expo to introduce the world of Zootopia. They discussed the research and the building blocks that went into creating the world and did so with a fantastic sense of humor. In case you need a refresher, watch the teaser:
“I loved the legacy of our great animal movies at Disney.”
Howard said that he’d finished a project, and when it was time to pitch ideas for the next film to John Lasseter, he focused on animals. He said, “I loved the legacy of our great animal movies at Disney.” He said one of his favorite films growing up was Robin Hood. Howard teased that Lasseter was so enthusiastic about doing an animal movie that he lifted Howard up a la baby Simba in The Lion King.
Once the project had the greenlight, the Zootopia team went to Animal Kingdom in Florida for research. That was helpful, but it wasn’t the same as seeing animals in their natural environment. So, the team went to Kenya. Bush said, “Once you get closer to these animals, you get a whole different perspective on how they move, how they smell…” He continued, “It was truly a life changing event to go over there. We realized we hadn’t gone far enough.” They wanted to go deeper into the world of animals and to make them feel special–to the point where they researched all kinds of animal fur and looked at individual strands to get it right. No, really. Because of this process, they learned a single strand of polar bear fur is clear. Howard said Zootopia has the Disney style but also “has a lot of what makes animals special in the real world.”
That means they looked at what makes different species of mammals unique (Zootopia is populated with only mammals): their fur, the way they move, their intelligence, the way they chew–everything. Dos Anjos said the trip to Kenya “totally changed our perception on the way these characters needed to move.” They revisited most of the animation they’d done before their excursion. They looked for ways to keep hallmarks of the movements even though the animals in Zootopia walk upright. For example, observing how elephants use their trunks in the world for a multitude of tasks changed sequences in the film.
Another important consideration was figuring out how animals of all different sizes live and work together. Goetz said they wanted the world to have an animal point of view. They discussed questions like, “How does an elephant cross the street with a mouse safely?” They looked at how to make hotel rooms accessible for various animals, they created trains to fit the range of animals, and they worked with auto designer J Mays to create vehicles for them. Goetz explained they decided the animals might prefer to lean on their ancestral habitats for their homes so polar bears live in a place called Tundra Town. Mice live in a place called Little Rodentia, while bunnies come from The Burrows–a place with a constantly increasing population. Goetz compared the habitats to ethnic neighborhoods.
With all these animals coming together in one giant melting pot, you can imagine that they probably face some challenges. Howard said, “Just like our world, the place is not perfect.” He continued, “Our movie revolves around bias.” The animals are quick to stereotype and put each other in boxes, and the lead character–Judy Hopps–is fighting against that.
Are you interested in seeing Zootopia when it hits theaters on March 4, 2016? Let me know in the comments!