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Oscar Animation Roundtable: Building Worlds in ‘Zootopia,’ ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ and ‘Moana’

Research and creative shape language helped animate some of this year's most noteworthy Oscar contenders.





This year’s animated Oscar contenders offer brave new worlds: a unique mammal metropolis (“Zootopia”), a fantasy Japan (“Kubo and the Two Strings”), an untapped Polynesian paradise (“Moana”), a fuzzy fiber art environment (“Trolls”) and a tactile hybrid between storybook fantasy and reality (“The Little Prince”).



Disney’s design team built an imaginatively diverse animal world where predator and prey co-exist comprised of five boroughs: Savanna Central (downtown), Tundratown, Rain Forest District, Sahara Square and Bunnyburrow. But what’s unique about Zootopia is that it’s a global city built by animals for animals.

As a result, there are multipurpose public buildings where all animals can interact with each other 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 necessary scale and climate considerations.

“But when we did the research trip in Africa, you’re flying over the country and seeing the red earth and the acacia trees and these game trails everywhere and this was our chance to point to the history of the world,” production designer David Goetz told IndieWire.

For instance, in the middle of Savanna Square sits a large pond with a fountain, which represented the the original watering hole that was the gathering place for every animal. “And it’s the origin of this democratic idea that all of these animals can actually live together somewhat in harmony, with the predators only representing 10% of the population,” added Goetz.

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

For Laika’s first stop-motion excursion into Japanese culture, it embraced many forms of classic Japanese art. Origami, ink wash paintings, Noh theater, late Edo period doll making. “But the biggest visual cue comes from ukiyo-e, which literally means ‘pictures of the floating world,'” director and Laika president Travis Knight told IndieWire. “The most prominent form of ukiyo-e is the woodblock print. And we drew inspiration from the masters, including Hiroshige and Hokusai. You’ll see Hokuasi’s influence all over the opening of the movie.

“But the single biggest artistic influence is Kiyoshi Saito, a brilliant 20th century graphic artist and woodblock printmaker. Saito’s works feature vibrant colors, bold graphic shapes, elegant use of asymmetry, daring compositions, and the most exquisite woodgrain texture. In fact, that was the main thing. His unconventional use of texture inspired the show’s stylistic through-line.”

And the woodgrain texture and particulates in the inks of woodblock prints are everywhere. “We created a library of 30 textures, which we called the ‘Saito pattern,’ added Knight. “We made them with laser cutters and screen printing, and could scale them up or down depending on the size of the object. For some applications, we used walnut shells. For larger ones, we used scenic paint.”

For production designer Nelson Lowry, it was both a challenge and opportunity to deal with the fantasy aspects. “One of the hallmarks of this particular show was the breadth and uniqueness of the environments, like a giant, abandoned castle in an imaginary place,” Lowry told IndieWire. “It doesn’t have to be plausible but it has to fit in with the rest of the film. As the film was a journey story, you not only had to figure out what was there but what we could afford to put there. And there was also the question of perspective and scale that I hadn’t faced before.”



Lots of research at various Polynesian islands added authenticity to the action-adventure buddy comedy. “We looked around the island of Mo’orea and studied the sculpted rocks that worked both graphically and dimensionally,” director John Musker told IndieWire. “Also, people’s faces and bodies were carved, so the idea of doing it in CG this way became clear.”

In terms of the shape language, the lava flows were an important influence as well. “Like trees that are sculpted by the wind and mountain sides with repeating lava shapes pouring down them,” production designer Ian Gooding told IndieWire. “With mountain ranges, we took a picture and squashed the bottom part of the frame and it gave an exotic look.”

The jewel-like water was even more intense than could be captured photographically. It was transparent but had character when crashing the beach and Gooding had to reinvent it. “It seemed so unreal and we relied on our memories to get that experience,” he said.



Production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin had plenty of hair, fuzz and felt to work with in weaving a psychedelic world divided between the joyous Trolls and hateful Bergens.

“The Trolls live in a felted forest like hippies of the ’70s with bright colors and the Bergens are like the suburbanites that pollute and litter, eat fast food and wear all-polyester,” Cronkhite-Shaindlin told IndieWire.

One of the production designer’s first decisions was hiring Portland-based fiber artist Sayuri Sasaki Hemann to build a six-foot forest model so they could analyze its properties. And an early aha moment was basing the Troll hair on wool.

“We broke it all down,” said Cronkhite-Shaindlin. “How does fuzz respond to light? What choice would you make for grass? He would you craft a mushroom?” This provided textures and a palette to emulate in CG.

“The Little Prince”

“The Little Prince”

In adapting the popular novella by Antoine de Saint- Exupéry, director Mark Osborne and his team came up with a hybrid approach with stop-motion and CG to delineate storybook fantasy from reality in exploring the tender friendship between The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) and The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy).

“I had to do some creative experimentation to protect the book and use CG in a way that would help reflect some themes in the book,” Osborne told IndieWire. “And using the two techniques was one of those early ideas that everybody was intrigued by but nobody knew how we were going to pull off.”

Turns out that the key for the stop-motion was the use of paper to reflect the palpable texture of the novella. But for production designer Lou Romano, they were able to push CG lighting in new, darker areas. He worked remotely from San Francisco and relied heavily on lighting and texture designer Celine Desrumaux, set designer Matthieu Gosselin and character art director Bart Manoury.

“Bolder choices like high-key lighting, dropping detail away as desired, was something new for me. So we pushed it on this film. And Celine, who was in-house, was the guardian of that aesthetic, as was Mark,” Romano told IndieWire.

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