EXCLUSIVE behind the scenes of Zootropolis, Disney’s animal talking comedy adventure with film directors Byron Howard & Rich Moore
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- Published on Saturday, 12 March 2016 11:05
- Last Updated on 22 February 2016
- Monica Costa
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I was recently star-struck when I met two of the most successful animation directors of this decade, Byron Howard (Tangled, Bolt) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons), who came to London to promote their latest film Zootropolis, which is one of the best comedy adventures Disney has ever produced. In this exclusive interview they reveal lots of behind the scenes anecdotes.
The story is set in the unique modern mammal metropolis of Zootropolis. Comprised of habitat neighbourhoods like ritzy Sahara Square and frigid Tundratown, it’s a melting pot where animals from every environment live together — a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything. But when optimistic Officer Judy Hopps arrives, she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde, to solve the mystery.
Q: The film is called Zootopia in the US, Zootropolis in the UK, Zoomania in Germany, Zootopie in France and so on. What’s the reasoning behind the different titles?
Rich: It’s the same movie, but with different titles. If we could have chosen one, it would be called Zootopia all over the world. But there were copyright issues in different territories so we had to adjust the title to the various regions.
Q: The idea is very original. Who had the initial sparkle? How did it start?
Rich: It’s Byron’s idea but we all worked very hard on this film.
Byron: I pitched the idea to John Lasseter five years ago right after filming Tangled. I always loved Disney’s great animal films, such as Lion King and The Jungle Book. I grew up on Robin Hood.
Robin Hood is not the most popular Disney film but it made a huge impression on me as a kid. There’s a lot of Robin Hood DNA in this movie. You really feel it. I told John Lasseter that we hadn’t done a talking animal movie for a long time and it would be great to do one set in the contemporary world (with iPhones / iCarrot or the iPad / iPaw).
I could tell from his facial expression that he loved it. John would be a very bad Poker player (giggles). He got really excited but he said that if were going to do it, we had to do it very differently from other talking animal films. We needed to figure out how the city was going to work. Zootropolis is engineered to actually work with multiple skill doors that you see on the train, a huge air conditioning heating wall that would actually work if you had enough money and time to build it, the juice bar for giraffes, etc. There is layer upon layer of things that would actually work in the real world.
Rich: All details make the world feel authentic and well thought out like you’re going to some place real. We wanted to make something that people haven’t seen before.
Q: Tell us something about the research for the movie.
Byron: Our boss John Lassater wants us to become experts in a specific field before starting any new Disney film. So we needed to figure out how animals behave and spent almost a year studying animals at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Once we had seen the animals in a man made facility, John wanted us to see them in the wild as well so he put us on a plane to Kenya (in Africa) to study animals on a Savannah. We spent two weeks among hordes of 70,000 world beasts. I saw one zebra before in my life and I sat there in Africa 10 meters away from hordes of 300 zebras and gazelles drinking peacefully from a watering hole next to lions. Nobody was eating anyone. Everyone was behaving well. That’s a very interesting parallel to humans living in cities: different groups living in different ways but co-existing. That’s when the various social layers of the movie started to develop.
Q: A technology called “keep alive” was created for Zootropolis so that the world always has some level of movement. How does that work?
Byron: We knew that we could create modern cities with various layers and we looked at the air constantly moving leaves and trees. That affects the fur on the animals. Nothing stays completely still in real life so we needed to recreate the constant motion to make the film very believable. Other movies look like frozen and uncomfortably still.
There are 50 different species in the film and every animal has a different fur groom and skin texture. It was important for us to make our characters look and feel believable, so we researched fur at a microscopic level. As a result, Nick the fox has 100,000 to 200,000 hair on his fur. Did you know that fox fur is dark at the root and it gets lighter as it goes to the tip? Or that a Polar bear’s fur is not actually white but its individual strands of fur are clear and it’s the light reflection that makes it look white?
Rich: Two years ago we couldn’t do it. For example, we created a wind simulation that allowed us to have the individual leaves and branches move and that impacted the fur on our characters. We go more for the believability than realism.
Q: The humour in Zootropolis is not so childish but more juvenile and even for adults. Was it intentional?
Byron: It started that way. Because we were doing a movie about a contemporary world, a lot of the humour that we find as adults making the film comes from these parallels with our own society. The sloth thing is a good example: It’s not necessarily something a kid would get because he probably hadn’t been at the Department of Motor Vehicles but every adult on the planet apparently gets it. No matter what country you go to, the inefficiency of bureaucracy is universal. This is an example of something that a child can enjoy without getting the irony, but it’s there more for adults.
Rich: Children can see that Judy is in a hurry and she is at the mercy of the sloth.
Byron: We experienced this at one of the first screenings in Belgium and saw a little boy having so much joy watching his dad laughing at the sloth scene.
Q: There are a lot of references to movies in Zootropolis. The Godfather and Breaking Bad are quite obvious. What are the other ones you referenced?
Rich: We love the buddy cop movies like Lethal Weapon, Billy Crystal / Gregory Hines’ Running Scared, Midnight Run.
The Thin Man with the Nick and Nora characters who have chemistry together like Nick and Judy. It’s not a romance film. It’s an interesting genre where solving the crime makes the couple getting closer like in a romance.
Zootropolis would probably be the first detective story that a lot of children will ever see in their life so we owe it to them to give them a good one.
Byron: Even our composer Michael Giacchino grew up on these police serials from the Seventies with over-the-top soundtrack. There’s a cue at the end of the movie called Hell Street Zoos over the credits when Nick and Judy chase after the sloth in the Ferrari. It’s Michal doing his take on Seventies’ police series such as The Street of San Francisco produced by Quinn Martin with distinctive themes and over-the-top drums.
Zootropolis opens in UK cinemas on 25 March 2016.
Monica Costa founded London Mums in September 2006 after her son Diego’s birth together with a group of mothers who felt the need of meeting up regularly to share the challenges and joys of motherhood in metropolitan and multicultural London. London Mums is the FREE and independent peer support group for mums and mumpreneurs based in London https://londonmumsmagazine.com and you can connect on Twitter @londonmums