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Bringing the Urban Jungle of #Zootopia To Life -An Interview With Directors Byron Howard & Rich Moore and Producer Clark Spencer

Since 1937, Disney Animation has given the world some of the most unforgettable characters to ever grace the silver screen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Big Hero 6. But whether it was those first characters to capture our hearts many generations ago, or Baymax, one things remains the same-that nobody does it better than Disney Animation when it comes creating memorable characters, especially the anthropomorphizing animals in classics like The Lion King, Bambi, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, and so many more including the newest addition to the lineage, Zootopia.  

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Walt Disney said it himself when he said, “Animals have personalities like people and must be studied.” In their new upcoming feature Zootopia, It is easy to see that directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore along with producer Clark Spencer who are part of the creative forces that are bringing this world to life, are living up to those words and have set the bar even higher when it comes to new standards in animation. A few weeks ago, I made a visit to the Disney Animation Studios to sit down and talk to all three about what will surely be the “puniest movie that you’ve ever seen bee-fur”


Zootopia takes place in a world where humans never existed. The animals in the world of Zootopia walk on two feet, wear clothes, have occupations and use technology just like us. In addition, they have the tendency to stereotype each other based on an animal’s major characteristics, just like humans are quick to do.


The film follows Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, Once Upon A Time), a bunny from the land of Bunny Burrow. She is an optimist who dreams to be the first great bunny cop in the big city, Zootopia. Soon after her arrival, she is hit by harsh reality in the police department when she is assigned to dole out parking tickets. She meets Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman, Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses), a clever, sly fox who is framed for a crime that he did not commit. The natural enemies have to team up when they both become targets of a conspiracy.

I spoke to all three about what it was like to work for Walt Disney Studios, the home of the greatest storytellers on earth, about the story behind the story of Zootopia including a The animators discussed the hard work and passionate research it took to make this film possible which included traveling with the animators to different African countries to study the animals closely at a microscopic level. It was easy to see as I watched scenes from the movie that the traits of the animals translated into the characters you meet in the film. The incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and the crowds right on down to the scale and size of each and every performer is just one of the many things that will make this movie stand out head and shoulders above the rest.

Producer Clark Spencer shared a little of how Zootopia came to be as he shared a little of the history of Disney Animation:


“I thought it would be nice to take a moment and look back at some of the great cinematic moments from Disney Animation. Even today when we create a contemporary and groundbreaking film, it is inspired by our long legacy of innovation and great story telling. 10 years ago today, John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull joined Disney Animation and everything changed. 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. It’s a really important route and so we always ask ourselves, what makes a Disney Animation Film and if you look at that montage (which they had shown to kick off the day) there are so many things. We tell modern stories, we tell fairy tales, and we have films – animal films and human films. There are all types of stories, which always have 4 key ingredients. One, we strive to tell timeless stories for today’s audiences. Two, we make these movies to be entertaining for people of all ages around the world. Three, our films must contain both a combination of great humor and deep emotion. And 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. 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. When I think about the films recently and films that are coming up, I really feel like I’m one of the luckiest people alive, at the heart of this place right now, which brings us to why we’re all here today.



It’s Zootopia. So we have two incredible directors of this movie and both of whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with before.  Byron started at Disney as a Tour Guide at Walt Disney World. He always dreamed that one day he would be a part of Disney Animation. He finally got his chance on the film Pocahontas where he was a clean up artist. Next he was an animator on Lilo & Stitch. He went into the story artist ranks and then eventually made his directorial debut — on the Oscar nominated film Bolt and on the worldwide hit Tangled. We also have Richie Morton. Rich came to Disney in 2008. Rich has an incredible and long story past in TV Animation, creating some of the best and most iconic episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama and his directorial debut here at Disney Animation as part of the Oscar nominated film Wreck It Ralph – two amazing and talented individuals that I am lucky enough to work with.”

Where did the origins of Zootopia come from?


“At Disney Animation as you probably know there’s an incredible legacy of animal films. There’s “Bambi”, “Jungle Book”, “Dumbo” “Robin Hood” and “The Lion King.” And they’re all incredibly funny films and very deeply emotional. And after finishing “Tangled” Byron was thinking about what kind of story he wanted to tell next, and he kept coming back to these great animal films, and kept drawing animals over and over again.


