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How Disney Captured the Diversity Zeitgeist with ‘Zootopia’

How Disney Captured the Diversity Zeitgeist with 'Zootopia'


READ MORE: Check Out These Oscar Spoofing Posters From The Teams Behind ‘Keanu’ & ‘Zootopia’

After snagging consecutive Oscars for “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6,” Disney returns to its anthropomorphic roots with “Zootopia,” a buddy comedy/crime thriller set in an exotic metropolis “designed for animals by animals.” However, it’s not all fun and games as “Zootopia” explores different species of mammals trying to get along. By capturing the zeitgeist of diversity and inclusion, Disney just got lucky with its timing — and could score big at the box office. The movie is projected to open at $60 million this weekend.

“We didn’t start out with a political agenda,” said director Byron Howard (“Tangled”), who first conceived of the project. “It all came from the research in Kenya when we found out that mammals are 90% prey and 10% predator and thought it would be fascinating to explore the possibility of co-existence in a metropolis where the lingering mistrust comes to a head.”

“We see animal worlds where a lion and a deer can live together side by side. But what if that social contract was broken and that fear was ignited?,” added director Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”). “We were really embraced by [chairman/CEO] Bob Iger and [chairman] Alan Horn and they thanked us for making it after coming out of a cut of the movie.”

“Zootopia” pits newbie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) with sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to solve a disappearance that could tear the metropolis apart. Idris Elba voices Police Chief Bogo, who holds a prejudice against the first bunny cop and and Grammy-winning Shakira voices pop star Gazelle and sings the anthem, “Try Everything.”
Originally Wilde was the protagonist until they flipped it to Hopps a year and a half ago — thanks to a meeting with the Pixar Braintrust. “We got a great note from Andrew Stanton [‘Finding Dory’],” Howard recalled. “Because you’re introducing the film through Nick’s cynicism, he doesn’t like the city and I as an audience member can’t root for the city. I don’t like the city and want Nick to escape from it rather than see it healed.”

“And we figured out if the movie’s about bias, then that needs to come from from Judy, and let Nick bring that to her attention through their character interaction,” he continued. “It was a massive shift. We really had to tear the movie apart, but it made things so much cleaner. I think that’s why we do so many buddy comedies in animation. To watch characters change each other and become more whole as a pair is really rewarding. Judy’s eternal optimism becomes a flaw, which she’s forced to own up to.”

In fact, the scene in which Hopps owns up to stereotyping Wilde became a transcendent experience for the directors. “We went up to Vancouver because that’s where Ginnifer shoots ‘Once Upon a Time’ as Snow White,” Moore explained. “And the space is really unique because the lights are very low in the room where they record. We would talk about it and go through the boards and review it. And watching her prepare herself — she’s such a happy person — and then see her get into that place and break down, even before we started, was something special. And then take after take of trying to hold back the tears. This is a strong person that doesn’t want to cry in front of her best friend that she’s wronged. But she can’t help it. So it was very intimate and personal.”

By contrast, the hilarious DMV scene with the sloths was a challenge in comic timing, especially given the fact that they don’t speak in slow-mo. The laugh, the typing, the looking away, all had to be crisp, which took several iterations.
“When Lee Unkrich [‘Toy Story 3’] saw the DMV scene, he put it pretty well,” Moore continued. “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.'”

Disney naturally upped its animation game considerably with “Zootopia,” which boasts 64 different species of animals, that break down into 800,000 separate character models. Fur was the biggest challenge. For instance, a single giraffe has more than 9 million hairs, which exceeds all of the combined fur from the previous three features.

And that meant distinct sizes, textures, densities, and colors, plus light passing through them in a different way. So Disney created a new fur shader for brushing individual furs together with the aid of the new path-tracing Hyperion renderer, which reacts to light moving through space and bouncing off the fur. In addition, a software called xGen was given a whole new set of tools for building ambient, natural movement into scenes. Plus PhysGrid was created to add realistic muscle and fat movements below the skin. 

Meanwhile, In terms of world building, “Zootopia” far surpasses any previous Disney movie in complexity. The design team, led by production designer Dave Goetz, conceived a mammal metropolis with the necessary scale and climate conditions to accommodate 1,000 animals of all shapes and sizes. There are zones such as Sahara Square, Tundra Town, Little Rodentia, Rainforest District, and Bunny Burroughs, divided by a climate wall. And a software called Bonsai made vegetation creation simple, customizable, and repetitive for populating the various zones.

But in the end, it’s about pushing animation boundaries. “I like these kinds of stories of being true to yourself and not letting outside forces tell you who you are,” said Moore.

READ MORE: Watch: Predator And Prey Live In Harmony In New Trailer For Disney’s ‘Zootopia’

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