Disney’s upcoming animated Zootopia is a buddy cop comedy that sees the return of talking animals. But it is something unlike anything you have seen before. That’s because this film will feature anthropomorphic, bipedal animal characters in a modern world with no humans.
But directors Bryon Howard (Tangled, Bolt), co-director Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and producer Clark Spencer (Lilo and Stitch, Winnie The Pooh) didn’t just set out to make another generic talking animal film. They wanted to give Disney fans and audiences of all ages something substantial, something a person could believe in if a place like Zootopia actually existed.
So they set off to do research on almost everything from the way an animal moves all the way down to the individual strands of fur on their body. And when you combine that with a great story, and the classic Disney tradition, you get the makings of a film that is not only entertaining, but has the potential to be great.
Earlier this Fall, Geeks Of Doom was part of a group of journalists who were invited to see how a film like Zootopia comes together, the amount of research that is put into the film to design the look and feel of the characters and their surroundings, and what it takes to get the story just right. Below you will get to see what we learned about the 2016 film, the tour that we took on their temporary campus while the original animation studio underwent renovations, and much more.
In the film, bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) enlists in the titular Zootopia Police Department. As the first rabbit to ever join the force, she is constantly looked down upon by her more intimidating animal peers, which consist of rhinos, lions, water buffalos, and other large mammals. But when Judy is given her first case, she jumps at the chance to impress everyone at the department. Unfortunately, she is given only 48 hours to solve the case, and her only lead is a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Little do the two know, that the case goes far beyond what they expected, and that there is something darker and more sinister lurking in Zootopia.
Producer Clark Spencer (seen above) has been with the animation studio for the past 20 years, and has been through all the ups and downs, but he believes that right now the studio is going through a renaissance. He feels incredibly lucky to be a part of this team at such a time.
Director Bryon Howard (he’s on the right of the above image) first started working with Disney, not as a someone at the studio, but as a tour guide at Disney World. His dreams of working in animation came true when he started as a cleanup artist on Pocahontas. He then animated Lilo and Stitch. He made his feature directorial debut on the Oscar-nominated hit Bolt, and also worked on the worldwide hit Tangled.
Rich Moore (he’s on the left of the above image) started to work with Disney in 2006. He’s had a long history in television, working on some of the most memorable and notorious episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. He made his directorial debut with the studio directing the Oscar-nominated Wreck-It Ralph.
After working on Tangled, Howard was thinking about what was the next story to tell. During this process, he kept coming back to the world of talking animal films like Bambi, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, Robin Hood, and The Lion King. Spencer talked about how all those films were incredibly funny and deeply emotional. He kept drawing these animals until he came up with the idea of an all-animal city called Zootopia. “He pitched it to John Lasseter, and John literally picked him up and hugged him,” said Spencer. According to him, Lasseter was excited to revisit the world of talking animals, but he wanted to be sure that this would be something we have never seen before, which had been the mantra for this film as they have been making it.
Zootopia is a modern civilized world that is entirely animal. Animals in Zootopia are bipedal, meaning they have the ability to walk on two feet, and are anthropomorphic, meaning they have human characteristics. These animals can also speak to each other, and use technology.
There are all sorts of animals in Zootopia, and just like any world it is not perfect, and not everyone gets a long, especially natural enemies. But nature gives these animals special skills, so while one may have amazing night vision, the other has incredible hearing.
“As we did our months and months of research, the part to us that became clear is that the predator and prey divide is the widest, and the clearest,” said Howard.
“When we left Africa, our lives had truly changed. We were inspired by this trip to make our characters feel like the animals that they are, and capture what makes them so amazing in the natural world,” said Spencer. “We wanted everything from the big city of Zootopia to the individual strands furs on each individual animal character to feel believable. So we returned to research.” The producer revealed that they had researched fur on a microscopic level.