You can see some of his early visual development art. And we finally came up with this idea of an animal city called Zootopia and John loved the idea so much, he literally got fired up and he hugged him because John is also a huge fan of talking animal films so for him, John was just very excited, we’d be going back into this realm. He challenged everyone on the team with creating an animal movie that no one has ever seen before.


Our films always begin at the same place. It begins with research and with Zootopia, the directors spent 15 months studying animals. Our research took us incredible places starting with our own Animal Kingdom down at Walt Disney World where they have a huge array of animals and some of the best animal experts in the world. And we were able to get right up to the animals and observe their behavior up close and Animal Kingdom and their experts really taught us so very much about these animals. But once we’d seen the animals in a man made facility, we wanted to see them in the wild as well so we went to Africa. We went to Kenya to study animals on a Savannah, get a sense of their movement and their natural environment. Now to find out what a real animal society is like, we needed to go there, see them all around us. When we got out of that plane, we saw huge birds and giraffes and zebras way out in the distance and then as we got closer to the animals, the animals got closer to us. And when we left Africa, our lives did change. They truly changed. We were inspired by these trips to make our characters feel like the animals they are, and capture what makes them so amazing.”

How was the research from these trips incorporated into Zootopoia?




“We wanted everything from the big City of Zootopia to the individual strains of fur on each animal character to feel believable. So that led us back to research again, literally researching fur at a microscopic level. For example, an individual strand of fox fur is dark at the root and it gets lighter as it goes to the tip, and that’s what gives it its overall coloring. And here’s a fascinating one. Polar Bears’ fur is not actually white. The individual strands of fur are clear that you can see here. It’s actually clear and hollow. Our Look Team created millions of strands of clear hair to create our polar bear. It’s actually the light reflecting off those clear strands that makes the polar bear have a yellowish white coloring. We have way more than polar bears in this movie. We also had to tackle the natural dreadlocks of the yak and the filthy wool of your average sheep and softness of the Arctic Shrew.


The animals in Zootopia have completely different fur groomed based on their actual individual strands of fur. That detail the Look Teams are putting into fur, skin, and textures is absolutely astounding. I also wanted to make sure that in the world as Zootopia, not just the characters that are in it, felt alive. And to help accomplish that, we created technology that we call “keep alive” where the world always had some level of movement. We created a wind simulation that allows us to place vegetation into an environment and have the individual leaves and branches move and you see kind of minimum movement. By putting just a slight movement on that shadow, you’re going to feel that the world is alive. While the average viewer is not going to notice it, they will feel it. But wind doesn’t just affect trees around these characters – It has to affect the characters themselves, especially since all of them have fur, the world is going to feel alive.”

What was it like to animate animals and transform them into their human form?


“The next step in our process is bringing these characters to life through animation. And as with all animation, no matter what project we work on, we always start from the same place. We start with walk cycles, truly the foundation of defining the characters. So here’s where imagination comes in – how do our animators create the same believable animal movement once that animal goes from walking around on 4 legs to up on 2 legs? When we were out in the wild observing the giraffes run, it actually looks like they’re moving in slow motion. It’s a beautiful graceful movement. And we had seen how elephants utilized their trunks as an arm and we thought to ourselves, well how would an elephant serve you ice cream in the world of Zootopia? One of the most important and unique things about Zootopia is the amazing city, which all of these animals live. Zootopia is a world created for and designed by animals not by humans.


And because this city has animals of every shape and size from Jumbo to Itty-bitty, from the elephant all the way down to the mouse, this city was going to be a very important ingredient, and from the beginning, we all agreed we wanted to be able to have the true size of each animal. What’s interesting is in most animal movies that go to a generic size, it’s just simple. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to use the true size of the animals. The wildebeest is the same size as your average human and the scale of a wildebeest to a mouse is 1:24. In other words, it’s the height of 24 mice is equal the same height as a wildebeest. And the height of a giraffe, that same mouse is 1:95. You can barely see those. They’re actually 95 Mice lined up there which means we have to think about how these different animals of different sizes move within this world of Zootopia, that Zootopia had to be built for everyone.”


