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‘Zootopia’: Disney Puts An Animated Predator and Prey Spin On Buddy Cop Genre
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Zootopia Animal Scale

In the past few months we’ve shared a behind-the-scenes look of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest film Zootopia. We, along with a group of our fellow journalists, visited the studios’ temporary Tujunga Campus where the animators and storytellers were hard at work getting ready for the film’s March 2016 release. Now we are revealing a little bit more by giving you a look at the animation side of the film.

Below we had a chance to sit down and listen to Character Design Supervisor Cory Loftis, Character Look Supervisor Michelle Robinson, Character CG Supervisor Dave Komorowski, and Simulation Supervisor Claudia Chung Sanii explain what it takes to fill up the empty city of Zootopia. There are nearly 400 animals from each continent were represented in the film.

We also spoke with the head of animation Renato dos Anjos and animation supervisors Kira Lehtomaki, Nathan Engelhardt, Jennifer Hager, and Chad Sellers about the individual characters of Zootopia, and how they had keep up with the changes as the characters and story kept evolving.

Zootopia

Early on the team got together to coordinate and talk about which animals would live in the city. They created an early line-up of animals, and placed them in that world to see what sort of issues the characters would have if they actually lived in the city. They discovered that scale was a huge issue. One of their goals was to keep to real-world scale with these animals. That meant that a mouse would be living in the same world as a giraffe, and the difference between them is that you would have to stack 97 mice to match the height of the giraffe (head to toe). If Judy Hopps and an Elephant would stand next to each other in the same scene, the elephant’s foot would occupy at least 50% of the screen space.

Since the film follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), 97% of the film centers on those two.

With Zootopia being a huge metropolis with different neighborhoods and districts, all kinds of animals had to be considered. And since Zootopia is civilized, this also meant that they had to give all of its animal citizens clothing. They didn’t want to see the same animal over and over again, so shape, color, and clothing would help differentiate all the animals.

Discussions with the writer and directors helped get the most out of the characters. The animators needed to know what the characters were going to do, and even asked them about the characters’ aspirations. That’s when the discussion turned into what they loved about all the animal Disney films. It wasn’t so much of the designs that fans remember, but the personality of these characters. So they wanted to make sure the characters had strong personality, something that you don’t normally see in the designs. This meant that performance had to be precise and be able to deliver.

While clothing may seem like a minor thing to us, it was an issue for the animators. They didn’t want to just “slam” clothes onto the characters, according to Loftis, that would have the audience question how it was fitting and why it looked unnatural. Because these animals are bipedal, they are able to plant their two feet firmly on the ground. It is a combination of human anatomy and animal anatomy that allowed the animators to have clothes that fits on them just as it fits on us. While that may seem like it helps normalize that animals, the team had to deal with all animals of shapes and sizes.

Zootopia

Looking at the individual characters of the film, head of animation Renato dos Anjos and animation supervisors Kira Lehtomaki, Nathan Engelhardt, Jennifer Hager, and Chad Sellers had to do was find the essence of the movement of these animals hat were now walking on two legs.

As the stories changes, the character has to change. When they (the characters) change, the design needs to be able to account for that. So the characters went through an evolution. For example, Nick was a one-dimensional con man in the early drafts. But as soon as the script changed, his character started to develop. Soon Nick would have a wide range of emotions which would require some changes to the design. Hopps was the same thing in regards to being one-dimensional. The animators needed to make her more than just cute. Since the film has her being a rookie cop, they needed to make sure that she had a physicality that would make the audience believe that she could be a cop in a police department full of animals that were much bigger than her.

Understanding how add realism to the fur of these characters, the studio had to utilize the Hyperion Renderer again. For those that may not remember, the Hyperion Renderer was first used in Big Hero 6 to help path trace the geometric complexities of how light moves into a scene, and how they bounce off objects. So in a film where not only are there a lot of buildings, but its citizens has a lot of fur, the renderer had to be used once again. Since white fur is hard in CG, what the rendering team came up with was to do a true principally based-real world solution, where they were following the light as it bounces through each hair, bounces off each hair, and it picks up color, light, and saturation through each bounce. As you let the light bounce more, the image becomes richer, softer, and more real. A mouse in Zootopia has about 400,000 hairs. That’s about as much hair has Elsa has. While a giraffe as 9.2 million hairs.

Scale was also another issue that needed to be addressed, as you couldn’t have a mouse being the same size as a giraffe. This required some real-world investigation. It would take up to 97 mice standing on top of each other to be as tall as a giraffe. Scale was also included into the designs of transportation, entrances, and homes of Zootopia.

While the animals may be bipedal and humanistic. They haven’t completely lost their animal traits. Going back to the research trips at the zoos and Kenya. The animators had to look at every detail of the animal that would be in the film. This included their traits, defense mechanisms, how they ate, how they ran, etc. For instance, when a water buffalo would sense something approaching, it would give an intimidating stare to ward whatever was coming towards it. While Clawhauser may look like an overweight cheetah, animators still infused the qualities of how an actual cheetah runs into the character.

But the animators had to be sure to find the right balance of using these animal behavior and the character’s personalities. They didn’t want it to be too much or too distracting. Most importantly these characters had to emote, and have character and personality. So through a series of tests, the animators are able to figure out that balance.

Zootopia opens in theaters on March 4, 2016.

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