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Bringing Zootopia To Life-An Interview With Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Clark Spencer #ZootopiaBluray

If you want to know why Disney’s Zootopia makes you feel like family, all you have to do is spend some time with directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer and there will be no question in your mind as to just where that family feeling comes from. Quick, witty, and never taking themselves too seriously although taking what they do very seriously, for these three, making movies is not just another job; it’s a piece of themselves and a part of their hearts and who they are. Last week we had a chance to sit down with all three as part of a special media day for the In-Home release of ZOOTOPIA -available on Blu-ray and Digital HD on June 7-and learn about how the film came to be, how all good storytelling begins with the research and the origins of everyone’s favorite DMV worker, Flash.

A Producer Looks Back:


“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.

Disney's Animal Kingdom

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.”

The Creative Process As Seen By Rich Moore:


“I think part of it is our style and I could talk for an hour on this one, you know? But it’s a weird, the process is a weird thing. It’s a weird beast. You can’t tell it like, “Today we’re going to be creative, ” you know? You know it’s going to come and the ideas are going to flow but you can’t can’t control it to where and when it happens. Sometimes it just takes off and it does what it, it wants. It’s almost like a living organism. I’ve said to people, “It’s kind of like an acorn growing into like an oak tree,” In that you can plant it, and you can kind of fertilize it, and tend the seed, but it’s going to grow kind of at its own pace. You’re not going to say , “Okay tree, grow faster today.” It’s going do what it wants to do. The way I keep my sanity is just remembering that’s what I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with a force of nature here that’s bigger than me. The movie is more than me, it’s more than Byron, it’s more than Clark. It’s kind of a collective living organism that we’re there to kind of shepherd and some days it can be really frustrating, “Why won’t it grow faster?” And then other days it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is, this is amazing.” We’re watching it in real time kind of come to life. It is my favorite thing about this job that it’s one of those things as an artist you kind of hope for. I hope to work in a place where there’s a creative family and that all appreciate the process the same way that I do. And it’s real here. I’m thankful every day that I’m finally working at a place where that’s foremost in everyone’s mind.”

The World Through The Eyes Of An Animator: 


“There’s a different way of thinking with people who are in animation. I feel like they just think of silly things and fun things. It’s very freeing. A lot of it comes from what was said earlier. We sit in a room and we go, “What if?” And we try not to shoot each other down. We try to build. We try to get excited about ideas, rather than saying, “Well that’s a terrible idea.” We go, “Oh well, that’s good, but what if we added this? And what if we keep that?” And that’s how it sort of build- we build on each other rather than knock each other down”


Rich Moore continued:  “I think that if you’re with a group of people that ask, “What if?” every day it’s hard not to be positive because you’re trying to solve problems. You’re not saying, “No, It’s like this.” Instead it’s like you’re saying, “Oh what if this? And what if that?” And if people can solve a story about how can a fox and a rabbit be best friends, and work together, that gives me hope that a lot of things in the real world could be solved if only more people asked, “Well what if? What if? What if?”

 Bryon Howard On The Ultimate Field Trip To Africa:Zootopia-Research

“That was incredible. One of the best things about working here and what John Lasseter brought to the studio, is that John really believes that the best stories come from research. And so we really wanted to make sure that we were telling a story not just about cartoon animals, but what makes real animals amazing. We all love animals, but all of us had just been to zoos. I think we’d all grown up just going to zoos. I went to the Philadelphia zoo and it’s a great zoo but we really felt like we wanted to go there and see animals for real. And so they flew us into Nairobi, and they put us in these little tiny bush planes, and flew us way the heck out into the middle of nowhere and our guide said, “Look out the window.” And I looked out the window, and there was this little spire of rock that was shaped like this down below us, and he said, “That’s Pride Rock.” That was in the Lion King as the Lion King research team had actually gone on the same tour. It really exists. But I think our favorite part was when you stepped out of the plane, everything was just quiet. It feels different. The air feels different. It’s just open. And the places we visited in Africa haven’t changed in 40,000 years. The environment is the same. And the animals have a society that actually exists. These groups move together just like human beings do. And so it’s like being in their version of a city. That’s where the whole bias idea came from was us watching these animals around this watering hole.  One of our camps was about 30 feet from a watering hole where we would watch these animals kind of all come in during the day in herds of anywhere from 20 to 500 animals and the wildebeests came in and giraffes and we saw that antelope and lions would drink right next to each other at the watering hole.


