My interview with the filmmakers of Zootopia was one of the most interesting and incredibly fun experiences of my life. It’s not every day you get to attend a red carpet premiere for a major blockbuster film like Alice Through the Looking Glass (which was another reason why I was in L.A.). Not if you’re a blogger anyway. But what I find even more exclusive than fancy film premieres and Hollywood after parties are publicist designed behind-the-scenes interviews. The kind where you get to play all day at Disney Toon Studios. Now that is something to tell the masses. And when I say play, I mean on camera, in a voice-over studio and even with animators like Director Byron Howard, Zootopia.
And I haven’t even mentioned the donuts yet.
My interview with Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Producer Clark Spencer was held in the screening room at Disney Toon Studios. If you haven’t already heard, animators are my favorite brand of interviews. They are always a lot of fun, make you feel right at home and are ready at every opportunity to have a laugh. Interviews with them often feel more like a big hang out session than work and I love and appreciate that.
My Interview with the Filmmakers of Zootopia Directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Producer Clark Spencer
On Africa where the supervising team of Zootopia spent two weeks researching animal behavior and environments
Africa was incredible. One of the best things about working here is John Lasseter, and all of us, believe the best stories come from research.
We really wanted to make sure we were telling a story, not just about cartoon animals, but what makes real animals amazing.
We all love animals, but all of us had just been to zoos. I think we’d all grown up just going to zoos. I grew up in Philadelphia, I went to the Philadelphia zoo. It’s a great zoo, but we really felt like we wanted to go to Africa and see animals for real. So they flew us into Nairobi, and put us in these little tiny bush planes then flew us way the heck out into the middle of nowhere.
We were flying in these little tiny planes, three of them, and the pilot said “Look out the window.” I looked out the window, and there was this little spire of rock down below us, and he said, “That’s Pride Rock.” Like The Lion King!
Yeah, the Lion King research team had actually gone on the same tour.
Nerd moment. Of course we’re all laughing at this point…
20 nerds in Africa. It exists. It exists. They were christening a new king, holding up a little cub. Turns out it was just an animatronic…
I think our favorite part was when you stepped out of the plane, everything was just quiet. It feels different. The air feels different. It’s just open. And the places we visited in Africa haven’t changed in like 40,000 years. The environment is the same.
The animals have a society, these groups move together like human beings do. And so it’s like being in their version of a city. That’s where the whole basic idea came from, us watching these animals around this watering hole.
One of our camps was about 30 feet from a watering hole where we would watch these animals kinda all come in during the day in herds of anywhere from 20 to 500 animals. Wildebeests came in and giraffes, antelope and lions would drink right next to each other at the watering hole. And no funny business. No one was attacking each other, there’s no aggression.
They just got their water, they kinda looked at each other, and then they went their separate ways. And we thought, that’s very much like our own society. Like groups don’t always get along.
We have these cities where we all have to figure out how to live together without killing each other. It was a great experience. I think that first camp next to the watering hole was a real eye opener for all of us. We had no idea it was gonna get into us that much.
We had all our leadership on that trip. We had our lead of animation, our art director, our character designer, and those folks all came back with this desire to make the movie so much better because of what we had experienced.
It’s interesting how you mentioned the watering hole and how it created the fabric of the movie, because The Jungle Book, used the watering hole that way as well.
On funny and quirky details in the animation and storyline
One of the things I love about the movie is small details, like a lot of humor. Like there’s someone running on a treadmill but also eating a little donut at the same time. Do you have a favorite detail?
When Judy’s wrapping the carrots in the newspaper at the vegetable stand. There’s a picture of an old rabbit in the newspaper, I think it’s her great grandfather, It’s like a local man, I can’t remember what the caption is. It’s kinda like a small town newspaper. Every time I see that, it cracks me up. It reminds me of where I grew up, and we just had a very small newspaper, The Oxnard Press Courier.
And that’s funny, now you can see it at home. You can actually pause on that, ‘cause someone actually wrote the copy.
That’s what I’m gonna do.
When I was on Simpsons, we would do Greeking, you know? It wasn’t even real writing. And sometimes we would cut out actual parts like newspaper articles. But this one someone actually went in and wrote all of the articles, you know. It’s really nice.
For me, one of my favorite parts is with Judy on stage with the tiger and the little sheep (and I love this because someone in animation had to actually think about this). The tiger is there, he delivers his line, which is what you would expect. Now, the camera goes over to Judy, but you still see the tiger. The tiger moves, ‘cause he knows he’s supposed to move according to the director of the stage, right? And then looks down and realizes he’s not on the tape.
And while you’re watching Judy, he moves to the tape, and then he looks out to the audience and does this little wave to his parents. He does that little thing just like what a kid would do, right?
They, they’ve done their part, they said their one line, they have to say the horrible part. He’s off the hook.
“Now I’m off the hook. Oh, I didn’t quite go to the right spot. Ah, gotta figure out where my parents are.”
But that they would think about that, when the shot is really about Judy who’s continuing what she’s saying. I just love that kind of detail that people think about. What everyone needs to be doing in the shot, not just the main character.
On feedback on the film
What kind of feedback that you received in the film that really resonated with you?
