Behind the Scenes of ‘Zootopia’: Discover the Origins Behind Disney Animation’s Latest Film

By December 1, 2015
zootopia press day featured image

Walt Disney Animation has been on a streak of non-stop hits over the past few years with titles like Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. The studio took the year off in 2015 though, and have been hard at work to bring audiences not only one of their most interesting films of the past few years, but also one of their most ambitious visually in 2016′s Zootopia.

A few weeks ago, I was invited with a group of other journalists to go and see the ins-and-outs of how Zootopia has been put together so far, from creating the different environments in the film’s title city, to how they managed to make all of the individual strands of fur on their animals stand out and act like it would normally. The film is a return-to-form in a lot of ways for the studio too, as it takes place in a world filled with talking animals, in a way you’ve never seen before.

Much like how The Good Dinosaur envisions a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, Zootopia envisions a world comprised of only mammals, including bunnies, foxes, mice, elephants, and so on. After being treated to some exclusive footage from the film though, directors Bryon Howard (Tangled, Bolt), Rich Moore (Wreck-it-Ralph), and producer Clark Spencer (Lilo and Stitch, Winnie the Pooh) came out to explain to the audience where the idea of Zootopia came from initially. Much like all of Disney Animation and Pixar’s films too, the project came after Howard had completed work on Tangled, and felt a simple desire to make a film about talking animals that would be reminiscent of some of the iconic Disney classics like Robin Hood, Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, and more.

Predictably, when Howard pitched the idea to John Lasseter, the studio head “literally picked him up, and hugged him“, and was totally on board for the idea, with only one simple request - make it unlike anything we’ve seen before.

And thus, Zootopia was born.


The film follows an ambitious young bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who moves from her hometown of the Bunny Burrows to the big city metropolis that is Zootopia, hoping to become the first female, bunny officer in the city’s police force. Unfortunately for Judy, the world doesn’t quite believe in her as much as she does, and is stuck with meter duty, and pushed to the sidelines. It’s during one work day in particular though, when Judy runs across Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a swindling fox looking to make money any way he can, from anyone he can.

When Judy is tasked with her first case though, and her only shot at being anything more than a meter cop, Judy is disappointed when she realizes she’s going to need Nick’s help in order to find a missing animal she’s been tasked with finding. Through their investigation together, Judy and Nick run across a wide range of other characters, some dangerous and some not, as she races against the clock to make her one shot count.


From the beginning too, Howard and Moore were intent upon delivering in their promise to Lasseter, looking to create a movie about talking animals that was so rich in detail, it would make even the most skeptical fans fall in love with it. This of course, began when a number of the film’s creative team took a trip to Africa, looking to examine some of the film’s animals in their natural environments, rather than in a zoo or altered location. Through their research too, the filmmakers learned new things about some of the film’s animals that they had never thought of before, like how a Polar Bear’s fur isn’t actually white, but clear.

Coming back from the trip though, the filmmakers were then tasked with turning their research into material, and using it for their world and characters, something that Spencer said became the utmost priority to the creative team:

“When we left Africa, our lives had truly changed. We were inspired by this trip to make our characters feel like the animals that they are, and capture what makes them so amazing in the natural world. We wanted everything from the big city of Zootopia to the individual strands furs on each individual animal character to feel believable. So we returned to research.”

When they say that they researched every single strand of fur on each creature too, they’re not exaggerating, as the team researched the strands of fur on their animals to a microscopic level, and then animating millions of strands for each character. But just because the characters had fur didn’t mean that they looked believable, so the animation team utilized a software called Keep Alive, which not only blows wind through the fur of the animals and makes them feel even more alive and real, but also does the same for the environments as well, with shadows moving across city buildings, papers flying through the air, and little pieces of grass blowing along with the breeze – helping the team to imitate that sort of energy and life that cities in the real world exhibit.

rodent subway SIZED

Once the animators had completed work on their characters though, they then had to shape a believable world around each of the citizens of Zootopia as well, making the city feel like an actual metropolis for mammals. To do this, the creative and design teams of the film scaled each of the individual buildings to the size of each of their creatures in the film, from the tallest Giraffe to the smallest mouse, in the hopes of making the city feel more believable and real in terms of size and scale. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense if a building was the same size to a fox as it was to an elephant right?

But how exactly does a mouse walk the same streets as a rhino and not get squished? Thanks to the ingenuity of the creative team and the writers too, they were able to develop different ways for the various types of animal species to travel and commute throughout the city in ways that best fit their characteristics and traits, like the Rodent Subway pictured above, which is placed underneath every street and crosswalk.

It’s through this kind of detail and history that Zootopia begins to gain a lot of its appeal too, promising a world even more detailed than San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6, and fully realized in a way that few other movies are nowadays, both in live action or animated form.  For Spencer too, the idea of integrating the modern and contemporary world with Zootopia was one of the most exciting aspects of the film because it had never been done that way before:

“I think John had talked about making a movie they has never been seen before. People have done animals in the animal world, in the natural world: Lion King, Ice Age; animals in the human world: Jungle Book, Madagascar; but we really haven’t done animals in the modern world, and one where humans never existed. That was the twist that got John excited about what this world could actually be, and feel like something people have not seen before.”

However, the filmmakers quickly realized that Zootopia would have to accommodate more than one kind of animal species too, which led to the overall structure of the city itself.

zootopia districts image

Basically, the city of Zootopia is separated into a number of different districts with four of the most well-represented being Tundratown, Sahara Square, the Rainforest District, and Bunny Burrows. The decision to separate the city like this was influenced a lot by how many of the boroughs in New York City are constructed and border each other too, and how other iconic locations like Paris, London, and Las Vegas are often separated by their different sections and sub-sections.

Each district is suited for the different kinds of animal species in the city though, with Tundratown being a place for the colder weather animals to live, and comes with a regular 3:00 PM blizzard every day in order to keep its temperature. While Sahara Square is very much the night life, Vegas-esque district of the city that borders Tundratown, as the two districts are separated by a towering wall equipped with built in heaters and cold air distributors.

The Rainforest District is the most urban region of the city, with near constant rain and that dim yellow-y light you only really see on city street corners at night, which provides a stark contrast to the country life shown in Bunny Burrows, and provides Zootopia with the opportunity to showcase every form of a city, from the high-class main streets, to the lowly, run down neighborhoods.

Moore commented on the city’s structure and social classes with the following as well, elaborating on their desire to capture real, urban life in an animal world:

 “We wanted to present the city as a real city that we have all experienced like LA, or New York, or Paris, or London, or Shanghai, where it just felt like a melting pot of lots of different species of animals where everyone kind of lived in harmony. We wanted it to be that we fall in love with. It’s not a perfect city. It has great points, and it has some of its bad points, like any place on Earth that we have ever been.”

It was through each of these decisions that Zootopia began to truly take form as well, evolving from a simple, talking-animals film to one of the most ambitious outings in the studio’s history. Rich in detail and filled with the charged energy that can only come from the pure passion of its filmmakers, Zootopia is aiming to venture into entirely new territory for Disney, while also being a loving calling card to some of their most iconic past titles.

This is only the first part in our continuing press coverage for Zootopia as well, so make sure to keep checking back for more news and updates regarding the behind-the-scenes stories from Disney Animation’s latest passion project. Trust me when I say, you won’t want to miss this.

Image Credit: Disney

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