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‘Zootopia’ Directors Byron Howard & Rich Moore On The Leaps In Animation Tech That Made It Possible

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Oscar nominated, respectively, for their work on Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have triumphantly returned to the forefront of the awards conversation this year with Zootopia. Taking the Best Animated Feature prize at the Critics’ Choice Awards and a Golden Globe nomination the following morning, the celebrated, inclusive picture from Walt Disney Studios tells the story of Judy Hopps, an inspirational young bunny who boldly confronts stereotypes and discrimination in her pursuit of a place within the Zootopia police force. Joining producer Clark Spencer for a conversation with Deadline, the directors discussed the genesis of the project, the evolution of animation technology since Bolt, and Cat Stevens’ moving embrace of the film.

How did Zootopia come together, and what about it spoke to you?

Byron Howard: About five years ago, we pitched this idea of doing an all-animal movie to John Lasseter, and he got behind it in a huge way. We have a legacy of great Disney animal films, but we hadn’t done a talking animal film where they’re walking upright on two legs and dressed in clothes. I had grown up on Robin Hood; I loved that, and he told us that he loved Wind in the Willows, which is an old film that Disney had made about Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

We dove into about a year of research, and during that year, we figured out that this predator/prey thing was really interesting. It immediately gave us two groups that didn’t see eye to eye, and then that led us really quickly into the idea of using the film as a way to talk about bias, and people’s misunderstanding of each other, because as you can see from the news, it’s been a crazy couple years. As we were working on the film, the world around us continued to go crazy with these issues that the film was starting to talk about. And what’s great about the fact that it’s an animated film is that the characters can serve as symbols for people to find themselves, no matter what their experience with bias is around the world.

Rich Moore: I think animation works really well in telling fables, like a lot of Aesop, because he would use animal characters in his fables. It allows the audience to put themselves into the shoes of the main character, if that character doesn’t necessarily look like them. I think animation has an easy entry point to be able to talk about things like this. I think animation, cartoons, comics, there’s something safe, and it’s a paradox really, because it’s like, who would think that men, women, children, little girls, little boys could relate to a rabbit character that wants to become a police officer? But Judy [Hopps] has become a vehicle that anyone can see their struggle in, because it doesn’t skew one particular way or the other.

Was it exciting to be able to cultivate a new animated film, outside existing IP?

Clark Spencer: It’s always one of the biggest challenges, trying to do something that’s completely original, but what I love about that is it opens up this whole moment to think about what would it be. I remember early on, when the idea was pitched, John said, “Well, we’ve done lots of talking animal movies, and I’m super excited by it, but we have to do one like no one has ever seen before,” and that kind of became the mantra for the team. So when we talked about, “Well, how would the animals build the city? Let’s not think like humans, let’s think about it from an animal perspective,” it just created a whole sense of flavor that could be put into this world.

It’s not New York City. It’s not London. It’s not Tokyo. It’s aspects of what we know about cities, but the way animals would do it. The stores are different sizes, the staircases are different sizes. It’s animals of different sizes, it’s tubes that mice travel through, it’s dryers for the hippos that are coming out of waterways that they’re traveling. It’s those kinds of great things that become this flavor throughout the movie while the story’s also being told.

Moore: The parallels came up as we pushed the world, like Steerbucks for Starbucks. The DMV is a good example of something that every adult person worldwide knows about bureaucracy and waiting in lines, and no matter where we went around the world, everybody got that scene, and it was so hilarious. But at the same time, it was finding the serious parallels, too. We went to Africa, and we were camping about 30 yards from a watering hole, and we would see during the day, lions would come right in and drink next the gazelle and zebra they normally eat, and there was no funny business.

They would just go about their business, and they would part ways, because they needed something, just like different groups of people living together in cities. People need to work, they need to come to these cities to live, and they have to find ways to get along, so finding those kinds of key things that tied our own experience as human beings to the animal world, that’s where the movie got really deep and clever.

Byron, you worked with specific programs to design animals and animal fur for 2008’s Bolt. The technology you’re using has advanced substantially in eight years, hasn’t it?

