Zootopia (March 4, 2016), from directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and producer Clark Spencer (Wreck-It Ralph), represents Disney’s first anthropomorphic feature “designed for animals by animals.” Rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) teams up with sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to solve a disappearance that could tear Zootopia apart. It’s about overcoming bias and Grammy-winning Shakira will voice pop star Gazelle and sing the anthem, “Try Everything.”
The world building by production designer Dave Goetz is very imaginative with Sahara Square, Tundra Town, the Rainforest District and Bunny Burrow, among others. And figuring out how to adapt individual animal behavior when rigging them on two feet was also inspiring after the team went to Kenya. How about an elephant that scoops ice cream? But the most hilarious scene involves a trip to the DMV run by sloths, as we’ve seen in the latest trailer. I met with Howard and Moore to get a sneak preview.
Bill Desowitz: When did you hop onto this, Rich?
Rich Moore: A year ago.
Byron Howard: It’s been a busy year for Rich.
RM: The story took a big turn and it was all hands on deck.
BD: So originally Nick was the protagonist?
BH: Yes, and one of the things we found with Nick was that he was one of the characters that was oppressed by bias and so in that version we had to start the movie with the world already broken. And we figured out if the movie’s about bias, then that needs to come from a different character, from Judy,and let Nick bring that to her attention through their character interaction. It was a massive shift. We really had to tear the movie apart, but it made things so much cleaner.
RM: Suddenly Judy was the wide-eyed optimist who kind of matures. And it let Nick be much funnier and a great supporting character. The story did not want him to be the main character.
BD: This has similar themes to Wreck-It Ralph that must’ve been a good fit for you.
RM: Yeah, I like these kinds of stories of being true to yourself and not letting outside forces tell you who you are.
BD: But this was your story, Byron. What’s it been like going through all of these adjustments?
BH: I had to get very good at letting go of stuff. And I think everybody knew how painful it is. Rich is right: when you hit this thing after four or five screenings, and there’s something that’s still not firing, you really have to put these ideas aside and move on to something new. And it felt good to have Hopps, who’s very family oriented and has 275 brothers and sisters and mom and dad and all this support at home, and Nick, in contrast, has nobody. So this version feels much stronger.
BD: It’s much better to crush an optimist…
RM: And becomes a little more grown up. And by the end, she’s still the character we love but some of that naivete has been replaced by a more practical sense.
BH: And Nick’s character got funnier having a sarcastic character being the obstacle.
BD: How do you juggle all of these elements because this is such a rich, inventive world?
RM: We really lean on designers and story artists, modelers, lighters.
BD: And Hyperion, the new renderer, can tackle all that fur and provide such visual richness.
RM: There’s no way we could’ve done it. We would’ve had to imply big scope and crowds.
BD: What are you able to do now with performance that’s new?
RM: This new generation of animators was trained in CG. They know all the fundamentals of any 2D animator, but a lot of them learned on these CG rigs. You give them a good rig and they can make that thing sing. I thought it was good on Wreck-It Ralph, but, with all that legacy here, they’ve really tapped into what makes Disney characters Disney characters. The performances they get — and you’ve seen mostly comedy — but there are some scenes that are very emotional. As directors, we describe a scene and we describe an emotion, and they can really bring it.
BD: The DMV scene with the sloth is so remarkable and yet so simple.
RM: We spend days and days in the editing room just to get the timing. And the animators honing that.
BD: It’s the perfect symbol of going anthropomorphic: combining animal and human characteristics.
BH: And it’s fun to watch the animators figure it out because we had four or five guys working on the shot at the same time. And when one someone would do something, they’d say, “That’s it!” And everyone would course correct. That’s a tricky thing about the movie because with 100 different animal species, every piece of animation is different. Someone’s gotta establish what a gerbil walks like, what an elephant walks like, what a fox, a rabbit and a shrew act like. And this time we were able to hold onto pretty much everybody.
RM: When Lee Unkrich saw the DMV scene, he put it pretty well. He said, “That’s one of the most indulgent scenes I’ve seen in animation ever.” It keeps going with the joke and building and building.
BH: I love watching Judy. She’s so tense and there are so many different ways of showing that on her face.