And no funny business. No one was attacking each other, there’s no aggression. They just got their water, they kind of looked at each other, and then they went their separate ways. And we thought, that’s very much like our own society and much like the groups don’t always get along. We have these cities where we all have to figure out how to live together without killing each other. It was like that and it was a great experience. But I think that out first camp next to the watering hole was a real eye opener for all of us because we had no idea it was going to get into us that much. So when we came back, we had all our leadership on that trip. We had our lead of animation and we had our art director and we had our character designer and all those folks all came back with this desire to make the movie so much better because of what we had learned.”

It’s All In The Details:


Byron started the ball rolling: “One of the things that I love about the movie is small details, like a lot of humor. There’s someone running on a treadmill but also eating a little donut at the same time. It’s kind of the ying and yang of life  There’s, that when Judy’s wrapping the carrots in the newspaper at the vegetable stand. There’s a picture of like an old rabbit in the newspaper, and it’s something about local–I think it’s her great grandfather and so like kind of like small town newspaper. I can’t remember the exact caption of it, but every time I see that, it cracks me up because it reminds me of where I grew up, and we just had a very small newspaper, The Oxnard Press Courier and there’s just something about that, just the picture with the caption just always cracks me up.”


Clark continued by adding “For me, one of my favorites is the opening scene and I love this because someone in animation had to think about this is that in the opening sequence with Judy on stage with the tiger and the little sheep. The tiger’s there, he delivers his line, which is what you would expect. Now, the camera goes over to Judy, but you still see the tiger. The tiger moves, ‘cause he knows he’s supposed to move according to the director of the stage and then he looks down and realizes he’s not on the tape. While you’re watching Judy, he moves to the tape, and then he looks out to the audience and does this little wave to his parents. And looks for his parents and does that little thing just what a kid would do, right? They, they’ve done their part, they said their one line, they have to say the horrible part and now he’s off the hook. And he’s thinking to himself, “ Now I’m off the hook. Oh, I didn’t quite go to the right spot. Ah, gotta figure out where my parents are”. But that they would think about that, what the shot actually about is about is Judy and what she’s saying. I just love that kind of detail that people think about. What everyone needs to be doing in the shot, not just the main character. Well because Judy’s a very tough director.

The Origins of Flash:


“It came out of one of our brainstorming sessions when someone said, “You know, if there’s a DMV in Zootopia, it should be run by sloths. Ha, ha, ha.” And he thought he was just throwing a joke out into the room. He didn’t think it would land, and everyone just kind of went, “Oh.” That was such a brilliant idea and Bingo! Immediately there was something about the idea of a DMV run by sloths. And we all had to think if it had ever been done before? We’re just thinking, someone has to have done that. And we were looking around, it’s like no? I was like, oh, we should do that. So, we immediately got very excited about the idea. And there’s just sometimes that happens when, we all get together in groups. It’s a very collaborative process where we bring other writers and directors and story artists into the room and, and we all talk for many, many, many meetings and all at the same time. Sometimes we listen. Sometimes but not always but when we hear a good idea, the room kind of catches fire, and that really was one of those ideas that happened like that. Well, and it happened so fast- I mean, for a character that’s so slow, it’s like his creation, his genesis happened like a big bang.  


Where it was like, oh my gosh, that’s really funny. And we literally the next day saw after talking about or it presenting itself we saw John Lasseter. Then next thing we’re like, “We got this idea about like a sloth running the DMV.” He’s like, “Oh my gosh.” So we spent the next 90 minutes acting it out, and like acting the beats. Almost beat for beat, exactly what’s in the movie. We must’ve gone through it four or five times, and, and it was locked in everyone’s head.

And the name came immediately- Immediately! But, you know, then, then you say to yourselves, “Well we’re the only ones who are going to understand this concept.” It’s the United States. It’s the DMV. We’ve all been there. We know what this concept is. We actually test our films around the world, and we weren’t testing it to see the Flash piece. We’re actually testing it to see what the audience thought of the overall film. And we tested it in Japan, in Korea, and Russia, and Australia, and Mexico, China. and Brazil, and China, and it was 12 markets we tested the movie in. and in every single market, the number one scene was Flash, because for everybody, even though they didn’t know what the Department of Motor Vehicles was, they knew what bureaucracy was. Something in their society, whether it’s the post office or getting a passport, or getting a driver’s license, there’s some aspect of their daily life that hit so, so everybody can relate to. And we’re like, that’s Universal.” 

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.”  

ZOOTOPIA (Working Title)


“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.”

It’s A World Of Laughter And Hope:

“Well I would say the 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.

#ZootopiaBluray-Directors & Producer-Group

Tomorrow, stay tuned for how the world of the animation of Zootopia was brought to life.


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Bring home the world of Zootopia -available on Blu-ray and Digital HD on June 7

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.