On Feb. 29, Rich Moore and Byron Howard, the directors of Disney’s new animated film “Zootopia,” came to campus to discuss the movie. The Mercury had the chance to sit down with the two directors for an interview.
One of the protagonists that most college students can relate to in “Zootopia” is Officer Judy, a bunny trying to prove her worth as the first of her kind in the world of law. How did the team choose the different characters and casting in the movie?
Moore: The story has a pretty deep theme that involves the predator and the prey in the animal world. We found that it’s best represented by the mammal world because you can put just about every species of mammals into either predator or prey. We found that if we tried to include reptiles and amphibians and birds and fish, the predator-prey dynamic is more about whoever is bigger. This kind of changes animal to animal, so we stuck with the world of mammals to tell the story because it worked thematically. We are telling a buddy story — so we wanted one from the predator and one from the prey. Our main character is Judy — she’s a rabbit who passionately wants to become a police officer in “Zootopia” and she’s a prey animal. In choosing her co-star, we wanted the natural enemy to a rabbit, and we found that just about everywhere there’re rabbits, there are foxes that prey on them. So that’s how Nick arrived. It could have been a bear …
Howard: It could have been a tiger …
Moore: Or something like that, but we really wanted two animals from the same world, not an exotic predator. We wanted woodland-like creatures. Also, the two of them together, they are about the same size. Nick is a little bit bigger, but he’s still a very small predator. Them as a duo makes them an underdog duo when they’re up against big animals like bears and lions and tigers and stuff like that.
In “Zootopia,” there appears to be both classic humor and a new, imaginative setting that is sure to stick with the movie-watchers for a long time. How did the team work to achieve that level of complexity?
Howard: We usually start with one or two people in the room when we have an idea and then, instead of diving into the story, we usually do a nine-month or a 10-month deep dive into the world that we’re trying to learn about. For instance, Rich became an expert in videogames to create “Wreck-It-Ralph.”
Moore: I had a head start (laughter). It started at 10 …
Howard: Little did he know that all those quarters …
Moore: My mom said that I was wasting my life, but I put them to good use!
Howard: All that change, all those spare coins went into research for “Wreck-It-Ralph.” So for this movie, we did about a year of research into animals and into sociology — how cities are born — and we put it all together. We even took a team to Africa — to Kenya — and that was amazing. And that was one of the big ideas of where our movie came from. Fifteen of our leaders — the head of animation, head of look, art director — and us all camped out at the edge of watering hole and we watched all these animals come in and drink. (We saw) a herd of wildebeest, then gazelles and then zebras. Funny thing was that lions were coming in too and they were drinking right next to the animals that they normally eat — which is like gazelles and zebras — but they weren’t attacking them. They would look at each other and just drink and go away. And we thought this whole predator-prey thing is very much like human cities — different groups of people who don’t necessarily all get along or see eye to eye, but they need something in common. Cities are about coming together to survive or to work or to live and flourish.
Moore: It’s about the essentials.
Howard: Yes, exactly. They need to find a way to live together and get along, and that led to this whole predator-prey idea that really fit into the deeper themes of the movie.
Do you have any advice for students who want to pursue a career in animation? Can you also share some significant moments in your careers?
Moore: (laughter) I’m from Oxnard in Southern California, and there are no animators from Oxnard, and so they said, “There are no animators from Oxnard! So you’re going to go out there and be an animator and work in this business? Right.” You know people were concerned. They wanted the best for me, but they weren’t creative people sometimes and they don’t know the right advice to give. But as someone who works in this business, and no one was born into the position they were in. As I said, I came from a little city where no one ever understood animation, but it’s plausible to do. I had dreams of what I was going to do, and they came true and beyond! No matter what the students are imagining that they’d love to (do), it’s like, they are absolutely possible. They can come true if you stick in the game and keep working at it, and sometimes they don’t come true over night. You might get there and find that it works a little different than you think. I certainly did. You know, everyone that comes out of college goes through an angry year of thinking that the rest of the industry is dumb…
Howard: They’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to show them.”
Moore: Yeah, “I’m going to show them!” But I learned so much. You have to accept that the world might not exactly be what you think it is and be able to move with it when it takes you different places. And accept life on life’s terms and not on your own terms. And you can achieve those things that you dream of. It’s all possible.
Howard: Anything you see that you want to accomplish is also learnable. Like, a lot of people would say that a person is talented or not talented, and some people go, “Oh, I’m not talented at that and I can’t really do that,” and I don’t know if that’s true. Anything that you can see, whether it is music or film, can be picked apart and broken down into simpler elements where you can learn to understand why you like something. I think why you have a passion for something is because you like something. You may not know why you are drawn to a film or a piece of music, but I think if you take the time to be voracious and absorb all the stuff and ask yourself, “Why do you like this? Why do I like that film? What does that scene make me feel?” Once you take the pieces apart, you go, “Oh, I get it. I could do this. I can put it back together.”