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Inside Zootopia: An interview with visual development artist Nick Orsi

Inside Zootopia: An interview with visual development artist Nick Orsi

Any graduates aspiring to work at Disney should pay heed to 29 year old Nick Orsi’s story. His trajectory is the stuff of Disney dreams. Fresh out of art school, Orsi was hired in their trainee program, quickly becoming an apprentice for Zootopia director Byron Howard and co-director/co-writer Jared Bush, and only six months later becoming a character designer in Disney’s visual development department. He was part of the very first, and very small team building the story and look of Zootopia nearly five years ago. He was so integral, the directors honored him by renaming the lead fox character from Jack to Nick.  

What makes him so special, and what stories can he tell about this movie, which, based on the early buzz, is likely to ‘savage’ the box office at its release this weekend? Leslie Combemale of Animation Buzz sat down with him and he answered a few questions about himself, what movie inspired his Zootopia character designs, and how he chooses, whenever possible, to illustrate by hand instead of inside a computer: 

LC: You said you’d only seen a few Disney features before you got hired there. What artists did you study to get an understanding of the studio and its aesthetic, and do you have other artists that inform your work?

NO: Well, Milt Kahl is kind of the king. Of course Glen Keane, Andreas Dejas and all those guys are definitely people I look to, but I think I was looking at ‘what do all those artists do I can learn from?’, and just kind of absorbing it, and laying down lines, and creating characters, and being critical, and keeping those standards in mind when i’m drawing. I did also look at Ken Anderson and Harold Seiperman, who I feel like doesn’t get mentioned enough, who worked on Tarzan. But Kahl is the one that everyone always references, so I really wanted to get to know his work. Jin Kim was someone I worked a lot with on Zootopia and he always had model packets laying around. Byron (Howard) was the one who inspired me to get into character design though, both artistically and just personally. He introduced me to a whole different path. He worked a lot with Chris Sanders back in the day on Lilo and Stitch, Emperor’s New Groove and Mulan…that whole 90s style. I also love New Yorker artists, especially Carter Goodrich. He’s probably my biggest influence. He is a huge inspiration to me, as well as Steve Brodner. There are great artists everywhere.

LC: How have you developed your own personal style? 

NO: Well, it’s hard. Everyone starts off with so few influences. Like when I was a kid, it was Batman and Ninja Turtles and things like that, and then as a teenager it was Alien and Terminator, and then I started getting into more animation, I was really into Akira and a lot of what was happening in Japanese animation, and then it just kept changing, the more influences I got until it started becoming my own. The things I pull from now sometimes aren’t even animated or art, sometimes it’s live action movies, or fine art, or photography. If there’s one thing I think i’d say is really important as an artist, it’s to keep your eyes open, and pay attention. Everything in your experience and everything you see informs you as an artist. 

LC: You had a hand in designing Gazelle’s tiger backup dancers, which are some of my favorite characters in the movie. What else is still intact in which you still recognize your work? 

NO: I was really proud of how the sheep turned out. A lot of the credit goes to Cory Loftis, who was the head of character. I really felt like he enhanced what I was playing with. The sheep, the tiger dancers, and Judy. A lot of Judy’s costuming. I had created some images of her in a sort of S.W.A.T. team uniform, very hardboiled, and her costume is still pretty close to what I did early on.    

LC: You’ve said you’re a big movie buff and it informs much of your work. Is there a movie that inspired you as you were helping design Nick and Judy? 

NO: Oh yeah. 48 Hours. No joke. I watched that movie about 100 times while I was working on Zootopia. First of all, I love that movie. Second of all, when I was drawing Judy, I was really looking for contrast, and I thought it was so interesting to cram Nick Nolte’s character into this tiny bunny, and have her have this passion and charisma. And the dynamic between her and Nick felt interesting, too. I mean, he wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t like Eddie Murphy’s character, but it was something I was very inspired by and could play off of.  

LC: You mentioned you favor working in traditional illustration techniques, which is very old school for someone who grew up in a world where computers are the norm. Can you talk about that? 

NO: It’s hard now because so many people are leaving. Some of the great artists who could teach me…but every time I had an assignment and had a hard time, I found myself going back and drawing it. Like with perspective, or with construction, I kept going back and drawing it before scanning it. Making brushes and photoshop tricks, I found them distracting…but going back to my hands and the paper, that’s where I always found my answers. I tried to just push my drawings to be clean enough that I could just show those. I was also very inspired looking at all the guys at Pixar doing it, and it seemed like it was working, and then all my inspiration was before they used computers. Even now, Carter uses pencils and graphite. A lot of great illustrators are still traditional. It just felt more natural to solve problems by sticking to the simple tools. It strips it down to shape, volume, and construction and anatomy and it forces me to confront those things. Those were a lot of the lessons I was trying to learn on Zootopia, and traditional has served me well. If there’s anywhere to learn 2D animation character design, it’s at Disney! I also felt working traditionally gave my art a little more identity, because I was kind of falling through the cracks, and for me digital felt homogenized. It isn’t for everyone.  

LC: What do you think you learned working on Zootopia?

NO: I think the biggest thing is humor, entertainment, and appeal. I really learned that from this film, because I think Byron has that innate in his drawings. They’re just cute, and funny, and entertaining.  

LC: So you’re now in the character development department. How many artists are in there? 

NO: I think 34, counting myself. 

LC: and out of those 34, only 3 that work traditionally?

NO: Yes, 3 of us that use pencil, paper, marker, watercolor, those sorts of things… Many more can, but part of the reason so many switch to digital is it’s so much faster, and the schedules are intense. We make a movie a year now, it’s hard on the departments. I think it’s still important though that people who aren’t artists can see what’s being done and can pull ideas from it. Being able to draw is like understanding how to speak and write in English… but how you create or how you draw is like being a poet. Yes, you know the language, but as an artist you find a unique way to convey emotion and ideas. People fall into creating digitally and it doesn’t allow for human imperfection. With traditional art, those imperfections make us who we are. Like Glen Keane has a really wild style, very expressive. That’s what I aspire to. That’s what excites me.  

Zootopia will be in theaters nationwide on March 4th. 

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