Five years ago, Disney director Byron Howard had just finished creating Tangled, a modern take on Rapunzel, and was itching to get another movie started. He found himself drawn to the idea of another talking animal movie, but one better than Disney had ever done before.
Howard’s favorite animal-featuring Disney film was Robin Hood; so naturally, he wanted to bring back the human-like essence of those animals, making Zootopians bipedal and clothed.
When he pitched the idea to Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, Lasseter loved the idea so much he actually hugged Howard, and there it began.
“Something really important that John said was, ‘If you’re going to do a talking animal film, you’ve got to do one that no one has ever seen before.’ That really became the mantra. How are we going to do a talking animal film that feels completely original? That’s what we spent five years figuring out,” said Zootopia producer Clark Spencer.
Spencer was not involved from the get-go because he was still in the midst of producing Wreck It Ralph in 2012. However, he and Howard had worked together previously on several movies including Lilo and Stitch and Bolt, and the timing could not have worked out better for the long-time friends. Spencer had just finished Wreck It Ralph when Zootopia had become a mature enough idea to demand a producer.
“I was so excited …I loved the idea of this world,” Spencer said.
The producers knew they wanted Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps, and Jason Bateman as Nick Wilde from the very start.
“Jason is one of those rare actors that is not only super funny, but he can say a horrible thing to a character on screen and still like him,” Spencer said. “We needed somebody who embodied that great positive soul, and Ginnifer is that.”
Zootopia is in some ways the “classic buddy-cop” movie. Natural-born enemies, a bunny and a fox, are forced (for the betterment of themselves and the safety of the city) to overcome their perceived differences and appreciate one another for their individual abilities. Without dismissing their uneducated stereotypes, Hopps and Wilde would have no chance of saving Zootopia.
Aside from the unstoppable, investigative duo, the other characters are also surprisingly unique. Each animal, from Idris Elba as Chief Bogo the cape buffalo, to Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Otterton (an otter), are entirely different, and many of them have different accents and perceived ethnicities.
“This movie will be released in 62 languages,” Spencer said. “We wanted to show that this is a universal, world-wide film.”
Several new animation technologies were employed in the production of Zootopia in an effort to not only make the animals as real as possible but also to make the film stand out. As part of the creative process, a team spoke with experts, visited museums and even traveled to Africa to observe animals in their natural habitats. The extensive research allowed the characters to represent the appearance and mannerisms of their specific species.
Spencer said, “The level of detail in this movie is just insane…this world is so clever and smart.”
In order to make the animal fur look real, the “Look Team” actually studied animal fur microscopically. Each of the 64 species in the movie was built their own, realistically customized fur groom. They also created new “shaders” (lighting systems) that isolated the different types of animated fur and adjusted according to the way the light makes the particular look in the wild.
All of the large animals also have muscle systems in place under their skin technology, because it was the only way to make them look “big and tough.”
The most difficult invention utilized in Zootopia was the wind simulation technology. The creators knew that everywhere in the world, there is almost always wind to some degree.
“That means leaves are moving, branches are moving, and most importantly — fur is moving,” said Spencer. “When you watch the movie you probably won’t notice it at all…but you’re going to feel it.”
Spencer has been working with Disney for over two decades and has truly become a seasoned producer of animated films. His first big hit, “Lilo and Stitch,” was hand-drawn animation — he still feels that that medium serves a purpose in the more intimate worlds.
“But when you really want people to experience the world, when you want to feel huge and vast…I mean, some of the scenes have 5,000 animals in them, you can only do that on the computer,” said Spencer.
To viewers’ surprise, Zootopia was originally intended to be narrated entirely through Nick’s cynical eyes. It was “much later in the game” that they decided to tell the story from Judy’s point of view: a journey from pure innocence through some harsh realities.
“It’s great to have dreams, just as long as you don’t believe in them too much,” is Spencer’s favorite line in the movie. The quote is from a conversation between Judy and her father. Spencer elaborated further explaining that it’s easier to root for Judy than Nick because with her pure heart, she is defying the odds and proving everyone around her wrong.
Zootopia is going to be viewed world-wide, and Disney’s hope is that viewers will take away the theme: “Don’t make an assumption about anyone, you may think you know someone because of the way they look, but once you get to know them you will likely be wrong. Five years ago we couldn’t have known where today’s world would be, but I think it’s very timely,” Spencer said.
Zootopia uses humor and realism to expose the prevalence of stereotyping and prejudice in today’s society. Their effort to present “the little guy (or girl)” as the hero can be appreciated by adults and children alike. Kids will love the goofy interactions between predators and prey, and adults will enjoy the biting one-liners between Judy and Nick.
With the expansion in animation techniques, a hilarious script, lovable characters, and a relevant life lesson, Zootopia is sure to entertain the whole family.