Zootopia (2016) Cory Loftis, Concept art, digital painting © Disney
Zootopia (2016) Cory Loftis, Concept art, digital painting © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Wed 05 May 2021

Zootopia: illustrating humanity through animals

Animation Disney: The Magic of Animation Film
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

How Walt Disney Animation Studio's Zootopia created an animal environment that tackled some of humanity's biggest issues.

No one’s going to stop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) from becoming a cop. There are plenty of naysayers, but she’s determined to fulfill her dream – even if it means overcoming her small stature, being the first rabbit to ever join the force and leaving the safety of rural Bunnyborrow for the bright lights of Zootopia. Her fox-fearing, carrot-farming parents aren’t sold – they actually tell her that it’s great to have dreams, as long as you don’t believe in them too much – but in a world populated by animals who’ve left their savagery behind, “any young mammal has multitudinous opportunities”. Though prey and predator co-exist peacefully in the world of Zootopia (2016), there’s still crime in the urban jungle and Judy’s serious about stamping it out, even if it means teaming up with a wily fox.

A born hustler, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) knows the twists and turns of Zootopia, both figuratively and literally. When Judy takes a missing persons case linked to a conspiracy that extends all the way to city hall, it’s Nick who guides her through the big city streets.  And those streets are bustling with animals big and small. Zootopia is the epicentre of the animal kingdom, where gazelles are pop stars, mice are mobsters and laid-back yaks own nudist retreats. In the concept art pictured above, Cory Loftis brings this bustling metropolis to life with such effect that it became the film’s poster, but the idea for a modern city full of anthropomorphic animals was Byron Howard’s, who co-directed the film with Rich Moore and Jared Bush.

Inspired by Disney’s classic Robin Hood (1973), which tells the famous story with animals instead of humans, Howard pitched the idea to Disney animation chiefs. “It’s an entire animal civilization (sic) that’s incredibly real, incredibly original and distinctly animal,” Howard said at the D23 Expo in 2013. Distinctly animal is right, with Zootopia featuring a city imagined for animals as if humans never existed – the mice have their own miniature part of town, aptly named Little Rodentia, while the city centre is Savannah Central and is populated by animals you’d expect to see on the African plains.

While concept sketches like Loftis’ helped the animators design their characters, bringing them to computer-generated life required new technology, specifically to create realistic looking fur for the film's cavalcade of creatures. But before software engineers created the program, the creative team of 75 animators spent eight months studying animals – a process that harkens back to Walt Disney bringing in real deer for animators to study during the making of Bambi (1942) – which involved visiting zoos and museums, as well as a trip to Kenya, where they were inspired by seeing predator and prey sharing the same waterhole. The software they developed was dubbed iGroom, a particularly fitting name for something that had to generate over 2.5 million strands of fur for each of the main characters. Not that Judy and Nick were the only animals to be fully realised – a giraffe in the movie has 9 million hairs, while a gerbil has 480,000 – and there are a lot of mammals in this metropolis, including 64 different species and 155 unique characters.

But the animators and artists don’t just create beautiful artworks and CG images, they often invest parts of themselves into these memorable characters. Judy’s animator Kira Lehtomaki’s parents weren’t carrot-farmers (they were scientists) but she’s likened Judy’s quest to become the first rabbit cop with her own to one day work at Disney, but it goes beyond that. Lehtomaki drew from her personal experience when animating a key scene where Judy apologies to Nick (who is named after his character designer by the way). According to Lehtomaki, animators are “really just actors with either a pencil or a mouse”, who often film each other performing the scenes their characters appear in so that they can animate expressions and movement. Of course, in a film bristling with animals, they also considered how those species behave. Judy, for instance, like a real rabbit often turns her ears towards sound or twitches her nose when she’s stressed. It’s obviously adorable, but the film isn’t just cute buddy-cop fun with animals.

At the heart of Zootopia is a message of inclusion and overcoming our biases. No one thinks that a bunny rabbit like Judy could ever become a cop, that’s more for oxen and rhinos, but she proves them all wrong, even though she’s initially hired as part of their ‘mammal inclusion’ program. Likewise, con-artist Nick didn’t set out to become a hustler, it’s what society expected of him because of his species. Through their friendship and experience cracking the case, the two learn to set aside their prejudices and accept each other as individuals. Released in 2016 as the social fabric in the United States was fraying, Zootopia’s ethos of unity and disavowal of fear mongering seemed strangely prescient. It was something the filmmakers talked about but weren’t sure an animated film should address. After being reminded that Disney films have often posed tough questions for parents to explore with their children – like death in The Lion King Howard decided they could approach it.

“The fact that animation allows people to let go of the barriers that we see with just watching humans on screen helped them see themselves in Nick or Judy and understand their flaws and how to deal with them,” Howard told IndieWire.

So, while Zootopia is a city teeming with different animals, it’s humanity that has the power to overcome the naysayers and our lesser natures. If Judy can become the first rabbit cop, maybe we can achieve the dream of co-existing peacefully too.

– Matt Millikan

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