Things change during the filming of a movie. It’s an inconvenience on a live-action project and a nightmare for animators because the process takes so long.
Eighteen months of work had been done on the Walt Disney Pictures film “Zootopia” when it became clear there was something wrong. Audiences just weren’t buying the story around Nick (Jason Bateman), a fox who has no love for the city full of animals.
Byron Howard, who co-directed with Rich Moore, pitched the idea five years ago. The script evolved, especially when it came to Nick.
“When you pull a thread on a film a lot of things can happen. We were pulling a major thread,” Howard says. “Making changes are tough but I am glad that the studio just won’t settle and always wants to make the final product great.”
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The decision was made to change the central character to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the first bunny on the Zootopia police force. That meant stepping up the process to stay on schedule.
Moore was not originally a director on the film, but he jumped on board when the big changes had to be made. Howard points out that every animated film goes through a critical moment and there is always someone willing to lend a hand.
Several other changes were made, including the elimination of a pig and adding sloths who work at the DMV and a spaced-out Yak voiced by Tommy Chung.
“Zootopia” is filled with anthropomorphic creatures great and small, from a fennec fox to an elephant. Despite a world filled with so many animals, it remains a mystery to Moore why there was such a push by the team to put a goat into the story. Ideas were pitched from a fainting goat to a meter maid goat, who Judy Hopps sees as a sad omen of her own career with the Zootopia police force.
“Finally I was asked if the goat was in or out?” Moore says.
It was out.
The co-directors were able to make the lion’s share of the decisions because of their work experience. Moore’s resume includes directing “Wreck-It-Ralph” along with multiple episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” Howard is a director, producer, screenwriter, story artist and voice actor best known for directing “Bolt” and “Tangled.” It’s only been eight years since Howard worked on the animated canine adventure film, “Bolt.” A lot has changed in the computer animation world, especially when it comes to fur.
A scene where Bolt put his head out the window almost had to be cut because the animators were not certain how fur would react in the wind. With “Zootopia,” a new program allows the team to make the most realistic looking fur this side of Mother Nature.
Geting the story right meant meant finding the right blend of humor to entertain youngsters and their parents.
There’s a character named Mr. Big who is a miniature version of Don Vito Corleone from “The Godfather.” The directors don’t expect children to get the film reference, just to be amused by a creature so small known as Mr. Big.
“Zootopia” also touches on topics of diversity, inclusion and bigotry –themes that came organically out of their research.
“There’s a line in the movie that explains in the animal world 90% are prey and 10% are predators. If we follow that through you have to wonder even if they can put their eating problems behind them, would the mistrust go away or just be buried and waiting for someone to bring it back,” Howard says. “It was never our intent to preach. We just like to watch something grow and change like this movie did.”