Next up, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore talked about the regions of the city of Zootopia:


“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 it’s just this beautiful, beautiful area. And it’s this really kind of upscale area like Dubai or Monte Carlo, all kind of rolled into one. You’ve got these really high-end shops, these beautiful hotels, what’s the name of the game here- it’s very sunny.


Next is the beautiful and chilly Tundra Town where the cold weather animals live such as the polar bears, moose, and Arctic Shrews. And in Tundra Town, they have Coolers under the sidewalk to keep everything frozen and they’ve got what they call a 3:00 Blizzard every day. And what’s great about this location is what we get to reuse a lot of that now left over from “Frozen.” We’ve got barrels full of it.


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 like that right there.


The question is how do you get a desert and tundra in the city next to each other? And so we actually turned to research and we asked the experts and they said, “Well, we talked to an air conditioning guy and said listen, if you had enough money and enough determination these animals could build an enormous air conditioning and heating wall” which you see dividing Tundra Town at the top. On one side was hot air and on the other side was cold air. And the run off from Tundra Town actually feeds the steam canyon that keeps the Rainforest nice and humid. And that wall is about 5,000 mice high. Speaking of Mice, there’s a little itty-bitty neighborhood called Little Rodentia, which is like Greenwich Village but only about 2 feet tall, and this is where all the little Mice live.

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And then there’s Bunnyburrow, which has millions and millions and millions of super cute bunnies. And what Bunnies is they make more Bunnies. We all know what’s going on inside those patches. They’re all families here. So the best thing about having all these unique neighborhoods in this amazing city is that you get to go on this incredible international tour all within one massive metropolis. At first glance, this all seems great. Zootopia seems like a Utopia but like our own world but the city isn’t perfect. Under this beautiful exterior, Zootopia has its own problems.”



How do the characters and their stereotypes come into play in the story?


“ The animals are quick to put each other in a box. Like humans, animals have their own unique traits because elephants always remember, weasels are sneaky and what becomes a is a really big deal in the movie for one small bunny who dreams of becoming a police officer is that in Zootopia the cops are all large animals- they’re animals like buffalos 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. Judy Hobbs is an optimist.”




“She lives by the mantra, in Zootopia, anyone can be anything but when she arrives to the Zootopia Police Department, she’s hit by the reality of the world and that is, while all the other big animals are the big strong Cops get the really cool assignments, she gets Parking Duty. It’s not so cool. And she is rightfully disappointed because she wants to be a real cop like the other big animals, not just a Meter Maid. But this is Judy Hobbs you’re talking about and Judy is an optimist and an over achiever so she decides she’s going to make the most of her assignment and try even harder to prove herself. So by noon, she has given out over 200 parking tickets. Her big ears will allow her to hear meters all the way down the street. Right as they go off, she can race down there and ticket the car.”


“As the story moves on, the sneaky fox dupes Judy and he’s being his exact stereotype. Nick Wyle, played by the incredible Jason Bateman, is a quick-witted con artist, a con animal, actually. And unlike Judy who believes that anyone can be anything, Nick believes that we are what we are. In his mind, he will always be a sly fox and she will always be a dumb bunny that will never, ever be a real cop and that hits Judy really hard, very hard.”


“Through a series of circumstances, Hopps gets that break she’s been waiting for. Her boss at the police station, Chief Pogo, is forced to give her a case- the case of a missing otter. But there’s a catch – she only has 48 hours to solve the case or she is off the force. Well Judy jumps at the chance, accepts the deal, only to discover that the case has only one lead witness- it’s Nick that con artist Fox.”


“As Judy and Nick continue to unravel the mystery, they discover the missing otter case is part of something much more complex involving the theme of stereotype and bias in our movie. 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. And ultimately, these two natural enemies, a bunny and a fox heal the City and make their most important discovery of all. Yes, like Nick says, we are what we are but maybe if we can learn to look past that, we might just discover who we are truly meant to be.”

How did Shakira come to the project?