I think we were really happy that the message landed with so many people. We talked about it coming from the watering hole idea that it evolved very organically. But, as we got into it, we thought,
this is really difficult, and really compelling. And we all had to work very hard together to figure out how to make the movie say what it needed to say. I think the fact that people find Judy so empowering was really inspiring to us.
As we were making the film, and we didn’t start as “We’re gonna make a message movie here.” You know? But, we wanted it to play on a deep level. We wanted it to be about something. And people have said to us, “Well did you guys have a crystal ball or something? Did you know like these things were going to happen?” And as we were making the film, I mean, these things would pop up in the news, you know? And, I’m like “oh my god.”
You know this is something that this movie is oddly timely, you know? That what we’re making here is very relevant to today. And that made us work even harder to make it the best it could be.
That it didn’t come across as preachy like, “this is the message.” Those topics are complex, they’re messy and they come back now and then, you know? So it inspired us to really make the movie as genuine and real as possible. That it didn’t pull punches, but it also didn’t try to sugar coat this stuff, you know.
So many great characters. I think everybody’s been able to pick out their favorite. For me the show stealer was Flash. Did you expect him to be such a show stealer when he was created? Or was it just to make fun of all of our lives at the DMV?
There was, there was something in there. I think when we talk about how he evolved, I can’t remember, I think Jim Reardon, where he was one of our heads of stories, Jim Reardon and Josie Trinidad. I think Jim in this brainstorming session said,
“You know, if there’s a DMV in Zootopia, it should be run by sloths. Ha, ha, ha.”
And he thought he just, he was just throwing a joke out…
Immediately there was something, a DMV run by sloths. Has that ever been done before? We’re just thinking, someone has to have done that.
And we were looking around, it’s like no? I was like, oh, we should do that. So, we immediately got very excited about the idea.
And sometimes that happens when we all get together in groups. It’s a very collaborative process where we bring other writers and directors and story artists into the room and, and we all talk for many, many, many meetings.
When we hear a good idea the room kinda catches fire, and that really was one of those ideas that happened like that.
Well, and it happened so fast-, I mean, for a character that’s so slow, it’s like his creation, his genesis happened like a big bang. You know? Where it was like,
“oh my god, that’s really funny.”
And we literally the next day saw John Lasseter. Then next thing we’re like, “We got this idea about like a sloth running the DMV.” He’s like, “Oh my god.”So we spent the next 90 minutes acting it out, and acting the beats. Almost beat for beat, exactly what’s in the movie. We must have gone through it four or five times, and it was locked in everyone’s head.
Was the name for him immediate?
Yes, mm-hmm. Yeah, immediately.
But, you know, the big, one quick thing is we’ve all been there. We know what this concept is. So we actually test our films around the world, and we weren’t testing it to see the flash piece. We’re actually testing it to see what the audience thought of the overall film. And we tested it in Japan, in Korea, and Russia, and Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and China. I think it was 12 markets we tested the movie in. And every single market, the number one scene was Flash, because for everybody, even though they didn’t know what the Department of Motor Vehicles was, they knew what bureaucracy was.
Something in their society, whether it’s the post office or getting a passport, or getting a driver’s license, there’s some aspect of their daily life that it hit. So everybody can relate. It’s a universal idea.
On getting the creative juices flowing
It’s a weird, the process is a weird thing. It’s a weird beast. That it can’t be, you can’t tell it like, “Today we’re gonna be creative.” You know? Sometimes it just takes off and it does what it wants. It’s almost like a living organism
It’s kinda like an acorn growing into like an oak tree. You know, that you can plant it, and you can kind of fertilize it, and tend to the seed, but it’s gonna grow kind of at its own pace.
The way I keep my sanity is just remembering that’s what I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with a force of nature here that’s bigger than me.
The movie is more than me, it’s more than Byron, it’s more than Clark. It’s kind of a collective living organism that we’re there to kind of shepherd. And some days it can be really frustrating, like, “Why won’t it grow faster?” And then other days it’s like, “Oh my god, this is, this is amazing.”
It’s my favorite thing about this job, that it’s one of those things as an artist you kind of hope for. I hope to work in a place where there’s a creative family that appreciates the process the same way that I do. And it’s real here. I’m thankful every day that I’m finally working at a place that’s foremost in everyone’s mind.
There’s a different way of thinking with people who are in animation. I feel like they just think of silly things and fun things.
It’s very freeing. A lot of it comes from what you said earlier. We sit in a room and we go, “What if?” And we try not to shoot each other down. We try to be, build. We try to get excited about ideas, rather than saying, “Well that’s a terrible idea.” We go, “Oh well, that’s good, but what if we added this?
And I, I think that if you’re with a group of people that ask, “What if?” every day, it’s hard not to be positive because you’re trying to solve problems. You’re not saying, “No.” You know? “No. It’s like this.” You’re saying, “Oh what if this? And what if that?” You know?
If people can, can solve a story about how a fox and a rabbit can be best friends, and work together, that gives me hope that a lot of things in the real world could be solved. If more people asked, “Well what if? What if? What if?”
That’s inspiring, what if?
Zootopia is an incredible film. Even if you don’t have kids, there isn’t a single soul who can’t appreciate the story. I hope you all get a chance to see it, it should definitely be on your radar.