Behind the Scenes of ‘Zootopia’: Creating Disney Animation’s Most Detailed Film Yet

By January 20, 2016
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Imagine a world of only animals… got it? It’s probably something that you’ve thought about before when you go to see an animated movie that follows the same kind of subject matter, or lives in the same sub-genre. However, you’ve never seen one quite as detailed or thought out as Walt Disney Animation’s Zootopia.

A few months ago, I was invited with a group of other journalists to go inside and learn the secrets behind the studio’s newest, ambitious feature film. Throughout the day, I got to see how the animators, writers, directors, designers, and other departments behind Zootopia had worked to put the film together up until that point, which included casting actors like Jason Bateman, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, and others in their respective roles, to even how they made a decision regarding how an elephant would scoop ice cream. It’s rare that you get to see a movie’s development process like this down to even the smallest kinds of minutia and details, and it gave me a whole new kind of appreciation for the film, which I hadn’t even seen at that point.

Recently I released the first part of my coverage of the film, which detailed how the movie’s fictional world is structured, the origins of it all, the casting, and some of Zootopia‘s design decisions, and today, I thought I would share some of the secrets behind how the film achieved some of its massive architectural design and detail, the evolution of the film’s characters and story, the film’s talking animal inspirations, and more. If you thought that you knew how much work went into animated projects before too, wait until you hear some of this…


Going into the film, the team were greatly inspired by the animation shown in projects like Disney’s Robin Hood, in terms of how their animals moved, their attitudes, and the way they looked, which formed a basis for the rest of the film’s heightened, detailed look and aesthetic. However, the team also wanted to make sure that they didn’t try to copy any of the studio’s past animation, working hard to create their own kind of cadence and movements for the characters in Zootopia. But if the animals were going to be so detailed and rich, then so did the world they were living in, which led to an incredibly interesting and detailed world-building process behind this film.

When Disney was looking to create the environments of Zootopia, their number one priority was to make sure that everything looked like they were animal-built, natural environments, and when they’re creating an onscreen world even bigger than San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6, that’s saying something. That doesn’t mean that the designers couldn’t have fun with the city itself though, implementing different kinds of animal patterns in and throughout the locations, and in order to make the city feel real and alive, the animators and designers created different, aged styles of architecture and buildings throughout the city of Zootopia, in order to make it feel as though it had been around as long as some of the largest cities in our world have.

Populated with what seems like an infinite number of street signs for the city, the animators were keen on incorporating the same kind of advertising, banks, and newspaper stands that we see in our day-to-day lives, only tailored for the animals living in Zootopia, rather than us humans. Keeping in that same line too, Zootopia has also created new kinds of vehicles for their animals, including things like dog buses, elephant buses, zebra police cars, etc. As you might imagine, these vehicles can change depending on which district the animals are residing in, like sleds being the primary form of transportation in TundraTown.

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Careful to make sure that the world still feels somewhat familiar though, the animators loosely based a majority of their locations on real places and environments. For example, Bunny Burrows are shaped like real life carrot fields, Sahara Square is like the animal version of a Las Vegas or Dubai, with heavy moroccan influences. The buildings in TundraTown are made of pure ice and snow, in the Rainforest District (my district of choice) the trees covering the area have sprinklers at the tops of them, so the district is always raining. Shown to the journalists was concept art of this very district, and the way they managed to create a very urban life in the Rainforest is breathtaking in my opinion, with the lights reflecting off the always wet pavement and the dimly lit streetlights.

On the other side of the size spectrum though, there’s also Little Rodentia, made for the mice, with “You must be this tall to enter” signs guarding their entrances, which basically looks like mini New York brownstones and suburbs tucked into one area of the large city of Zootopia. Apparently audiences can look forward to a King Kong-like chase sequence set in this neighborhood too, which will likely show off the film’s details in terms of pure scale alone, better than anything else in the film.

Going from the basic design concepts though, the animation team and directors then had to make sure that Zootopia was as alive as possible, which meant making it as detailed and vibrant as they could. This means that the animators themselves have created 30,000 leaves on every tree in the film, and much like the Keep Alive software mentioned in my previous post – there’s isn’t a single still object in any frame in the movie. The leaves are always moving, the cars are always driving, the citizens are always walking, shadows are always following, and etc. etc. Going off of the detail and snow animated in Frozen too, audiences can look forward to some even more detailed substances (like snow) than they’ve ever seen in an animated film before, keeping in line with Disney’s tradition of always pushing the boundaries of technology.


None of these detailed aesthetics or environments would amount to anything though, if the characters of Zootopia didn’t feel as alive or real as the world surrounding them. Because of this kind of ambition, the team researched how real animals moved and acted in order to base their animations in a somewhat realistic fashion, while also giving audiences a movie about animals that can walk with their feet flat on the ground while wearing clothes, and still look convincing in terms of their physical movements.

After the character’s designs and movements had been planned out though, the story had to be continued to be tweaked and worked on throughout the rest of the production. Shown to us at one point, we got to see how one specific scene in the film has transformed over the stages of development, with the scene in question showing Judy at her lowest point, and how it went from a sad and moody scene, to an oddly comedic one, in order to make sure the film’s pacing and tones were even all the way throughout. As you might imagine too, this meant that the characters themselves (Judy, Nick, etc.) changed as well, with the writers and editors even saying that Judy began like a Frank Capra character, but slowly transformed into someone reminiscent of Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road… only you know, she’s a bunny, rather than a one-armed, Wasteland Imperator.

Now, what have all of these statistics amounted to, you might ask? What is the sum total of all of this hard work? Something that is easily one of the most ambitious and detailed animated films that I think audiences have ever seen. A homage to the films that have come before, with a modern and fully-realized take, and Zootopia looks like one of the most fun times that you can look forward to this year.

Zootopia is set to hit theatres on March 4th, 2016.

Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable