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Interview: Rich Moore and Byron Howard Discuss Disney’s Zooptopia and Creating a World Where Animals Talk and Walk Upright

Zootopia’s box office to date already exceeds 1 billion dollars, and the film has garnered numerous nominations for Best Animated Feature. The latest Disney epic takes us into a world where animals walk upright, wear clothing, and populate their own alternative-reality metropolis. Judy Hopps is a rabbit who aspires to leave her home town and move to Zootopia to become a detective. It’s not long before Judy learns how hard it is to be a law enforcement officer in a city where she faces bias and prejudice.

I caught up with directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard to find out what it’s like working for Disney, and how they brought Zootopia to life. Moore says he’s been thinking about these questions most of his life. “I always wondered as a kid, how are the animals comfortable in a climate in a city that looks just like New York. Isn’t the polar bear burning? Aren’t the rain forest creatures missing that environment?”

With years of experience in animation, Moore and Howard has watched their industry transform. We talk about how much the world of animation has changed. They agree, “It’s pretty vastly different.”

Awards Daily: The last time I spoke to you, Zooptopia was getting a lot of awards love, you’d been nominated for a Critics Choice award and then a Golden Globe Award.

Bryon Howard: It’s still great. Our heads are still whirling from all this stuff. It’s so nice to have the film recognized like that.

AD: I love this film. I love this idea of animals entirely replacing humans in Zooptopia.

BH The first thing we pitched to our boss, John Lasseter was that we wanted to do a talking animal movie. We wanted a movie where animals walk upright, wear clothes and carry cell phones. He got very excited about this idea because we hadn’t done one at Disney for years. Robin Hood was back in the 70’s, so he got really excited about that. He did say there’s been a lot of talking animal movies from lots of different studios from over the year. If we were going to do this we really had to really do our research and really craft the world to be something completely different than something we had never really seen before. That’s where we figured out that we were going to buckle down and create the world that actually works.

Rich was saying whenever he read these books where you see animals walking around the city together, and he always wondered, “How is that polar bear comfortable?” That’s why we created Tundra Town and Sahara Square.

Rich Moore: I always wondered as a kid, how are the animals comfortable in a climate in a city that looks just like New York. Isn’t the polar bear burning? Aren’t the rainforest creatures missing that environment?

It was one of our writers, Jared Bush that had this idea, “What if the neighborhoods in a city like New York are places that have gone out of their way to make the citizens comfortable in the city?” That was a huge moment and I could see how this world was going to be different to other worlds I’ve seen.

BH: As soon as we figured that it was going to be in a city, it went to a detective procedural. We hadn’t seen one of those in animation and that was something that interested us because we are such huge fans of film noir. We love Chinatown and Double Indemnity. We wanted to weave some of those elements of noir filmmaking into what was already amazing was something that was really exciting.

RM: It seemed like a really exciting way to show off the world. We’re following a detective visiting the neighborhoods and talking to the citizens. It felt like we had the good core of the idea.

BH: We also liked the notion that we were showing a fuzzy underbelly of this city where things are questionable, that there’s an organized crime world where it could get darker if we needed it to.

AD: I was thinking about what you said, that really when did we last see detectives in animation like we do here. Also, you take on the theme of prejudices.

RM: We didn’t start out saying we’re going to make a movie about bias. We had this idea about two groups of predators and prey that didn’t get along. In doing the research of observing wild communities of animals, we actually went over to Africa at one point. At one of the watering holes, we got to see lions coming in during the day drinking next to zebras and gazelles which they normally eat. We thought that’s very much like our own cities. There are groups that historically don’t get along or don’t see eye to eye, but they need to figure out how to co-exist in communities, and we thought that’s a great way to talk about something.

It’s something we’ve said over the last few months in talking about the film, is that it’s something that animation does something better than any other medium, it takes an allegory or something that is a visual symbol for our own society, and be able to talk about something very deeply which I don’t think you can do in a live action film.

AD: When you started this, Nick was going to be the protagonist, and then you changed your plan, how does something like that affect your creative process?

RM: That happened deep into the process. What you may not know is that when we make a movie like this, we make the movie over and over and over again. On average, we make the movie eight to ten times, and the last version being the one that you see in the theater.

The theory being that we are making the movie, we watch it together, we give each other notes, and we adjust it from there. In theory, it’s supposed to progress with each step getting closer to the end.
So, for the longest time, Nick was the protagonist, but the movie wasn’t making the progress you normally see.

We thought that maybe we had the wrong lead character and wondered if Judy was the entry point into the story because she’s naive. She’s the outsider coming to the city with high ideals of what Zootopia means and wouldn’t it be better to see that character? Rather than having Nick as the oppressed predator, and we can see that the city has problems and he’s unhappy with it, wouldn’t it be better to have Judy unravel the case and discover things about the city and herself.

What makes our studio really great in my opinion, is that we all agreed that that was the way to go, and it was worth it to explore that late in the game. Other studios would not be that encouraging and that forgiving to take such a left turn so late. But we work at a place where the best idea always wins. We want to make the best movie we can, and if it involves making a change so late, so be it.

We held hands and knew it would be a rocky turn, but the proof is in the pudding. The results are the best proof that this way works and it’s good to work this way. Based on the way audiences receive the film. Byron and I have been getting mail and tweets, and something about this film is really connecting with people. I think it was the fact that we took on racism, bias, and discrimination. That’s just something you don’t see in films that much today. I’m so proud of the group and what we accomplished.

AD: You seem like you’re having a blast. How do you divide your tasks?

BH: I think we try to be in the room as much as possible. Some films are directed by two people because they’re enormous and go on for years. I prefer working with someone else because these decisions you’re being asked to make are so important to the path of the film, so it’s great to have someone you really trust and believe in there with you and to be a sounding board. That’s what Rich and I try to do. We also have a core group, Rich and me, the writers and the film lives or dies based on the decisions of that group.

Like Rich said, that decision to flip the whole film was a massive exercise in trust for our whole crew. You could feel there was tension, but there was such trust and support and we took them along our line. We explained it very clearly and it wasn’t something we were doing arbitrarily. We were never like that and we really solicited their opinions. We’re a very communal group.

The studio gives you a sense of community and gives you that empowering everyone on that film to feel like they own the film as much as we do.

AD: I loved The Godfather homage you pay in there. A kid isn’t going to get it, but how do you decide that you want to do something like that making sure the child stays glued for two hours, and the adult has to have something in there. How do you manage that?

RM: There’s definitely that feeling of we want something for everybody. We do want something that will entertain the young and old alike. We don’t want to talk down to kids or talk up to adults. It’s important we’re not doing The Godfather homage that only the adults would understand, it needed to play to children too.

That’s how the choice was made. It needed to be funny so a child could understand that this is a little mouse who’s name is Mr. Big, and he’s not just a tiny shrew. On that level, if I thought of myself as a child, I would see the humor in that. To an adult, it takes on a whole other layer. It’s that joke, but it’s a rather direct nod to The Godfather. It’s done in a way that you’ve never seen before. Despite it being a classic film, there have been tons of homages, but it’s not been done in a unique way, and that’s really what we look for. We look for something where we’re not just doing these jokes, but because there’s real entertainment.

AD: How has technology changed for you?

BH: It’s pretty vastly different. Both Rich and I have been in animation where 2D has graduated into CGI.

RM: It’s the biggest change that’s ever happened. If you think of the careers of Walt Disney and his animators. They have a long career in animation and were there through the ’70s. The biggest change back then that they saw enter into their process was the advent of the Xerox machine.

They could Xerox the drawing onto the cell from paper rather than have a human ink the drawing onto a cell. That was the biggest thing. Going from traditional animation to CG animation was night and day.

