Animation’s storied Year of the Animal yielded five unforgettable characters.
Brought to life through superb writing, direction, performance, animated ingenuity, and tech innovation were: Judy Hopps, the eternally optimistic rookie bunny cop from “Zootopia,” badass Moon Beast from “Kubo and the Two Strings,” Hank, the cantankerous and camouflaging octopus from “Finding Dory,” Princess Poppy, the eternally happy heroine from “Trolls,” and Buster Moon, the impresario koala bear from “Sing.”
Judy Hopps (“Zootopia”)
Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) represents the heart and soul of “Zootopia.” And to make her and the other animals look and behave realistically, Disney engineers launched iGroom, a new fur-controlling tool.
But it’s a good thing that screenwriter Phil Johnston (“Wreck-It Ralph”) switched protagonists from Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to Judy a year and a half into production when his cynicism dragged the story down.
“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,” said director Byron Howard. “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.”
The Moon Beast (“Kubo and the Two Strings”)
When it came to conjuring the Moon Beast creature (which will be competing in the Oscar VFX bake-off), Laika designed an exotic combination of Japanese dragon, bioluminescent sea creature and creepy prehistoric fish. “It’s as if Smaug was made of the raging firmament,” Laika president and “Kubo” director Travis Knight told IndieWire.
The hard part, though, was making all of these elements coalesce, so Laika experimented with its first all-3D printed puppet. This breakthrough was achieved through greater collaboration between Rapid Prototyping, Rigging, and VFX departments.
“The 3½ foot-long creature is made up of nearly 900 individual parts, with a gooseneck armature inside, like you’d find in a table lamp or a microphone stand,” added Knight.
“The resin that we print in creates a hard surface, which has no give at all when the plates butt up against each other,” Knight said. “We originally experimented with a hybrid manufacturing technique, where we printed a portion of the shell with plastic, and the edges with rubber, which was pliable, giving the animator far greater flexibility.”
Hank (“Finding Dory”)
Dory’s hilarious sidekick (voiced by Ed O’Neill), marks Pixar’s latest character achievement and one of its most complex innovations. “How do you create an octopus which looks like anarchy of motion, and then distill that into something that looks designed and elegant and fits in the Dory world?” asked Jeremie Talbot, the character supervisor.
“There are so many parts that we had to break him apart,” Talbot continued. “How do the suckers work? Simulation took on that task. What about the webbing between the legs and how that interacts with the face? The character department tackled that. And the art department figured out the overall aesthetic of Hank and how that fit in with the limitations of technology.”
Each tentacle rig had five rotation controls and up near the hand there were more pivot controls for hand gestures. And then you had the skirt controls. Anarchy of motion, indeed.
Princess Poppy (“Trolls”)
As leader of the Trolls (Anna Kendrick), Poppy is a triumph of felt, fuzz and hair, but also the film’s quirkiest character. “They hit a wall with design and I approached it more like my underground comic influence,” art director and Annie nominee Tim Lamb told IndieWire.
“But the things I wanted to preserve with design were the eccentricities of the character where she’s wild and her face is three times as wide as the rest of her features,” Lamb added. “We considered how closely to stay with the original Trolls doll, but my main concern was surprise.”
Exaggerating the colorful, long hair was the number one priority, and, in coming up with the shape language, Lamb worked closely with production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin, who added clothes with a Scandinavian graphic design influence from the ’70s. Ultimately, it was a great confluence of character and production design driven by fabric art.
Buster Moon (“Sing”)
The scheming, larger than life koala (Matthew McConaughey) represents the glue that holds the preposterous talent contest together. “For me, Buster is very Garth,” said animation director Patrick Delage, referred to director Jennings. “The idea is he’s always talking to somebody but thinking one step ahead, doing more than one thing at a time.”
For Jennings, his first foray into animation was about realizing early on that Buster and the other animals needed to be human caricatures. “If these were animals displaying their traits, then Buster would be the slowest, most lethargic character,” he told IndieWire.
“I loved that he’s small but just fills the frame,” added Jennings. “He sleeps in the drawer in his desk, but then can make a grand declaration from the top of the desk. And you don’t forever feel like his size has ever diminished his ambition.”