INTERVIEW: “Zootopia” animation team members explain how they brought the movie’s characters to life

in Disney, Movies

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Welcome to part two of our behind-the-scenes in-depth look on the making of “Zootopia,” the latest feature from Walt Disney Studios Animation, which opens on March 4th. This week, we have an interview I conducted with two members of the movie’s talented animation department, who discuss how they went about bringing the characters of “Zootopia” to life.

The first thing I wanted to know was how the approach to animating “Zootopia” was different than movies that have come before, and how it was the same. Supervising animator Kira Lehtomaki told me, “I think the thing that’s the same all the time is that animators observe, so reference is the number one key. The moment I found out I was going to be on the movie, [I] immediately [went] into researching animals. And [the process] was trying to find that balance between the animalistic behavior and the human behavior, and how we were going to mesh [them] together, and how much to do of each. So I would say research was the biggest thing.”

“Zootopia’s” head of animation Renato dos Anjos added, “When you’re working on a movie full of people and you figure out [that] people move a certain way, you can apply the same [or] similar solutions to different characters. This movie has been very challenging because when you find something that works for a giraffe, it’s probably not going to work that well for mice or for an elephant. So every species of animal I would work with, I would go very deep into research and figure out exactly what works for each species, which is very unusual. Normally, when you’re animating a movie, you get to know the characters a little quicker. This time around, every character that you got to work with, if it was a different species, there was a huge learning curve that you had to go through to get to know the character well.”

Animation Supervisor Nathan Engelhardt, Animation Supervisor Jennifer Hager, Head of Animation Renato dos Anjos, Animation Supervisor Chad Sellers and Animation Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
Animation Supervisor Nathan Engelhardt, Animation Supervisor Jennifer Hager, Head of Animation Renato dos Anjos, Animation Supervisor Chad Sellers and Animation Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

I asked how and where, exactly, the research was performed. “We went to different facilities [in the United States] and to Kenya as well—that was the last big trip that we took,” dos Anjos responded. “We went to a few places around town [in Los Angeles] and we also went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom [in Orlando], which was awesome. They gave us behind-the-scenes access to what happens [during] their day-to-day interaction with the animals there. What we are looking for [on research trips] is as many things as we can get that are very specific behaviors, very unique to an animal that’s different from what we do, like maybe the way they look. For instance, the Cape buffalos, they really lock eyes on you and they stare at you. I think they’re really trying to make sure they know what’s happening when you’re near them. And that’s pretty scary, you know? And anything we could find like that that we could potentially bring into the film, we were looking for those things.”

Lehtomaki was also able to attend the research outings. “It was interesting actually going there and being present with the animals, versus watching videos or documentaries,” she said. “We did do that stuff too, and [from that] you learn all the facts and figures and what drives them. But when you witness them in person, you kind of see their personality come out and you can see the correlation of ‘Oh, that trait that they have, that would work really well for [the film’s protagonist, Judy] Hopps [played by Ginnifer Goodwin] or that would work really well for [Idris Elba’s character] Bogo.’ And it was like, ‘Okay, we have to try to work that in there.’ It was really fun to see how [the actors’ and characters’] personalities actually aligned with what the animal traits were, too.”

Dos Anjos interjected one more note about the research process, “When you experience something and you know what that feels like to you, it’s much easier for you to try to replicate that. When you’re watching a movie, or you’re watching some footage of an elephant moving, for instance, it’s very different [from] when you see that animal near you, passing you by. That mass, and that presence, it’s so different, and when you experience that personally, it really informs you on what the movie should look like, to give the audience that same feeling.”

Animation Supervisor Chad Sellers and Animation Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
Animation Supervisor Chad Sellers and Animation Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

Next I wanted to hear about the development of the animation of Judy Hopps, which was Lehtomaki’s chief assignment for the film. “Initially she started out as a very different character, and Ginnifer coming in really helped to inform that, and as the story progressed she became this very naïve bunny from the Burrows—kind of the equivalent of small-town, USA. She’s kind of uninhibited by the restrictions that adults feel about society, and she just feels like, ‘I want to be a cop,’ even though bunnies have never been cops before [in Zootopia]. Personally, I felt like I really related to that, because I came from a family of mathematicians and scientists and I said, ‘I want to be an artist, and I want to be an animator for Disney,’ since I was like four years old. And so, as soon as Judy had that bent I was like ‘I understand her.’ I felt like I knew what that felt like. She’s very optimistic and she doesn’t give up, she works hard. She’s just very ambitious, but she has this ideal: Zootopia for her is almost like Disneyland—it’s like the happiest place on Earth. It’s like you can be anything you want to be; it’s the most wonderful thing. And you don’t see the flaws initially, you know?”

“With her movement, [the process] was really trying to incorporate the bunny qualities in there, so you’ll see her nose twitch, like when her nose is going faster it means that she’s a little bit more on high-alert, and if it’s slower, she’s calmer,” Lehtomaki continued. “Her ears will move one at a time, and they’ll usually precede the movement [of her body], so if she hears something behind her, her ear will go first, and then the rest of her will turn. But then the other thing that was really important to me was just that, not only is she a bunny, but she’s also a female cop. And just because she’s a tough bunny, I didn’t want her to lose her femaleness. And so a lot of times in the posing we’re asking the animators to kind of keep her elbows in, you know, keep her movement still feminine. Just because she’s tough we don’t want to make her move like a man.”

(Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
(Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

Finally, I asked how the movement and personalities of humans was factored in to the animation style of the characters in “Zootopia.” “Well, our characters have to relate to us,” dos Anjos replied. “They have to relate to you when you watch the movie; you want to relate to their emotions and the situations that they’re going through. So we definitely used people’s perspectives on situations and how people react to certain things. But we tried to avoid making our characters look like people. The way they move, the timing of their movement, and their expressions—we tried to keep [all] that a little more natural to their species. But their overall emotion and the situations that they’re going through are very much things that people go through. You had to be able to relate to those characters when you watch them.”

Lehtomaki commented on the video recordings of actors like Ginnifer Goodwin from the voice-over sessions, “Usually we tend to watch those things before we start our scenes, just to see if there’s anything cool we can take out of there. I would say her gesturing, overall, was something that consistently made it into the film, whether or not it was looking at the specific take that she did or just the feeling of that, because she tends to do that stuff while she’s recording. There’s a little bit of a self-righteousness to Judy where she thinks she knows better, and so it’s kind of like that pointed, ‘I’m gonna tell you what to do,’ kind of thing. It felt like it worked really well with her character.”

“I would also say Ginnifer’s mouth shapes, if you look at her mouth, she always has the little pinched corners, and Judy’s mouth was very particular and we had to keep it narrow, because it keeps her cuter-looking. When it gets too wide, you show a lot of her teeth, and we called them ‘the vampire [teeth]’ because it started to look very savage and very scary-looking, so we tried to keep her mouth corners a little bit tighter and pinched so that you don’t reveal too much of her teeth. You want to see her cute buck-teeth, but you don’t want to see her snarly fangs back there. And if you’ve ever seen a real rabbit yawn, you know how terrifying that can look. Look it up on YouTube!”

Next week we’ll talk with the Environments team behind “Zootopia,” and discuss how they build the world of the movie from the bottom up.

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

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