INTERVIEW: The “Zootopia” story team helps us understand how a Disney animated feature comes together

in Disney, Movies

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Have you ever been curious how a Disney animated movie comes into being? As we approach the March 4th release of “Zootopia,” we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the process of its development and production, from inception to release, via several face-to-face interviews I had the opportunity to conduct with members of its creative team.

Up first, I was fortunate enough to sit down with some of the Story Team, the people directly responsible for shaping the outline and eventual script of the movie itself, and the first thing I wanted to know was how “Zootopia” got its start.

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Co-writer / co-director Jared Bush told me, “Well, it was months and months of research to start it off. When I came in, Byron [Howard, one of “Zootopia’s” other co-directors] had this idea, he said ‘I want to do animals.’ He’s loved animals since he was a little kid. He loved ‘Robin Hood,’ and he said ‘I want to do a Disney movie with talking animals again.’ And so when I came into the process, we started with eight months to a year of research. We were really just trying to figure out, ‘Okay, there’s been a lot of talking animal movies. How do we make this one different? How do we make it special, what’s going to separate it from everything that’s come before?’ And research was the answer.”

“[Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer] John Lasseter is a huge proponent of just doing research,” Bush continued, “So [we said], ‘Let’s start building this world. What’s this world like? What’s the history of this world?’ And we talked to all kinds of experts, from anthropologists [to] psychologists… we talked to, of course, behaviorists, animal experts, and zookeepers, to try to build what the world was that we were going to place this thing in. And then early on, [it was] Byron’s idea that it’s a fox and a rabbit, which is [the combination of] a predator and a prey animal, and that became an interesting dynamic, that we had these two groups, and we’re in this big international animal metropolis. [We asked] ‘What is the kind of story we want to tell within that?’ and then little by little we started to figure out ‘What kind of guy is the fox? What kind of person is the rabbit?’ and building that story out [from there].”

“After about a year, we started getting into outline phase. We had a sense of the story, but we’d been pitching versions of it for months… and then after you get it to an outline you read it to a big group of people, then you start working on the script. And the first draft of the script had no resemblance to what this [final] movie is whatsoever. You do a bunch of versions of that script until finally it’s ready for someone to visualize it, so you try to prove out the story and the characters and the theme as much as possible before you have a team trying to draw it, because, obviously, it gets labor-intensive. [Then] that whole team comes on, and that was probably three years ago, as we started going toward our first screening. And then you try to, as a group, put together a version of that in storyboards, [which] then get edited into an animatic. And then the process just keeps iterating and iterating for a very long time.”

"Zootopia" Writer and Co-Director Jared Bush and Writer Phil Johnston during a media presentation at Disney Animation Studios (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
“Zootopia” Writer and Co-Director Jared Bush and Writer Phil Johnston during a media presentation at Disney Animation Studios (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

Co-writer Phil Johnston commented on the differences between live-action movie production and Disney-style animation. “Having worked in both worlds, [animation is] very different, and in some ways it’s a luxury, because you’re able to draw the movie and watch the movie time after time, and see different versions of it, and test things out. And things that are working you’re able to polish. I have a live-action movie (‘The Brothers Grimsby’) coming out right around the [same] time as this one [and] we didn’t have that luxury; you shoot it and if you’re lucky you get a week of reshoots, and you just hope that the story worked when you went in to start shooting in the first place. But the way it’s put together here [at Disney], you can build that house and tear it down countless times. It’s hard and it’s frustrating sometimes when you think ‘Oh, it’s great,’ and then you realize ‘No, it’s not,’ and [you have to] re-do it, but I think we’re going to end up with a movie we’re really proud of.”

Bush added, “Yeah, we all come from a live-action background, so it’s a really big learning curve to figure out that process. I worked on a sitcom (‘All of Us’) and [in that process] you write the script, then you have one night to shoot the whole thing, that’s it. That’s the only iteration you have. And so [animation is] a great process because your rough drafts are [essentially] seeing the entire movie realized, and trying to improve it over the course of years.”

"Zootopia" Writer and Co-Director Jared Bush and Writer Phil Johnston during a media presentation at Disney Animation Studios (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
“Zootopia” Writer and Co-Director Jared Bush and Writer Phil Johnston during a media presentation at Disney Animation Studios (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

Head of Editorial Fabienne Rawley elaborated on the specifics of the Disney process, “There’s a lot of people. There’s a lot of voices that you listen to; a lot of people have input because it’s about the whole company getting behind things. It’s not about just one director, [or] the director and the writer having ownership of everything. They do, they guide and shape everything, and they are the generators of everything, but you do have to incorporate all these other voices: the story trust, the animators contribute, the storyboard artists contribute. Everyone sort of pokes at the problems, if there are problems in the story, until it becomes really solid.”

I was curious what the specific indicators are of what is or isn’t working when the story team makes changes to the movie after a screening, whether they’re looking for emotions or plot points or just a basic gut feeling. Johnston reacted positively to the last notion, “I think sometimes the best version is when it is a gut feeling. Like, if you feel like you want to cry, or even if you know the story and you laugh, you know ‘All right, let’s pay attention to that. More of that. That’s good.’ But there’s also, on a more analytical level, sort of a ‘story math’ that [allows you to] start sensing that certain things ought to be happening here just because it feels like it. And we’ve all done enough movies where you start to understand where the rhythms are falling off. If the equation isn’t quite working out, you know there’s a problem, and it’s half gut and half experience, I think.”

Bush provided an additional observation. “Sometimes you’re looking at characters. If you watch the screening, [and] it happens a lot with all movies, certainly here, as you’re watching [you’re thinking] ‘What are you trying to tell me? What is this character trying to tell me? I don’t understand what that character is going through.’ Or you’ll see something and you’ll get the sense that, ‘You’re trying to make me feel emotional about what’s happening, but I’m not,’ and you can’t fake that. If you’re sitting there [thinking] ‘I know this should make me feel something and it’s not there yet,’ you look at those moments because that means something’s not right. It’s the set-up, it’s the character, [or] it’s where it falls into the movie. When something just feels off, you know it’s something you need to go after.”

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Lastly, I wanted to know how the approach to making “Zootopia” was different than their approach to previous projects, for each member of the story team. Rawley told me “This is my first one here [at Disney]. [And] because it was my first one, and I didn’t know what to expect, my approach was just to [give] my all, as one does with everything one works on. You just put everything you’ve got into the task at hand. That’s how I approach everything.”

Johnston responded, “I did ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the learning curve on that was so steep for me. I had never worked in animation before; I didn’t quite know what to expect. It drove me a little bit crazy, to be honest, but then getting through it and knowing what it was, it was easier coming into this culture and knowing how to navigate it a little bit better: knowing that the movie is never finished, we’re [just] told we have to stop making it, you know? And when you get that in your head, it’s never easy. It’s fun, but it’s not easy. But knowing that that’s how this process works, I was able to deal with it a little bit better.”

Bush concluded, “I think [it’s] also just trusting the evolution. There’s times, [like] when I first got here, it seemed [overwhelming] like, ‘There’s going to be big changes coming,’ but the cool thing is everyone knows that, [and] everyone is trying to help you find a great movie. And sometimes you panic, going like ‘I know this doesn’t work,’ and people know it’s not going to work yet. It’s actually not expected that everything works perfectly [right away]. It’s not the point. The point is to eventually find it, and new ideas are going to come in, and that’s going to change things. So it’s really learning to trust a process where you’re revising and revising and revising constantly for four years.”

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Up next, I’ll share my interview with the heads of “Zootopia’s” animation department, and we’ll find out how the characters in the movie were brought to life on the screen. Stay tuned!

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