BH: It was a paradigm shift. It was a completely different world of animation. The great thing is Rich and I would sit with our animators. We’d see them using the same tools and staging techniques that Walt’s nine old men would use, so all of this is the legacy continues throughout their work at the studio. We’re constantly learning ourselves.

All our cinematography and our layout and lighting are much more complex because anything that can be done in live action, can be done virtually in the computer with technical tools. We’re such cinephiles. We’ll find ourselves referencing films like Chinatown, The Godfather, or something like Scorsese. We’d look at how they lit a scene and we can do that too.

Before, we could only put up 2D backgrounds which were limiting storytelling wise. It feels like there’s this great experimentation going on. You’ll see it in The Paperman and some other Disney shorts.

AD: Who knows where it’s going to go next?

RM: It’s going to be exciting and different. It always is. It will catch us by surprise.

AD: I was looking for the inside jokes.

BH: There are tons of them. There is a movie called Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, and one of our character designers is a huge fan, and one of the naughty sheep, it might be Rich’s character, and one of them is wearing a t-shirt with an animal version of that bar in Roadhouse. It’s all these tiny things you would never know.

There’s also a Moana fishing hook. If you look on Finnick’s van, you’ll see there’s a tiny fish. Hundreds of things get worked in because they have to build and design everything. To get something they love in there is pretty exciting.

AD: You have this great dynamic, so how does that relay down to the animators?

RM: The sad truth is more and more animated films are sending animation to places outside the country and overseas. This is how TV animation has been done for many years. When I started in TV animation it was already outsourcing it to other countries because the budgets were so small on those shows and it became impossible to finish a production in town with the amount of money they had to work with back then.

I always wanted to believe it would never happen with feature animation, but unfortunately, we’re seeing what happened on TV is now happening with animation. It’s scary for the animators who dedicate their lives to being the best they can be with their craft. As these jobs go overseas, they’re not able to hone their skill or practice their craft that they’ve worked so hard on developing. I’m happy to say our Studios still do the animation 100% in-house. That we work face to face with our animators.

It’s a big challenge to communicate from LA to wherever the animation is. We make do, but having done both, but sitting next to the animator and discussing the scene face to face, there is nothing like it.
I think that’s where the real performance comes from, the discussion with the artist right there.

BH: These key decisions in how the movie progresses sometimes don’t get done at those big meetings. They get done in the hallway or at lunch or socializing. There are times when your brain hops out of work, and when you’re talking about personal things, there’s that sense of connection.

What Rich was saying, there’s that distancing effect of working with a remote crew that makes it difficult. I think we all feel at Disney we feel very lucky to be under one roof. We are a very close family, and we track each other from film to film. It’s a huge advantage and I hope it stays that way.

RM: That’s not to say those animators in other places aren’t great animators, they’re very good. Part of our process is to work with our animators and to sit with them. In order to hone the movie to the level where we are proud to put Walt’s name on it.

AD: You also voice some of the characters, and you also use some of the animators to voice your characters. [laughs]

RM: [laughs] Very poorly.

BH: If you’ve heard the term, we use scratch dialogue. We put goofy voices in there as a placeholder, and once in, a while, they stick. The slot is a great example is where our Sloth, Flash was voiced by Raymond S. Persi (animator). We put him in there and it was magic. We could not beat him. We looked at actors, but sometimes it just works and you can’t question it.

RM: It’s becoming an actor reluctantly. In the case of Wreck-It Ralph which I worked on and did the voices for, our boss, John said, “Why are you changing that, it’s really funny.” It works, so why do you want to mess with the chemistry of making people laugh.

BH: The humor is critical. There’s something in that magic with Raymond and the sloth where it was just funny. We tried every voice and it didn’t land where we needed it to. The magic chemistry that makes something work or not work. If something is making people laugh, we thought maybe we shouldn’t mess with it regardless of who is playing the part.