Some may not notice this at first, but Zootopia and Disney’s The Good Dinosaur reimagine the idea of evolution. For Zootopia, the directors purposefully avoided apes, and other chimps as they greatly resemble humans. But they did confirm that the world of Zootopia would be an all-mammal one.
“I think John had talked about making a movie they has never been seen before,” said Spencer. “People have done animals in the animal world, in the natural world: Lion King, Ice Age; animals in the human world: Jungle Book, Madagascar; but we really haven’t done animals in the modern world, and one where humans never existed. That was the twist that got John excited about what this world could actually be, and feel like something people have not seen before.”
Zootopia is full of different districts and neighborhoods, with intricate methods of public transportation, heating, and cooling, and much more. So designing this world would take a lot of research, especially if the goal was the make it as believable as possible. According to Howard, Lasseter puts an emphasis on research. Part of the research took them to take tours of major metropolitan cities like Las Vegas, San Fransisco, and New York. According to Howard, the purpose of this was to figure out what felt different about “how Chinatown boarders Little Italy, how the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn interact.” They also looked at European cities like Paris. One of the designers, who happens to be German, put a lot of his influence into the design of the city. For example, the train stations of Zootopia would have different aspects to them, like antlers on top of the train schedule board. “We wanted to make sure that this felt like an international city. It shouldn’t feel like an American city, it should feel like a world city,” said Howard. “We took influences from Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s European influences. There’s South American influences. We studied Brasília, which is a very modern city in Brazil, which was founded in the 1960s that we felt had to be the ultimate in modern living.”
The decision that the film would center around the fox and the rabbit came from Howard, whose obsession with drawing rabbits and him wanting to be a fox when he was a kid helped. “We didn’t want to be arbitrary with it. I knew I liked rabbits, I knew I liked foxes. But as we looked at it, ‘okay, it can be a bunny and a tiger, it could be that’ or ‘it could be a bear and a fox,’ and what is the best combination? One of the things that we did figure out is that in this world where animals have all different skills, it felt good to have two animals who are relatively small, and who feel like underdogs. Even Nick, who is a predator, is a small critter,” said Howard. While Judy and Nick are different sizes, it should feel like they are equals. Both are very smart characters.
Regarding social classes that we may see in a city like Zootopia, Moore said, “We wanted to present the city as a real city that we have all experienced like LA, or New York, or Paris, or London, or Shanghai, where it just felt like a melting pot of lots of different species of animals where everyone kind of lived in harmony. We wanted it to be that we fall in love with. It’s not a perfect city. It has great points, and it has some of its bad points, like any place on Earth that we have ever been.”
According to the co-director, there was an early iteration of the story where it was a broken city, where it was a utopia on the surface, but a dystopia underneath. But Moore explained that that didn’t feel right for the story. “We always think of our worlds as another character,” said Moore. “We want to make it a place we would love to visit, something that revokes feelings real place even though it is fantastical in its design.” The idea was to create the city where Judy learns that if you have a big dream that is absolutely 100% what you want, sometimes the world has other opinions on it. “Just because she feels like she is going to be the greatest cop in Zootopia, maybe there are those who believe that a rabbit doesn’t have what it takes to be a cop.” So there won’t be a struggle of social classes per se, but more something along the lines of dreaming big and the obstacles one has to overcome to achieve them.
Something that they learned during this experience while shaping the story was that you get more from the audience experience “if they are in Judy’s shoes.” So, for example, when we first meet Judy as a kid, she lives about 200 miles away from Zootopia, so when she gets accepted into the Zootopia Police Force and sees the big city for the first time, you are seeing it with her. This plays off the idea of the starry-eyed country girl with big dreams in the big city, but learns that things aren’t always as they seem, and are a lot more complicated than originally expected. “It’s a great maturity story,” added Howard. “That’s the one thing we keep coming back to in these films over and over again. The more we can put you as an audience member into the eyes of our main character, and keep you with them throughout the film, then it brings you into that experience. It’s a great way to tell the story.”
