As I’ve shared, my recent trip to LA included attending a special press-day event for the in-home release of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ box-office hit Zootopia. Part of our day was spent with the very talented Renato Dos Anjos and Chad Sellers of the animation department.
Renato dos Anjos, currently the head of animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. His previous worked at Sony Pictures Animation/Imageworks includes films such as The Polar Express, Open Season and Surf’s Up. Chad Sellers, animator, and animation supervisor is known for his work on Frozen (2013), Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Tangled (2010).
I hope you enjoy this interview as much I enjoyed being a part of it. I find animation and the talented people behind it fascinating, and these two could not have been easier to talk to, or learn from.
RDA: So, a quick round of introductions, my name is Renato dos Anjos. I’m head of animation with Zootopia.
CS: I’m Chad Sellers. I was one of the animation supervisors.
RDA: We’re gonna walk you guys through our process of animating Zootopia and, the research that we did to decide what animation that we ended up with. This could be a conversation, so if you guys have a question, just go ahead and ask. Don’t worry about it.It’s very informal. This is our very first clip that went out, our very first teaser, you guys have seen it. I’ll just show it to you again, just to talk about the scale of the film and the complexity of animating all these characters.
One thing that was very unique to this film is the amount of species that we had to animate. When we were working on Tangles, for instance, and on Frozen, once you learn to animate a person, you can use some of that knowledge when you’re animating the others. But 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 that you learn from one character that you can use onto another. So, it really became a very complex film from an animative perspective because you’re constantly having to learn something new, and you can never really use something that you learned on a character onto another, so it made that much more complex. 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 want 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 that we wanted to use life as our main source of inspiration. We went to our own Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida which was amazing. They took us around behind the facility to interact with the animals very closely, and we learned a ton. One thing that I wasn’t expecting, well, there’s actually a place in town that we went to- this animal rescue place very close by, maybe about forty-five minutes away. And that was my first time seeing a fox in person, which was incredible. I think they’re really cute animals and they’re very different than dogs. The way they move and they’re very unique, a very unique animal. The very last trip that we went to was to Kenya. I was there for eleven nights, a group of leadership went over there for this trip. And 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 working on the movie for about a year and a half. We thought that 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 as far as research.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’re gonna move differently, but there’s a certain aspect to their behavior that’s very different and unique and also the fact that they’re interacting with different species is something that you don’t see. That really changed the tone and changed our perception on the movie.
This next clip here, this giraffe and this elephant, they’re walking with two legs, they do still feel like a giraffe; it does feel like an elephant and Nick, also, he kinda moves as like a fox. One thing that we always wanted to do is 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. And 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 in this this really interesting way. We tried to capture that. And that was the main thing that we kept grabbing on to. Everything kinda fell into place.
CS: Yeah, it was like when you came back from Africa because we were here kinda just doing these tests, and it was good, but there was a level that we hadn’t scratched yet and just hearing from Renato when they got back from Africa added that inspiration. I think it kept pushing us to really do something unique and specific with these characters that maybe you haven’t seen before.
RDA : I think it’s funny, when we arrived here fresh, everything looked a certain way and was raised to change things; so we did a lot of changes very quickly, because I felt like slowly, your memory, you know, it starts tricking you a little bit, and the things start feeling okay again, and the first two weeks, we were like [SNAPPING FINGERS], we tried to do as much as we could to make sure we captured that moment.
One thing when, that was added to the film is when you see some animals, they move in these little herds and, when you watch Zootopia, especially the background characters, you see this little gathering of, herds and species which is very fun.
CS: 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 was these animals are gonna eat. They’re obviously gonna eat differently than a human would, and 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 they go towards the food to eat. You know, 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 to- 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 just didn’t feel- it felt like a guy in a bear suit, you know.
RDA: Yeah, and this is the last thing, Kenya, these guys are really funny, actually. They’re known to be a little bit dumb, the wildebeest. 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, often- not everybody makes it to the other side. I asked the guide, why are they crossing because 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 a crocodile will take them down In the film- this moment felt very appropriate for that. [AUDIENCE LAUGHS] We don’t have a crocodile taking him down, but…
RDA: It’s kinda funny, everything that we could find that we felt funny; any dressing for a specie, we added that to the film somewhere in the background.
