The Art of Animation-An Interview Animators Renato dos Anjos and Chad Sellers #ZootopiaBluray
In the world of Zootopia, anyone can be anything they want and no one brings that more to the forefront than the people that bring it all to life, Head of Animation Renato dos Anjos and Animation Supervisor Chad Sellers.
Last March, Zootopia brought to the silver screen a heartfelt story for the entire family that made us laugh together, cry together but most importantly open the door to have conversations we could have with one another as well as with our children. It is classic Disney in what Disney does best – tell a story that appeals to everyone on many different levels and stays with you long after the movie credits have rolled.
In Zootopia, as with every Disney movie, the common thread that binds them all together is that for every film, quite simply, it all begins with and ends with the storytelling but once the story is set, then it falls to the capable and talented hands of the animators to bring that story to life and into our hearts. Last week we traveled to the Walt Disney Animation Studios to sit down with the creative teams that are part of the magic of the genius that is Zootopia as part of a special media day for the upcoming In-Home release of Zootopia that you can bring home for your very own on June 7 on Blu-ray and Digital HD on June 7 and we were able to sit down for an exclusive interview with Renato dos Anjos and Chad Sellers who were part of the team charged with creating the animated world of Disney’s Zootopia as they shared with us what it was like to merge animal and human behaviors together to create the unique and varied performances of the residents that would inhabit the six regions of Zootopia.
The team faced such challenges as how to actually slow down the animation enough for a sloth, or how a giraffe would run if he were human, as well as the daunting task of keeping it all to scale where things were measured as “how many mice high” would this be when developing the anthropomorphic world that consisted of more than 1,000 unique animals of all shapes, sizes, stripes and spots that all call the world of Zootopia home.
The Unique Challenges of Zootopia:
Renato started off by sharing. “One thing that was very unique to, to this film is the amount of species that we had to animate. When we were working on Tangled, for instance, and on Frozen, once you learn to animate a person you can use some of that knowledge when you’re animating that. But when you’re animating a mouse, and then you have to animate an elephant it’s very different, and there’s not much that you learn from one character that you can use onto another. It really became a very complex film from an animator perspective because you’re constantly having to learn something new, and you can never really use something that you learned on a character onto another, so it made that much more complex. Very early on, we looked at a lot of things- a lot of footage of documentaries and films including Robin Hood, which is one of my favorite animated movies of all time. I adore the animation in this movie; I think it’s absolutely stunning. I know it was done many years ago but still some of the animators that worked on this movie are my heroes. But for Zootopia, we wanted the animation to be unique to our film. We didn’t want to just go back and copy what the studio did in the past. We wanted to do something unique, so we decided that we wanted to use life as our main source. For every species of animal that they worked with, they needed to go into very deep research and figure out exactly what worked for each species. Normally, when you’re animating a movie, you get to know the characters a little quicker. This time around, every character that they got to work with was a different species, so there was a huge learning curve that they had to go through to get to know the character well.”
A Giraffe Is 97 Mice Tall:
The entire team got together very early with the first task at hand being to talk about and decide which animals would live in the city. A very early line-up of animals was created and then placed in that world to see what sort of problems these particular animals might have if the were to indeed actually live in a metropolis. The concept of scale was one of the first and ongoing obstacles that they needed to overcome. Early on the decision was made to try to keep to real-world scale with each of the animal inhabitants. That meant that if a mouse were to be living in the same world as a giraffe, to match the correct scale the giraffe would need to be 97 mice tall. Scale was also included in the designs of transportation, entrances, and homes of Zootopia.
It Begins and Ends With The Research:
Once again, everyone seemed to come back to the fact that it was the extensive research that the team did before ever drawing anything. This translated into being able to accomplish the task of creating a world of animals who took on human traits, and taking animation to the next level. The group conveyed to us that on their research trips that took them from animal rescue shelters in Los Angeles to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando and all the way to Kenya, that they started by looking for as many things as they could to be able to understand that there are very specific behaviors that are very unique to an animal that’s different from what we do right on down to the way they will look at you or another animal. They noticed things such as that Cape buffalos for example really lock eyes on you and they stare at you possibly so that they’re really trying to make sure they know what’s happening when you’re near them. All of them agreed that because they were able to experience the animals in the wild and in person it made it much easier for them in turn to try to replicate that. They gave us the example that when you’re watching a movie, or you’re watching some footage of an elephant moving, it’s very different from when you see that same animal up close and know what it’s like to feel its presence. It was from those research trips that they really gained the insight they needed as to how the animal should look, as well as to give the audience that same feeling.
Chad further elaborated on how the research trips opened up their eyes to the world of animals. “ One thing that I wasn’t expecting is how this trip changed, our vision for the film and how this really set the tone for the movie. We were on the working the movie for about a year and a half and we thought that we had seen everything that we could see. You know, we watched every documentary we could find, we went to all these different places, and we really thought we had done our homework as far as research. But as soon as we landed, within days of being there, it really felt that we were really only scratching the surface. There’s something, I mean, it’s obvious, you know, There’s just something different in these animals when they are free- they’re going to move differently, but there’s a certain aspect to, to their behavior that’s very, very different and unique and also the fact that they’re interacting with different species, as well that is just something that you don’t see here so that really set the tone and changed our perception on, on the movie. And it took a lot of trial and error. The elephant, for instance, that passed us in Kenya. A group of elephants passed us got really close, and we were able to see the way it moved its head, there’s this really interesting qualities to that head and the motion, and we tried to capture that. That was the main thing that we kept grabbing on to and when we got the head to feel right, everything kind of fell into place. When we came back from Africa we were here doing these tests, and it was good, but there was also a level that we hadn’t scratched yet. Just being able to hear from Renato when they got back from Africa, added that extra level we needed. It was so inspirational, and I think it kept pushing us to really do something unique and specific with these characters that maybe you haven’t seen before.”
