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Immersed in Movies: Sneak Peeking the Design of Disney’s ‘Zootopia’

Immersed in Movies: Sneak Peeking the Design of Disney's 'Zootopia'

In conjunction with the creation of more than 1,000 distinctive animals of all shapes and sizes (gnus to shrews, lemmings to leopards, rabbits to rhinos) the Zootopia design team built a mammal metropolis with the necessary scale and climate conditions. There are zones such as Sahara Square, Tundra Town, Little Rodentia, Rainforest District and Bunny Burroughs, divided by a climate wall. But what’s unique about Zootopia is that it’s a global city built by animals for animals.
Thus, there are multipurpose public buildings where all animals can interact with each other (the hilarious sloth-driven DMV, for instance) along with others specifically designed for certain mammals. However, human architecture is evident throughout while animal patterns are part of the design DNA. They experimented with different layouts for the various districts in a Disneyland-like pattern, which required both logistical and dramatic logic. And everything had to work functionally. With Sahara Square adjacent to Tundra Town, you have heat on one side and cold on the other. Meanwhile, on the other side of Tundra Town, rests the Rainforest District, where it’s hot and humid (actually, sprinklers on top of the trees give the illusion of constant rain).
I recently met with Dave Goetz (production designer), Matthias Lechner (art director of environments) and Lance Summers (environment look supervisor) at Disney’s temporary animation digs in Tujunga while the Roy Disney animation building gets a much needed re-design.

Bill Desowitz: This is certainly world building at its most imaginative in terms of form and function. What was like coming up with the concept?
Dave Goetz: I haven’t worked on a film with this much variety in environments since Wreck-It Ralph. What gets me excited is that you have the look and feel of many different environments. But even though they’re all different, they have to be part of the same world.
Mathias Lechner: I think the other artists liked that they all got interesting locations.
BD: How much in the back of your minds did you think of Disneyland as a model?
ML: Sure, there was some of that, and there is the dream that someday they may build some of that at Disneyland. It’s fun and I just want the audience to go there in this movie.
BD: How did the process work?
ML: When I started three years ago, the project was called Savage Seas, I believe, and my part was Savage City. There were 20 or 30 sketches done already but they hadn’t found what they wanted yet, which was a little bit daunting, to be honest. So it was new and the directors just pitched something to me and let me draw something. For instance, the Palm Hotel [now called the Oasis Hotel] started as something that was in the Rain Forest and it was shaped like a palm with a big cloud on top. And I pitched that to the writer and he said he could use a hotel and he put something in there and said it would be better if we put it in Sahara Square, so we changed it. Basically, I tried to keep up with how the story developed and didn’t worry so much about what this was going to be in the end because it was an organic process.
BD: What’s your favorite place?
ML: Strangely enough, it’s neither one of the extreme environments. It’s a downtown little street corner. I like the train station, I like the area around there because it reminds me of Hamburg, my home. I like combining the European with the American. It doesn’t actually exist this way but it works: it’s a globalized city.
BD: Working with look development, how has the new Hyperion path tracing renderer helped?
Lance Summers: It breaks down barriers. In the past, our artists had to cheat to overcome them and now we have shaders that are physically accurate — we don’t have to worry about the challenges of making materials that are true to life. We can create the material and have it feel [authentic]. It’s like we’re painting the movie.
ML: Focus on the real thing.
LS: Which is the art and focus on that.
ML: I come from 2D, where you could just draw whatever. In 3D, there were limitations until you polished it all the way. And this is the first time for me where that’s not an issue.
BD: It’s a truly a symbiotic relationship between animals and habitat.
ML: I didn’t want to have some futuristic city like Tomorrowland. And you didn’t want to go too far out with this animal world.
BD: Too exotic?
ML: Yeah, it’s a human story. You didn’t want a feeling of unfamiliarity or weirdness.
BD: You have to believe they could all live here with a unique set of rules.
ML: That’s right. Like traffic rules: small cars, big cars and have extra lanes like underpasses so they don’t get squashed. 
BD: What about the predator/prey aspect of co-existence?
ML: We have a whole history of how that happened and basically the prey outnumbered the predator at one point. There’s a painting in the subway station of the Natural History Museum, which is going to be a location in the movie. And the zebras and the lions are shaking hands. We have a backstory for everything to make it look real.

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