A Story Safari-The Unique Journey Of Creating #Zootopia
“In Zootopia, Anyone Can Be Anything.”
Since the beginning, the key to Disney movies is the art of telling the story- and in the world of Zootopia, the story is truly the king of the jungle. Last month I had a chance to sit down and talk to the creative team that created the story safari that brings the world of Zootopia to life. Several weeks ago we shared with you our interview with Zootopia Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and Producer Clark Spencer who gave us some of the background as to how, what is sure to be the puniest movie of the year, came to be.
“We all grew up watching the great Disney animal films—we were immersed in those worlds,” says director Byron Howard. “My favorite childhood film was ‘Robin Hood,’ and we wanted to honor that legacy, but in a new and different way that dives even deeper. We started by asking, ‘What would a mammal metropolis look like if it were designed by animals?’ The idea was incredibly exciting to us.” And from there the world of Zootopia was born. While spending the morning at Disney Animation Studios, we were treated to a real story safari as Writer and Co-Director Jared Bush, Writer Phil Johnston, Co-Head of Story Josie Trinidad and Head of Editorial Fabienne Rawley explained the unique journey of just what it took from script to story sketches to the editing room to bring the world of Zootopia to life.
The Big Idea
Research is the foundation for all of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ films—something executive producer John Lasseter believes is required to create a great story and Jared Bush shared with us that research is just what they did for months and months starting with a local animal rescue facility and then moving on to Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and from there, a trip to Africa itself to be able to create the all-animal world. The team studied everything from how animals interacted in the wild, to how they socialized in general as well as how their individual communities were built in the natural world.
Ultimately it was the research that led the filmmakers to a story that ultimately became the basis for Zootopia and became one that dealt with stereotypes and bias. What started as a funny animal movie became in the end something entirely different when the production team saw that they had an opportunity to talk about something important—while still having great fun with the world, the characters and the story. The key was in finding the right balance and in doing that they created something that is entertaining, that is full of heart from start to finish yet delivers a powerful and meaningful message along the way.
It’s All In The Storyboards
The next step in the process is putting all of the research to use and forming the outline. It was fascinating to see some of the storyboards of where they started and concepts from very early on compared to what the film ended up being as the movie evolved. The story team as a whole does many, many versions of the script and scenes. Throughout the process it quickly became clear that the first draft of the script ultimately in the end had no resemblance to what the final version of the film turned out to be. Throughout the process there were many, many versions of the script that are tested, thrown out, refined and started over again from scratch or from a different point of view until finally they felt it was ready for the next team to begin their part through the use of rudimentary storyboards. It was fascinating to hear just how much went into all of this and to crafting the basic story, the characters and the theme as much as possible before having a team actually begin to draw it.
Co-Head of Story Josie Trinidad described and actually demonstrated for us how early sketches became story pitches for scenes for the film. She shared that it was actually the artists themselves that take the concepts that the writing team brings to them and helps to bring them to life via their own sketches and storyboards. It was through these that others could begin to visualize how the potential scenes could work. Trinidad then began to act out a scene, in this case one that took place in Officer Judy Hopp’s lonely apartment in the big city and when I say act it out, she really did act it out- from the dialogue, gestures, sighs of every kind, right down to sounds like cars pulling up, the noises one might hear from the city and of course being that this particular scene was inside of Judy’s apartment after a long, frustrating day at work, she also included the sounds of the dialing of the telephone as Judy talked to her parents and the “ding” that the microwave made when it was done cooking her carrot dinner.
Bush further explained “There’s hundreds of people who worked on this movie, and you are continually getting and giving feedback the entire time. People are constantly adding and scripting, but sometimes you come to these moments when tough decisions have to be made about what scenes tell the story and message that you want told. As we go into production, it comes down to that the scene has to be good and not just good on its own but also in the concept of the overall story arch. Sometimes rather than dropping a particular scene it becomes more of how to rework a scene in order to use it. You’ll see a group of people sitting around a table going around discussing, ‘How could we make this thing work?’” Bush went on to elaborate, “If it is better, and technically doable in the amount of time we have, you have to try to make it work, so you have to go through it, and just say that this is going to be better for the character and the story.”