Howard: Definitely. It’s funny, because Clark produced Bolt, and the studio was very new to CG at the time. I think Pixar and Disney were struggling with the technology because we want to tell these stories, and even simple things…like at one point Bolt, the dog, sticks his head out a window for the first time in his life, and it’s an amazing experience. We realized that we had no way to make that fur move, because the fur technologist was not there, so we had to cheat. We had to create this kind of weird little algorithm…

Spencer: That distortion wiggled over the fur to make it feel like it’s moving. It’s not really moving.

Howard: But now, not only does every one of these characters, tens of thousands of characters in the film, have fur, but we have these programs now that actually move hundreds of thousands of strands of fur in real wind, to be able to do something that the audience may never notice. They’ll just feel it. It just feels natural.

Moore: With our technology, it can handle massive amounts of data that can simulate how fur and hair actually exist on an animal, on a character, and how it reacts to stimuli around it.

This technology, called Hyperion, was implemented on Big Hero 6, so if you look from Frozen to Big Hero 6, there is a marked difference digitally in how those films look. I think years from now they’ll say, like, “Okay, there was pre-Hyperion and post-Hyperion.”

I was asking one of the tech guys, “So, what’s impressive about this?” He was like, “Oh, okay. Well, see this,” and he showed me an image— it was a big aerial shot of Sanfransokyo, the city in Big Hero 6—and he goes, “Okay, see this one frame of Big Hero 6? There is more data in this one frame than the whole movie of Bolt.”

And it’s never trying to replicate reality, you know? There’s a long tradition at this studio, and two of the nine old men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote a book called The Illusion of Life. So we’re always chasing a caricature of life, but I mean, that’s the same thing that they were trying to do in 2D, when they were doing Jungle Book or Robin Hood. It’s kind of following in a long tradition.

Howard: But we want believability. All of what we’re doing, and I think what we’ll continue to do in the next generations, is we’re going to try to keep removing those barriers between you and the characters and the world of the film.

Moore: I wonder, like, in 50 years, are live-action movies becoming more like animation, and animation’s becoming more like live action, and at some point they’re going to kind of merge together? Who knows? We’ll all be dead by then. [Laughs]

You prepared Zootopia in a number of different formats. Was that a challenging process?

Howard: HDR. That’s pretty remarkable. That’s something that’s just around the corner that I don’t think most people are aware of yet in the world, is HDR projection. And that was remarkable for us because we know that it’s coming, and I don’t think you can see it in very many places around the world yet, but…

Moore: God, I wish you could. It’s so amazing. It was the most beautiful version of the movie that I think we’ve ever seen. Because as we’re reviewing the film, and looking at designs and color tests, we’re seeing it at its most pristine. And it’s sad, a little bit, that that doesn’t translate to every theater. I like to see the movie in theaters with an audience, and there was several that I went to that was like, God, I wish the audience was seeing it the way that we see it, but that laser-projection system…Holy shit. That was just like, this is gorgeous.

Howard: It looks real. It almost looks like 3D, even if it’s not. Because the contrast is so sharp, it feels like I’m looking at real objects, like I’m looking at a real sky in the real world. I even heard that James Cameron was saying we need better, brighter projecting technology in the theaters, and it’s so true, because it was a frustration for us back on Tangled, because I would go around and see how different theaters were airing it, and back in the old days, to save money on the bulbs, the theater runners would turn the bulb down so it wouldn’t burn as hot, and it just muddied the whole film.

The most beautiful film you’ve seen so far is even more beautiful in HDR, and it’s just an incredible technology that is just around the corner. And also just as wonderful is the cut they play on planes. [Laughs]

Moore: The aspect ratio is like a stamp. God bless people watching the movie on planes, because there’s been movies I’ve discovered that I’d never seen before on a plane flight.

Howard: Cat Stevens watched it on a plane…

Moore: That’s right!

Howard: What’s so neat about that is recently he’s been touring, and he’s been wrapping up his concert, right before he plays “Peace Train,” with the full verbatim quote of Judy’s speech at the end of the film, where she talks about “When I was a child, I thought Zootopia was this perfect place where everyone got along.” So even though the plane version is not the most visually…

Whatever the message is, however people want to incorporate that into their lives is great. Even Cat Stevens, God bless him.

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