Renato also added in, “When we arrived back here after Africa we were all fresh and everything in our minds now looked a certain way and we knew we had to act on it and change things; so we did a lot of changes very quickly, because I knew that slowly your memory starts tricking you a little bit, and the things start feeling okay again, and the first two weeks, we were working around the clock as we tried to do as much as we could to make sure we captured that moment and then stayed true to it.”
The extensive research also allowed the animators to ensure that the character maintained animal qualities all while paying careful attention to things such as elbows and shoulders to ensure they didn’t appear too human-like or, for example, using the elephant’s trunk to scoop ice cream because elephants don’t have hands. In addition they had to make sure that the characters were ones in which you could relate to when you watch the movie; you want to relate to their emotions and the situations that they’re going through.
Not Animals, Not People:
While they definitely used people’s perspectives for situations of how people react to certain things at the same time they were faced with the task of trying to avoid making them look too much like people. The way they move, the timing of their movement, and their expressions all had to be kept a little more natural to their species while at the same time keeping their overall emotion and the situations that they’re going through very similar to things that people would go through. In the end the team had fun playing with audience expectations and the entire team worked hard to make it a world that the audience could get lost in, looking at all the details and uniqueness and one where the audience could appreciate the richness and diversity of these characters.
Even An Animal Can Have Trouble Finding Clothes That Fit:
Another very real issue that the animators faced was the issue of clothing. The team didn’t want to just put any clothing onto the characters that would have the audience question how it was fitting and why it looked unnatural. Because many of these animals are bipedal, they are able to plant their two feet firmly on the ground and the team had to find the essence of the movement of these animals that were now walking on two legs.
Through a long process, it came down to being a combination of human anatomy and animal anatomy that allowed the animators to have clothes that actually fit on the animals just as they would fit on a human. And if that weren’t enough, they had the job of assigning the right clothing for the right animal, keeping in mind all the shapes and sizes of the creatures that lived in Zootopia and making it seem as normal as possible. And if the issue of creating animals that looked normal when walking on two feet all while wearing the appropriate attire weren’t enough, the animators then had to tackle the issue of fur-because after all, in the end the residents of Zooptopia are animals, even though they are anthropomorphic ones.But as big as the challenges such as animals now walking on two feet, who wore clothing that needed to look natural over their fur were, the biggest challenge actually came from creating the scale for the movie and again making it realistic in every way. When it came to the world of Zootopia, both the environment and the characters had vastly different scales and would change relative to where they were in the city. An elephant’s restaurant had to be able to service a rabbit, for example, which of course created a whole other set of challenges to be conquered. According to the team, the goal was always to ground the audience in a camera language they were used to viewing in modern live-action movies. The more they could make people feel that the world they were creating was real and not fantasy, the better.
Animators The Ultimate Observers Of Life:
Both Chad and Renato we quick to share that to be an animator, you are an observer of life. For Renato, one of his biggest inspirations is actually his dog: “I have a dog and I use him a lot for references. He’s a black cocker spaniel; he’s too big for a cocker spaniel, and he moves like a bear- this weirdest thing. The way he walks, and he’s always like this with his head down; he’s always waddling around. He’s the cutest, and I, uh, use him a lot for reference a lot.”
Like Renato, Chad takes inspiration from is cat but then went on to further explain, “I feel like just being observers of life is what we really are. We get, so lost in some things. We are always looking at the interesting way that something moves. It could be a person; it could be an animal, whatever. And I swear it’s so many times where you see something, or a person or an animal and a certain movement draws you in and it sticks with you. And then suddenly I find myself thinking “Maybe I’ll just try that with the hips in this character or something. The weirdest things can, like, inspire you.”
Renato finished by adding, “We’re really lucky because right close to the studio, there’s this park, and this park we often see deer in there, and we saw a couple bobcats in there, so once in a while, just in the morning, you just see something and it sticks to you and after time I have a library of things in my mind of people and animals that I have seen. I keep notes in a sketchbook and I draw people when I see them- I do a couple notes, so again, the same kind of spirit of finding things that we can add to the film very early on. I’ll see a guy yawning and I’ll see if that works for Nick and while none of that made it to the film, but it kind of helped us establish the character. And ultimately the most important part to draw is the eyes because it is the eyes that are the window to the soul and the key o the acting. It’s, honestly a performance, and we sort of have to boil it down to we know that everything is in the eyes which is an approach we have taken to the acting where less is more, you know, because if you’re doing too much with the body, you can’t really focus on the eyes, and that’s where we want focus.”
From concept to story to research to sketch to animation one thing that everyone we talked to fully agree upon, 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.
To learn more the making of Zootopia in our exclusive interviews with directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer click here.
On Monday our journey to the world of Zootopia continues with our one on one interview with everyone’s favorite DMV worker, Flash and his good friend story artist Raymond Persi.
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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.