CS : And not necessarily something you would notice, but you’d feel, that’s not the typical way a human would do something which is original and unique to the animal view.
Q: How many people are on a team to make all this happen? When you go see movies and you’re like, oh, that’s great, but there’s so much involved. I know there’s a lot of software, but many people to make this happen?
RDA: For our department was seventy-five- seventy-five animators, yeah.
CS: That’s just the animation.
Q: Do you just take a specific section and say, okay, we’re gonna tackle this scene today, or do you do characters?
RDA: All, all of that. We start with characters…
CS: A combination, kind of.
RDA : Yeah, we build the characters first so what we do like with Chad, he was assigned the shrew, Mr. Big. He had Mr. Big; he had Clawhauser, the polar bear, and those are his characters, and very early on, you’re building them, right?
CS : Yeah, exactly. And then we have a sequence that will come in that’ll be maybe heavy in that character that you’re supervising, and then you’ll cast out a sequence to a group of animators. There’s multiple sequences going on, and there’s different characters in your sequence, so it’s sort of just kind a combination, it’s very random, and people are checking in with different people, and a lot going on.
RDA: It’s always planned with story, and now we screen the story seven to eight times from beginning to end. And from the very first screen, I like to point, okay, that area feels right, so we starting planning; we start building things for that area.And if all goes well,those other sequences will come down to us first. But as the story changes, our plan has to change because we’re building things, for instance, for the first part of the film, and then if the first part needs a lot of work, and the middle part’s ready, then we need to shift our focus on start working on the little part. And that happened a lot in this movie which made the schedule to be so hectic where the story kept evolving, and as the story evolved some of the work didn’t really apply anymore; some of the characters that didn’t apply any more; some new characters needed to be built like the yak- he came in very late. He’s super funny but, you know, it was totally worthwhile, but he came in kinda late. What caused a lot of it used to be the polar bear- he used to have that part in the film. Mr. Big wasn’t there before. He was the big boss in the world, and then the story changed, and Mr. Big became the big boss. So, he became more of a main character.
Q: Was there anything that was taken out that you miss?
RDA A lot, yeah. But the movie, it wouldn’t work on the movie anymore.
Q: What do you do with that?
CS: Cry and then come to work the next day and start over.We never forget. I’ve got a tattoo.
Q: What kind of challenges did you have putting him on two feet, any kind of animal is challenging, but was there anything like the NeverBeast where you had to kind of start from scratch for it?
RDA: Did we have to start from scratch? We do- the yak is kinda funny because there’s a design very early on that was made, I forgot what kind of animal it was- it was a very furry kind of guy- animal. It looked like a buffalo that had a lot more fur. I forgot the name of that because we never really built him. And then we had the wildebeest characters and when the yak came around we almost had to just get the hair, we had designed onto the wildebeest, and kind of make a character out of that for the yak. But every character that we made, because the species were so different, we had to pretty much make them from scratch. Once in a while, we’ll get a mouse, right? We can make multiple mice out of one mouse. You can just change their head size and proportions- some are taller; some are shorter, and some shirts are different. The shrews had to be made from scratch, as well. And the challenge is, with a really broad range of movement on their mouth shapes and they’re challenging to able to be general. When you have this many characters all at once, like the elephants, the whole structure is very different than the shrews and because their mouth is really kind of tucked up under. So there’s nothing on this movie that was easy. Luckily, we started very early. We produced a lot of preproduction very early on, and we lost characters along the way, like I said. But, the bulk of them stayed. We had started the process of building very, very early on as the story evolved. If we had waited for the story to be ready to go to start building, we’d have never been able to finish this film because there was so much that needed to be done.
Q: What inspiration was used for when they went rabid?
RDA : We use a lot of, uh, live footage…
CS: Yeah, of people going rabid, [LAUGHS].