In landing the roles of Nick and Judy, Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin seemed to be a part of a very short list. According to Howard, they would start off with archetypes and see what kind of actor would fit the role. In the case of Nick, they asked themselves “Who could be charming, who could be smart and not be totally off-putting, and a total a-hole?” Howard said that not very many people could do that now, and that back in the day a role like this would probably go to Bill Murray or Chevy Chase. “As we combed through the hundreds of potential names, Jason’s name kept rising to the top,” said Howard. “We were like ‘Well, we hope he’ll say yes,’ and we went after him. Because he has never done animation before.” Moore added that the actor jumped at the chance to do it.
Both Bateman and Goodwin have been with the project for almost two years, and have seen the project evolve and be experimented with from a Nick-centric film to what it is now. They have been through the entire process. To get the right tone for the film, there are screenings internally for themselves, with the story trust, with their colleagues at Pixar, and that process can be tough on any voice cast as they try to adapt to those changes. But Howard said that Bateman and Goodwin have managed to do well despite those changes. “Everything you want Jason Bateman to be, he is,” says Howard. “He is the most charming, smart, affable, friendly guy. He would say the most cutting things in a role, and you love him. That was the key to Nick. He’s so smart. He keeps smacking Judy down, and she smacks him down. You want that chemistry it has a good feel, because she has a sunny Capra-esque quality that she is holding on to, and you wonder if that is going to survive? Is that going to bear the test of Nick, and the city, and all the challenges she is coming up against?”
“We cast not only for the sound of a voice, but for personality, too,” Moore said. “In the things that I have directed, I like when we use some of the actor’s personality, what we kind of know about them, into the character, but then surprise the audience with something a little bit different that we haven’t seen them portray in a live-action film.”
Howard spoke about how hard they tried to get the actors to record their voices together. Though Goodwin shoots Once Upon A Time in Vancouver, while Bateman is busy doing movies, they were still able to get them together, which is a rarity in the business. Moore reminds us that he did something similiar when John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman recorded their roles together for Wreck-It Ralph.
The director talked about Sharika’s role as the celebrity Gazelle in the film, which went beyond just singing a song. He explains that her character is the epitome of what the city is all about, that sort of idealized acceptance. “She is very socially minded, just like Shakria is. That is one of Shakira’s influences on the character. Howard said that she was originally written as just another famous celebrity, and that they would do some very funny diva jokes with her. But then they learned that she spoke six languages, and is very intelligent, and very sharp, and very socially minded, they changed it so that they would represent all of Shakira’s qualities in the movie. Which is great for the character of Judy, because that is an aspirational target for her. Another reason why the change was made is that it makes for some great comedy as Judy meets a very chubby cheetah, named Benjamin Clawhauser, a front desk police dispatcher who also happens to be the number one Gazelle fan.
Finding the right districts and neighborhoods for Zootopia wasn’t easy, as Howard would describe. “This is the problem with the movie. It’s that the world is so huge, it is very tough to squeeze everything we wanted to into a 90-minute film,” said Howard. “There are areas that we talked about, that we loved, that we couldn’t get into.” Moore then joked, “they exist on the map.” Some of the areas that got cut are the Meadowlands, which was full of sheep, and Outback Island, which was Zootopia’s take on Australia. There was also a nocturnal district, which is underneath the city. Howard also said there were other cities with other species of animals that were full of reptiles and more. “It was one of the toughest things about creating this huge sandbox for all of us to play in was deciding where to go, because you could really branch off and do stories about any number of these characters,” said Howard.
Many films have some sort of moral and message, but finding that line between having a moral and being too preachy isn’t easy. “We never want to preach in any of our entertainment,” said Moore. “What we like to do is take an issue, and examine it, and not try to beat it over the audiences’ head. What I take away from this film is if there is a message, or a moral, or a theme to it, it’s that you define you. The world has an opinion of who you are, but you ultimately define yourself, not the world.” Moore added that that’s what they do for 90 minutes in this film.
Disney’s Zootopia comes to theaters on March 4, 2016.