My recent trip to LA also included attending a special press-day event for the in-home release of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ box-office hit Zootopia. We had the opportunity to meet with and interviewing the creative team behind the film. Here are the highlights of our interview with Byron Howard (Director), Rich Moore (Director) & Clark Spencer (Producer).
Q: Tell me about Africa.
BYRON HOWARD: Oh. Well that was incredible. Well, one of the best things about working here is what John Lasseter brought to the studio. John really believes that, well, we all believe that the best stories come from research. And we really wanted to make sure that we were telling a story not just about cartoon animals, but what makes real animals amazing. And 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 there and see animals for real. And so they flew us into Nairobi, and they put us in these little tiny bush planes, and flew us way the heck out into the middle of nowhere.
We actually flew over, we were flying in these little tiny planes. There were three, three planes. The guy said, “Look out the window.” And I looked out the window, and there was this little spire of rock that was shaped like this down below us, and he said, “That’s Pride Rock.” That’s – it was the Lion King!
RICH MOORE: Yeah, the Lion King research team had actually gone on the same tour.
Q: That’s so cool though.
BYRON HOWARD: As a tourist attraction. I think our favorite part was when we stepped 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. And just the animals have a society that actually exists. Like these groups move together and like human beings do. It’s like being in their version of a city. That’s where the whole, bias idea came from us watching these animals around this watering hole. And 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. And wildebeests came in and giraffes. And we saw that 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. And, it a great experience. But that, I think that first camp next to the watering hole I think was a real eye opener for all of us because we just had no idea it was gonna get into us that much. So when we came back, we had all our leadership on that trip. We had our lead of animation. We had our art director. We had our character designer. And those folks all came back with this desire to make the movie so much better because of what we had learned.
Q: One of the things that I love about the movie is the small details have humor. Like there’s someone running on a treadmill while also eating a little donut at the same time. They’re so easy to miss. Do each of you have a favorite little detail that viewers might miss?
RICH MOORE:There’s, that when Judy’s wrapping the carrots in the newspaper. There’s a picture of like an old rabbit in the newspaper, and it’s something about local– I think it’s her great grandfather. I can’t remember the exact caption of it, but it’s so, 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.
CLARK SPENCER: For me, one of my favorite, and I love this because someone in animation had to think about this. In the opening sequence, with Judy on stage with the tiger and the little sheep, the tiger 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. Like a kid would do – 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 really is 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.
Q: So the story of Bias really impacted me and my kids. I was wondering what kind of feedback that you received in the film that really resonated with you?
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, I think we were really happy that the message landed with so many people. I talked about it, it did come from that watering hole idea, and it evolved very organically. But, as we got into it, we thought, this is really compelling. 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. Plus the fact that people find Judy so empowering I think was really inspiring to us.
RICH MOORE: As we were making the film, and we didn’t start like, “We’re gonna make a message movie here.” 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 these things were going to happen?” And as we were making the film, these things would pop up in the news. And, I’m like, oh my god. You know, this is, this movie is oddly timely. 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. That it didn’t come across as this is the message. This is how you cure these things. It’s those topics that are complex, 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.
Q: So many great characters. I think everybody’s been able to pick out their favorite. For me the show stealer was Flash.
RICH MOORE: He stole it so slow, slow motion.
Q: 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?
RICH MOORE: A little of both. A little of both there.
BYRON HOWARD: There was something in there. I think when we talk about how he sort of 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 was in this brainstorming session said, “You know, if there’s a DMV in, Zootopia, it should be run by sloths. ha, ha. And he was just throwing a joke out…in the room. He didn’t think it would land, and everyone just kinda went, “Oh.”
BYRON HOWARD: 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, ’cause 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 we all talk for many, many, many meetings.
RICH MOORE: At the same time. Sometimes we listen.
BYRON HOWARD: Sometimes but not always. When we hear a good idea, the room kinda catches fire, and that really was one of those ideas that happened like that.
RICH MOORE: 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.
Q: Was the name for him immediate?
RICH MOORE: Yes, mm-hmm. Yeah, immediately.
Q: I love the sheep Bellwether. I was so hurt when you made her a villain.
RICH MOORE: Aw, I’m sorry.
Q: I didn’t see it coming.
RICH MOORE: That’s good. Yeah.
Q: She’s so sweet.
RICH MOORE:Well but that was a cover. That was a ruse that she was playing, because she’s smart. I would think that she’s smarter than she is cute. Because, she knows that most people in that world think of sheep as very kind of gentle and, and sweet. So she used kind of the stereotype. That’s the world of Zootopia to kind of, that was her perfect cover. That who would ever suspect a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
BYRON HOWARD: Mm-hmm. And Jenny Slate’s voice is so charming. During a read for us, it was just that little crack that she’s got in her voice is so disarming and, you wanna love her. You wanna sympathize with her. And so she’s a good villain in that way, I think.
Q: With the new Zootopia Bachelor Bachelorette trailer running, how much in advance do those things take place? ABC that comes to you? Or do you say, “We’ve got a great new idea to tie it in”?
CLARK SPENCER: It’s a little bit of everything, to be honest with you. They come and talk about different moments in time, like knowing when the DVD’s gonna come out, what’s gonna be on television, what are big moments, the Billboard Music Awards, all those things. So then we sort of brainstorm ideas as to what could be fun. And it felt like there was definitely a tie in with the Bachelorette and with Flash, and what kind of a date would he be? Or what kind of bachelor would he be?
Q: I know when you hang out with creative people, it’s a lot of fun, and stories just pop up. How did that spawn for you guys?
RICH MOORE: That’s a great question, I could talk for an hour on this one. But, it’s a weird, the process is a weird thing. It’s a weird beast. That you can’t tell it “Today, uh, we’re gonna be creative.” You know? I’ve said to people, “It’s kinda like an acorn growing into like an oak tree.” You know, that you can plant it, and you can kind fertilize it, and tend to the seed, but it’s gonna grow kind of at its own pace. And, the way I keep my sanity is just remembering, that 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, you know? 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 amazing.” We’re watching it in real time kind of come to life. So, 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 all 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 foremost, you know, what is in everyone’s mind. So, it’s cool.
Q:: Do you feel like your day’s a little bit animated, like at home?
RICH MOORE: A little bit.
Q: Do you ever butter your bagel and just feel like you’re a cartoon?
RICH MOORE: I don’t know. I’ve, I’ve been like that since I was a kid.
BYRON HOWARD: 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 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 we could, what if we added this? And what if we keep.” You know? And that’s how it sort of builds, we build on each other rather than knock each other down.
RICH MOORE: And I think that if you’re with a group of people that ask, “What if?” every day, it’s hard not to be positive.
After our interview we received a few drawing tips from Byron Howard (Director). He used a large over head and took his time to talk us through a step-by-step basic outline of Judy, the bunny in Zootopia. Here is mine. I don’t think I’ll be quitting my day job anytime soon.
From the largest elephant to the smallest shrew, the city of Zootopia is a mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive. When Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Determined to prove herself, Judy jumps at the opportunity to solve a mysterious case. Unfortunately, that means working with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who makes her job even harder.
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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.