“ One of the best song and reoccurring theme of the movie is “Try Everything” sung by the one and only Shakira. We pitched the story and she fell in love with the movie and we fell in love with her. She’s amazing. She speaks 6 languages, she’s very socially active, a very, smart woman, and very, very talented and we knew had our Gazelle as soon as we met her so she’s Zootopia’s biggest pop star and the symbol of the Sea. We just came back about 2 months ago from Barcelona. Rich and Clark and I got to go over and spend time with Shakira and her lovely family and she recorded the final version of that song and that is unreal to be in this beautiful Studio in Barcelona, in her home and to hear this song being performed on something that you’ve worked on. It was very, it really unreal. She is a very kind down to earth artist to work with-a real pleasure.”

What was the most challenging part of the film?


Well you know honestly, for all these movies, I think it’s the story. Story is always the toughest thing for us because we all care so much. These movies are very, very time consuming and our crew, we have about 600 or 700 people who work on each of these movies and they are honestly so skilled and they give all their time. They’re not going to see their families as much. They’re going to spend all their time at work with us and we really want to create stories that are worthy of them so we really beat ourselves up trying to get the best story possible. That’s what the story trust is about. Story trust is where you take people who you trust in the room with a story to show your film. We actually screened this film I think probably 16 or 17 times internally for each other so over a period of almost 2 years and that goes from the very, very beginning where it’s just a treatment on the page and we’ll write a script and a storyboard and we’ve done, I kid you not, about 190,000 storyboard drawings, most of which we threw away, and did not wind up in the film, and that’s kind of typical of what we do. And our story artists have to be comfortable with the fact that most of what they do is going to go in the trash and it’s all in service of finding the best version of the story cause we had for many, many versions.”



“Every version that we screened was slightly different, some were dramatically different, and sometimes we would make a huge shift and turn the movie upside down. And it’s painful because it’s all beautiful work. We have sequences that we lost and characters that we lost that were great but didn’t really fit for the story that we’re trying to tell, especially with such a difficult subject. We had to be very careful about what we were saying and how we were saying it to appeal to the broadest audience possible, not just Americans but Internationally and not just black or white. We wanted to make sure that this is a very, very, clear statement of the film and it’s also a very affirmative statement. I’m very, very proud of our crew because they weathered it with us. They trusted us and they stuck with it. We’ve been able to create something that’s obviously, I think very, very beautiful and to Disney’s credit, the fact that they supported us in doing something about bias and it’s such a great uplifting thing for us to have that kind of support and not just being expected to just create something funny or something cute or something that will sell, that’s really big. I really believe the Company wants to help the world become a better place.”

Aside from the nonstop laughter, what is the one thing they hope people will come away with from Zootopia?


“Well I would say big one or one for me that I really take from it is the theme that we define ourselves. You know the world may have an opinion of us but it is up to you to define who you are, you know. The world does not define you, you do, and that’s the theme that I went away with. Both of the lead characters, Nick and Judy, lived their whole lives with people and animals telling them who they should be and spent a lifetime struggling against those limits. It’s all threaded throughout the whole film.”


“You’ll see as great as the city is, it has a lot of barriers that Judy runs into because of her size, because of where she comes from, because of what people believe she knows or believe she’s capable of and to see her overcome that is really the journey of the movie. And the question is will that idealism and that determination to survive. With this idea of don’t let the world define you, it can be interpreted in so many ways and I think that’s been the amazing thing for us to watch with the audiences, is that people talk about is it about stereotype or bias and question it and about letting yourself be defined by it. From there it brings up other so many other questions about the movie- is it about being determined because Judy’s a very determined character? Is it about a woman trying to show that she can do something? Is about somebody who’s small and saying I can do something even though you see me as a small character, I can big too. All these things come from your own personal point of view as to what you yourself may have experience and I think that is kind of a surprise for us to see how people are interpreting all this one basic idea in different ways depending upon what their own experience is and it’s been really fantastic to hear back from audiences all over.”



Zootopia is a modern, civilized world that’s entirely animal. It’s a city like no other, comprised of habitat neighborhoods that are a melting pot where animals from every environment live together and where, no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, anyone can be anything they want to be.


Be a part of a world where anyone can be anything


Zootopia opens everywhere March 4!

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Disclosure: I have been invited by Disney to cover this media event. All material and expenses for this event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios but all opinions my own.