Interview with Zootopia Animators Renato dos Anjos and Chad Sellers

I recently had the pleasure of having an interview with Zootopia animators Renato dos Anjos (head of animation Zootopia) and Chad Sellers (animation supervisor Zootopia). If you’ve followed me for any length of time then you know by now I love interviewing animators. I’ve done so for about nine years now at Comic Book conventions. There’s always a common denominator, they are super cool, laid back and ready to have fun. Needless to say there’s a lot of pages of laughter in most of the transcripts that come off of these interviews.

So get yourself in that place, because the room at Disney Toon Studios where I interviewed Renato and Chad was small but big with energy. These two are talented guys and it was an absolute honor to discuss the creation of Zootopia with them following my interview with filmmakers.

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Disney

Interview with Zootopia Animators Renato dos Anjos and Chad Sellers

We started the Zootopia animators interview with Renato walking us through the process of animating and researching for the filmRenato was on the team that went to Africa, which we discussed with directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore. He also went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and an animal rescue.

Renato and Chad placed into perspective the complexity involved with animating animals with regard to scale and movements.

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Gazelle of Zootopia played by Shakira by Disney

Renato:

One thing very unique to this film is the amount of species that we had to animate. When we were working on Tangled for instance and on Frozen, once you learn to animate a person you can use some of that knowledge. When you’re animating a mouse, and then you have to animate an elephant for instance, it’s very different, and there’s not much you learn from one character that you can use onto another. It really became a very complex film from an animation perspective because you’re constantly having to learn something new. You can never really use something you learned on one character onto another.

Very early on we looked at a lot of things- a lot of footage of documentaries and films including Robin Hood which is one of my favorite animated movies of all time. I adore the animation in this movie; I think it’s absolutely stunning. I know it was done many years ago but, still some of the animators that worked on this movie are my heroes.

But for Zootopia, we wanted the animation to be unique to our film. We didn’t wanna just go back and copy what the studio did in the past. We wanted to do something unique, so we decided we wanted to use life as our main source of inspiration.

We also went to our own Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida which was amazing. They took us around the facility, showed us the animals and we were able to interact with them very closely. We learned a ton. One thing that I wasn’t expecting very close by, maybe about forty-five minutes away, as an animal rescue.

That was my first time seeing a fox in person, which was incredible. I think they’re really cute animals, very different than dogs. The way they move they’re very unique.

As for visiting Kenya, one thing that I wasn’t expecting is how this trip changed our vision for the film. This really set the tone for the movie.

We were the working the movie for about a year and a half, we thought we had seen everything that we could see. We watched every documentary we could find, we went to all these different places, and we really thought we had done our homework. But as soon as we landed, within days of being there, it really felt that we were really only scratching the surface.

These animals are free, they move differently, but there’s a certain aspect to their behavior that’s very different and unique. Also that they’re interacting with different species as well is something that you don’t see anywhere else.

This one clip here shows the very first two animals, I felt, who looked close to what I was seeing in Kenya. This giraffe and this elephant, even though they’re walking with two legs, they do still feel like a giraffe; it does feel like an elephant. Nick, also, he kinda moves like a fox.

We always wanted to make sure each character looked and behaved like the species that we were portraying.

It really felt right to me when we watched this clip. It took a lot of trial and error.

That elephant, for instance, he had a lot to do with this one elephant that passed us in Kenya. This pack kind of passed us, and this elephant got really close, and it moved its head. There’s this really interesting way of motion, and we tried to capture that.

Chad:

When Renato came back from Africa, we were here kinda just doing these tests, and it was good, you know, but there was a level that we hadn’t scratched yet. Just hearing from Renato when they got back from Africa added was so inspirational. I think it kept pushing us to really do something unique and specific with these characters that maybe you haven’t seen before.

Renato:

One thing you see in the film is some animals move in these little herds. When you watch Zootopia, especially the background, you see this little gathering of herds and species which is very fun.

Chad:

Every level was so detailed and a lot of time was spent, and even though these guys were in the background, you would kind of feel these herds kind of jumping, and it’s not something maybe you’d pick out at first look, but it’s that level of detail layered in just really brought it to life, I think.

And then another fun one that we got to research were how these animals were gonna eat. They’re obviously gonna eat differently than a human would. We had to figure out what it was that made it feel more animal-like because they are gonna be standing on two legs which means that arms are gonna be free.

So what are they gonna do with their arms, because here, you know, they go towards the food to eat. We bring the food to our mouth, but in this case, we put the popsicle in his hand, but we brought the head down to the popsicle rather than bringing it up to the mouth. And just that little thing made it feel more animal.

And then the bear, again, just to stay true, bears can’t reach their back. You might be tempted to- physically with the character in the computer, we could bring the arm back, but it felt like a guy in a bear suit. And we get the butt scratching going on.

Renato:

We always take things a little too far.

Chad:

Always. We had fun with it.

Renato:

These guys are really funny, actually. They’re known to be a bit dumb, the wildebeest. You know, they kinda gather around, and they kind of wait for someone to take the initiative before- and then everybody follows. It was actually kind of dangerous for them. They crossed this river more than once a day sometimes and you know, often- not everybody makes it to the other side.

I asked the guide, “Why are they crossing?” There’s green grass on this side; there’s green grass on the other side; we just don’t know, and we just cross it and sometimes, you know, a crocodile will take them down or, or whatever. In the film there’s this moment that felt very appropriate for that. We don’t have a crocodile taking him down though…

Chad:

We have a car.