After countless discussions and revisions, the outlines and stories next get sent over and begin to come to life as they record the scratch actors, which in turn allows them to put the voices to the images, add in the sound effects, and all of the other finishing touches that all go into bringing the scene to life. From there it is all about figuring out the pacing, adding music, and adjusting to the scene appropriately. For example, sometimes just something as simple as to how long a character stands in front of a door before they enter can change. When this lengthy process is finally completed, a rough version of the scene is finally played in front of the directors. The idea is to get it cut as quickly as possible so the directors can see it as fast as possible so that they can give notes to the editing team, and then they can make any changes that might be called for. This continues for all of the sequences so that in the end, the directors will have an understanding of how it will all look when it’s eventually put together.
The Disney Process
Fabienne Rawley continued to elaborate even more on the specifics of the Disney process, “In the making of this or any movie, it is a team. There are a lot of people each of whom has a voice about what goes into the making of the story- it’s never just about just one director, or the director and the writer having ownership of the entire project. While ultimately, it is up to them to shape and guide the process into what will be the movie, in the end they are more of where everything begins. Because it is a team in every sense of the word, ultimately we try to incorporate everyone’s vision. You have to trust in the story and in order to make that work, Everyone contributes from the storyboard artists to the writers to the editors to the directors. It is a process in which we all work together to try to dissect the problems, if there are problems in the story, until in the end it finally becomes solid.”
Johnston continued by adding “I think sometimes the best version is when it is a gut feeling and by that I mean that if you feel like you want to cry, or even if you know the story and you laugh, you know that’s good. But there’s also a point in time that you start sensing that certain things ought to be happening here just because it instinctually feels right. We’ve all done enough movies to where we can start to sense where things are falling off. You just get a sense that if it isn’t quite working out, you know there’s a problem. The reality of it is that part of it comes from your own instinct and the other part comes from experience.”
The Building Of A City
In a world where humans never existed, Zootopia features a diverse cast of animal characters, which were inspired by their real-life counterparts. We learned that once again it was all in the extensive research that led the team to cast specific animals in certain roles. Along the way they learned that cape buffaloes are tough, relentless—so it made sense to make the chief of police a cape buffalo. The team learned that wildebeests are not very bright, so that meant that they would be perfect to bring in the comedy. The characters of Zootopia are all playing their parts, behaving as the world expects them to behave
As ideas for Zootopia took shape, filmmakers realized that the elaborate world they imagined had legs—of all shapes and sizes. The team of artists, technicians and storytellers came together to build a multifaceted city that features tiny transport systems within larger ones, and a network of interlaced tubes, ramps, escalators and entryways big and small.
The city is home to animals of not only varying sizes, but also varying needs. Zootopia is made up of many different environmental districts with each district designed for a specific type of animal—the look, the climate, everything reflects the habitat the animals need to thrive. And by bringing all these environments, all these different kinds of animals together in one big melting pot of a city they were able to create opportunities and relationships between animals that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
It was the consensus of everyone we talked to that overall they were sure that the audience will be surprised by the robustness of the world. There are characters from all parts of the world and all different shapes and sizes in Zootopia. It was apparent throughout the morning that this film was a team effort in every sense of the word and that everyone worked extremely hard to make it a world that you can get lost in, looking at all the details and uniqueness. There is no doubt in my mind that the audience is going to be blown away by the richness and diversity of these characters and the world in which they live.
Next week our journey behind the scenes of how the world of Zootopia continues with just how the citizens that inhabit this metropolis were actually brought to life including a chance to draw our own version of Officer Judy Hopps and just what it took to merge animal and human behavior to create the unique and varied performances of the animals of Zootopia.
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Zootopia Opens Everywhere March 4!
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.