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Building ZOOTOPIA – An Early Look at Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 55th Feature Film

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Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet with the filmmakers behind Walt Disney Animation Studios’ back-to-back Academy Award winners, FROZEN and BIG HERO 6. Last month, on a visit to the Walt Disney Studios lot, I settled into a screening room to take an early look behind the curtain at what’s next – ZOOTOPIA, the 55th animated feature from the studio, carrying on a legacy that began with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS back in 1937. As the studios move forward, the creative forces behind each film remain mindful of where their lineage lies, and with that in mind, Directors Byron Howard (BOLT, TANGLED) and Rich Moore (WRECK-IT RALPH), along with Producer Clark Spencer (WINNIE THE POOH), rolled a short look back at some memorable moments from the past history of Disney Animation, just prior to walking us through the genesis of ZOOTOPIA.

Spencer, a 25-year vet of Disney Animation, has lived the ups-and-downs of the studio, pointing out that it was almost exactly ten years ago (January 24, 2006) that Disney purchased Pixar, and John Lasseter took the reigns to usher in a new era of classic storytelling. 

“John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull joined Disney Animation, and everything changed,” he explains. “One of the first things they did was they put filmmaking where it belongs – they put it back into the hands of the filmmakers and not into the hands of executives. John created what we call ‘The Story Trust.’ Today it’s a mix of veterans and young talent. It’s directors, it’s writers, it’s story artists, who each and every day challenge each other and push our films to a new level of excellence.”

The Four Ingredients to a Walt Disney Animation Studios story, according to Clark Spencer:

  1. One, we strive to tell timeless stories for today’s audiences.
  2. Two, we make these movies to be entertaining for people of all ages around the world.
  3. Three, our films must contain both a combination of great humor and deep emotion.
  4. Four, these Films have to live up to the standard of Walt Disney. After all, his name is on each and every one of these films.
Zooptopia Crew
From left-to-right: Rich Moore, Byron Howard, Clark Spencer

In maintaining the standards of excellence that Spencer speaks of, the Story Trust bounces ideas off one another – and together they shape the direction. “In my 25 years at the Studio, I’ve seen some good times, and I’ve seen some not-so-good times, and I can tell you right now, we’re experiencing a Renaissance at Disney Animation,” he says, walking through the exhaustive research and development period for ZOOTOPIA, prior to excitedly introducing co-directors Byron Howard (who started at Disney as a Tour Guide) and Rich Moore (who previously worked on FUTURAMA and THE SIMPSONS)

Zooptopia Animal Scale
Scale Chart: The different sizes of animals inhabiting the City of Zootopia

At it’s most basic, ZOOTOPIA was born from an idea that Howard tossed out – a new animal film rooted in much of the same styling as ROBIN HOOD, where the animals would walk on two feet and inhabit a more human-esque realm. Researching how animals might make that transition – or evolution – took the team on a 15 month journey from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, to the savannahs of Kenya, Africa. The result is a surprisingly accurate depiction with more thought given than a casual audience might expect. Spencer even details the scale, in which a wildebeest in ZOOTOPIA is the height of the average human, but the scale of a wildebeest to a mouse is 1:24. So “24 mice high” – while a giraffe would be 95 mice high. That scale made them rethink the construction of the City of Zooptopia to accommodate how different scales of animal would move and live.

Zootopia Rodent Subway
In Zootopia, the needs of every animal shape and size have been considered. 

“Zootopia had to be built, and we found every size of mammal and we had to accommodate the largest and smallest of animals,” adds Director Byron Howard. “You see an Elephant walking by there and the mice seem to be going underground.  Hotel beds for example, they have to be able to sleep comfortably, a rhino or a fox or a mouse [they pull out to different sizes]. Even newspaper stands have to have magazines for the elephants and the mice as well.”


Fellow Director Rich Moore explains that “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, and is just this beautiful, beautiful area — this really kind of upscale like Dubai or Monte Carlo, all kind of rolled into one. You’ve got these really high end shots, these beautiful hotels, you know, what’s — what’s the name of the game here? Very sunny. There’s chilly Tiger Town where the cold weather animals live like polar bears, moose, and arctic shrews. And 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. What’s great about this location is what we get to reuse a lot of that snow left over from FROZEN – we’ve got barrels full of it! Also, 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 in there.”

Zooptioan Neighborhoods
An International Tour in one City… the City of Zootopia!

While the design of the different boroughs could seem like pure artistic fun, the ZOOTOPIA team actually wanted to find out how something like this could actually work.

“The question: ‘How do you get a desert and tundra in the city next to each other?’ We turned to research and asked the experts. An air conditioning guy said that 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. 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.”

Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps
Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin

Fascinating design elements aside, it’s the social workings of ZOOTOPIA where the real heart of the story lies, a reflection of real-life. “The animals are quick to put each other in a box,” says Howard. “You know, it’s a very tight window because elephants always remember… weasels are sneaky. Judy Hopps (a bunny voiced by ONCE UPON A TIME’s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a really big deal, because in Zootopia the cops are all large animals like buffalo or hippos, or rhinos. She’s taking a huge step out of her box as a little bunny to become a cop but she’s super determined.

Life-sized maquettes

The major obstacle in Judy’s way is Nick Wilde, a red fox voiced by ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Jason Bateman. The small-time con artist plays against Judy Hopps using the natural adversarial nature of rabbits and foxes for comedic effect. She needs his help to solve a case that will help her prove herself.

“Judy and Nick have to learn to trust each other now and look past their stereotypes if they have any chance of preventing the city that we’ve come to love from being torn apart,” he continues, while Moore says that “ultimately, these two natural enemies, a bunny and a fox heal the city and make their most important discovery of all.”

And that’s ZOOTOPIA.

There’s only one human in Zootopia… me.

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 rookie Officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) 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 (voice of Jason Bateman), 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. Get tickets now via Fandango, and look for more behind-the-scenes peeks at the making of the film, right here on THE ROCK FATHER MAGAZINE in the weeks ahead.

Bonus Feature: What does ZOOTOPIA have to do with Emmett Otter?

During our preview of ZOOTOPIA, I caught that the name of a missing animal (mentioned on police radio) was “Emmett Otterton,” so I asked Byron Howard if that was a direct reference to my favorite Holiday TV Special, EMMETT OTTER’S JUGBAND CHRISTMAS? His reply: “That was a little homage – we’re huge Muppet Fans and we know Dave Goelz,  the voice of The Great Gonzo. That’s my favorite Christmas Special, too. The Porcupine that loves Mashed Potatoes… [Wendell Porcupine, voiced by Goelz].”

THE ROCK FATHER MAGAZINE has partnered with Walt Disney Animation Studios for this content series.

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