Renato:

So yeah, you find the scenes that are unique to a species, then you push it a little too far and then you make it so it becomes more of a character.

Renato:

And one of our other characters is a cheetah, Clawhauser.

Chad:

We definitely studied the cheetahs a lot. These are amazing animals. If you ever get to watch a cheetah run in person, it’s just so powerful. It’s incredible just to hear the sound of their paws hitting the grass.

It’s amazing, they have so many cool things built into them to help them thrive in the wild. They have this stabilization thing built into their head; when moving at high speeds, they can focus on the prey even though- you look at the shoulders and the body, and their spine is doing all this stuff, but their head is locked.

We tried to incorporate that onto our much less in shape cheetah.

Renato:

But he’s got the focus going on.

Chad:

He’s still focused.

Renato:

Yeah, he tries hard.

Chad:

He’s looking at the donut.

Renato:

Oh, we should add a donut to this.

Chad:

Yes.

Yeah, pairing the voice was another thing. Just listening to what the voice actor brings and then thinking about it.

Renato:

Another one of our characters, we have a weasel. Weasels are very funny, interesting characters. They, move really fast. They’ve got this really kind of strange figure eight pattern to their spine and they way they move.

And we have this guy who happens to be a weasel, who happens to be a thief and a liar and, and we kind of added the same kind of feel to his spine and, and locomotion. He’s actually the most exaggerated character in our film.

They’re a little jittery, huh?

Renato:

Yeah.

Chad:

Yeah.

Renato:

A super erratic kind of nervous character.

Do you guys ever dream about this stuff? You work on it so much.

Chad:

I can’t tell you how many- how often.

Renato:

The worst is when you finish, after your shot’s finished, and you’re- “oh, it should’ve been different”, and then you have to go back.

Chad:

You can’t, and you lay in bed, and it’s really all you think about. You can’t turn it off.

Right, but has anything cool ever come from having a random dream?

Renato:

Maybe not dreaming, but I definitely think about as I’m laying in bed, “oh, I could do that on a shot. Yeah, okay, I’ll try that tomorrow.”

Chad:

And it’s hard to turn it off.

Renato:

And then I’m like, “wait a minute? Should I go now? Okay, I’ll just set my alarm for 4:00am, and I’ll go in and do it.”

Any family inspire these characters in any way?

Renato:

I have a dog, actually, I use him a lot for references. He’s a black cocker spaniel; he’s too big for a cocker spaniel, and he moves like a bear- this weirdest thing. The way he walks, and he’s always with his head down; he’s always waddling around. He’s the cutest, and I use him a lot for reference a lot.

Cats are interesting.

Chad:

They are, and I feel that being observers for a profession, we really are. We get so lost in something. We can just be looking at the interesting way that something moves. It could be a person; it could be an animal, whatever. And I swear it’s so many times where it’s just like going to the library, and it sticks with you, and you’re like, “maybe I’ll just try that with the hips in this character or something.”

The weirdest things can inspire you.

Renato:

And we’re really lucky, right close to the studio, there’s this park, and this park we often see deer in there, and we saw a couple bobcats in there. So once in a while, just in the morning, you just see something and it sticks to you.

It makes sense. I mean, I would imagine that you’re overwhelmed with things that just pop out at you, you know, even just going into the bank or just anyone that has character or personality…

Chad:

Oh, totally.

Renato:

Yeah. I’ve got a library of things in my mind of people that I saw, for sure. I draw, you know, I draw people when I see them- I do a couple notes the same kind of spirit of finding things that we can add to the film very early on. This guy yawning, see if that works for Nick. None of that made it to the film, but it kinda helped us establish the character and even the design’s super old. He changed a lot since then.

Chad:

Yeah, sketchbook.

We talked about favorite characters and hidden Mickeys

Pardon me if it was answered. Favorite character? Most fond- do you have a favorite character that you worked on?

Zootopia, Judy Hopps, Zootopia animators, interview

Disney

Chad:

I love Judy Hopps- she’s amazing.

Renato:

Yeah, she is awesome. It’s a tough one. Design wise, one of my favorites is Bogo, he’s incredible. I could watch that guy everyday. It’s such a beautiful kind of design, and the way it came together, it’s really appealing. Yeah.

Are there any little insider baseball secrets or jokes in this movie?

Renato:

Clawhauser has a little hidden Mickey on his cheek.

Stop, really?

Renato:

Yeah, he does.

Oh, how cool is that?

Chad:

It’s adorable, yeah.

Is that the only hidden Mickey?

Chad:

Probably not. Everybody sneaks them in, and then they surprise you later. In every department, somebody will sneak some in there.

Renato:

Even the director sometimes doesn’t know about it, you know.

In Closing

The Zootopia animators shared a lot of inside knowledge behind character development and all the hard work that goes into creating a film of this scale. The film is truly remarkable from not only a technical perspective, but the story line is hilarious. Kids and grown-ups alike will find this movie relatable. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out on Blu-ray today!

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Group shot with Renato dos Anjos and Chad Sellers by Jana Seitzer of Merlot Mommy

Disney flew me out to Los Angeles for the purpose of interviewing talent and filmmakers for this article. It in no way shapes my opinion.

About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Senior Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. Christa has been traveling the world since 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

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