Q: Of people, [LAUGHS].
RDA : People on the rampage. I mean…
CS : There’s just research at every kind of point, you know? You never go into anything, like, having a plan.
RDA : I have this library of Disney movies, and there is this one documentary, I don’t remember the name. It’s a documentary on jaguars, and it’s from the sixties. It’s brutal. It’s a very, very brutal documentary, and I don’t think that would fly today. They would cut it,they would edit it away. That one is not edited at all, and you see a lot. W used e that for reference because it was all from the sixties and there was a lot of amazing footage in there they didn’t bother trimming or anything like that.
Q: Do you ever have a hard time admitting when it’s time to stop editing? How do you know when to stop, when it’s good? Is it a team that tells you when?
RDA : When we can’t find anything else. I stop when I can’t find anything else wrong with it, but we keep going until we’re exhausted.
CS: Yeah, I mean, especially when it comes to animating, like actually animating, I think that’s just kinda like, all right, dude, you’re done. We have to keep going because the artists just wanna pick at it forever. They want it to be perfect. But it’ll never get done if we just don’t pull it.
RDA: And sometimes you can add things that just- they’re not relevant, and they can actually make clutter. I think one thing that’s unique to our viewing animation, it’s all about the core of the idea, what’s the main purpose of the scene, and what’s the core, the center of that idea that needs to be conveyed to the audience. And I think everything else follows. You can have the most beautiful animation; if it doesn’t carry the right weight on the performance, it’s doesn’t give you anything. So we focus a lot on the acting and what’s right for the story, and what’s right for the character at that moment, and we spare no expenses of that. We keep going until we find that. And then everything else becomes a little bit more secondary. But usually the voice actor will bring a whole new take and bring up something at another level to the character, and the animator wants to bring his take. And then in this case, we have the species of the whatever animal we’re working with, would want to incorporate some of that. So the influence comes from everywhere, you know?
RDA: I think eventually we looked at the actors and we get to know the characters so well, that it becomes like- the actor almost, take its own life and, things just happens because the character kind of takes it there. It’s very interesting when when you’re so involved with that, and you have people in charge of certain characters. Eventually, they know this character so well that everything that the character’s in throughout the movie, it’s second nature to them, they become this voice for the character in the department. Another character that we worked on was this Cape Buffalo guy which is, one thing that we found that was really funny is if they notice you, they’re just gonna look at you and they just kinda stare you down. Another thing that we thought was really funny and interesting, we kind of push that into our animation. So yeah, you find the scenes that are unique to a species, and then you push it a little too far, and then you make it, so it becomes more of a character. And that made it so into the film, when he talks to Judy, you can see he looks, he looks and never really lets her go.
RDA: And one of our other characters is a cheetah.
CS : Clawhauser, 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 manycool things built into them to help them thrive in the wild,the way 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 like incorporate some of it onto our much less in shape cheetah.
RDA: 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.
CS : You can’t, and you lay in bed, and it’s really all you think about. You can’t turn it off.
Q: I would imagine that you’re overwhelmed with things that just pop out at you, even just going into the bank or just a weird- anyone that has character or personality…
CS: Oh yeah, totally.
RDA: Yeah. I’ve got a library of things in my mind of people that I saw, for sure.
Q: What is this phase called?
RDA: We’re building, we’re building our character which it involves modeling, adding on this control so it can move, then finding the proportions, and finding the facial shapes- a smile, you know, takes forever for to build a smile that you actually like, and a frown, and an angry brow, and a sad brow; that stuff- everything is hand sculpted…
Q: Are there any little insider easteregg secrets or jokes in this movie?
RDA: Clawhauser has a little hidden Mickey on his cheek.
Q: Is that the only hidden Mickey?
CS : Probably not.Everybody sneaks them in, and then they surprise you later.
RDA: Even the director sometimes doesn’t know about it.
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FTC Disclaimer: I attended an expense paid trip by Disney to press events for the home release of Zootopia. All opinions shared are always honest and my own.