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Disney Behind the Scenes: How Zootopia Came to Be


Disney provided me with a trip to Los Angeles in exchange for my coverage of this and other movie releases. No other compensation is given. All opinions, experiences, memories and character crushes are 100% my own.

I’m an animal lover to the core. Married to a veterinarian and surrounded by everything from goats to guinea pigs, our life somewhat resembles a zoo on a daily basis. I often find myself in full blown conversations with creatures so this concept of a mammal metropolis makes perfect sense to me, and I am so excited for the upcoming release of this film!

Zootopia Team

About The Story Trust

One of my favorite things about Disney Animation is how seriously they take the task of staying true to the Disney name as they continue to create and share new films. I had the exciting opportunity to interview producer Clark Spencer along with directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard.

Clark started off by sharing with us how The Story Trust was created to do just that: 

10 years ago today, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull joined Disney Animation and everything changed.

One of the first things they did was they put film making where it belongs. They put it back into the hands of the Film Makers and not into the hands of Executives. So John had created what we call the story trust. Today it’s a mix of veterans and young talent. It’s Directors, it’s Writers, it’s Story Artists, who each and every day challenge each other and push our films to a new level of excellence.  It’s a really important route and so we always ask ourselves, what makes a Disney Animation Film?

We tell modern stories, we tell fairy tales, we have films, and animal films and human films and animals and humans. There are all types of stories which always have 4 key ingredients. One, we strive to tell timeless stories for today’s audiences. Two, we make these movies to be entertaining for people of all ages around the world. Three, our films must contain both a combination of great humor and deep emotion. And Four, these films have to live up to the standard of Walt Disney. After all, his name is on each and every one of these Films.

In my 25 years at the Studio, I’ve seen some good times and I’ve seen some not so good times, and I can tell you right now, we’re experiencing a renaissance at Disney Animation. When I think about the films recently and films that are coming up, I really feel like I’m one of the luckiest people alive. At the heart of this place right now is Zootopia. 

Team Zootopia

Meet Directors Byron Howard & Rich Moore

Clark then introduced us to the directors of Zootopia:

Byron started at Disney as a Tour Guide at Walt Disney World. He always dreamed of being part of Disney Animation. He finally got his chance on the Film “Pocahantas” where he was a clean up Artist. He was an animator on “Lilo & Stitch.” He went into story artist ranks and then eventually made his directorial debut on the Oscar Nominated Film “Bolt” and on the worldwide hit “Tangled.” 

We also have Richie Morton. Rich came to Disney in 2008. Rich has an incredible and long story past in TV animation, creating some of the best and most iconic episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” and his directorial debut here at Disney Animation was on the Oscar nominated Film “Wreck It Ralph.”  So two amazing individuals we get to work with. 

You will hear more from Byron and Rich below, but first Clark shared with us the back story of Zootopia and how it all came to be.

How Zootopia Came to Be

Clark then shared with us some footage from the film that had never before been shown outside the walls of Disney Animation. He called it “naked parts of our process.” He shared with us a look back at the incredible legacy of animal films that are such a strong part of Disney history.

There’s “Bambi”, “Jungle Book”, “Dumbo” “Robin Hood” and of course, “The Lion King.” They’re all incredibly funny Films and very deeply emotional. After finishing “Tangled” Byron was thinking about what kind of story he wanted to tell next, and he kept coming back to these great animal films, and kept drawing animals over and over again. 

We finally came up with this idea of an Animal City called “Zootopia” and John loved the idea so much, he literally got fired up and he hugged Byron because John is also a huge fan of talking animal films. John was just very excited that we would be going back into this realm.  He charged everyone on the team with creating an animal movie that no one has ever seen before. 

Research in the Disney Animal Kingdom

So our Films, they always begin at the same place.  It begins with research and with Zootopia, the Director spent 15 months studying Animals.  Our research took us incredible places starting with our own Animal Kingdom down at Walt Disney World where they have a huge array of Animals and some of the best Animal experts in the world.  And we were able to get right up to the Animals and observe their behavior up close and Animal Kingdom and their experts, they really taught us so very much about these Animals.

Research in Africa

Once we’d seen the Animals in a man made facility, we wanted to see them in the wild as well.  So we went to Africa. We went to Kenya to study Animals on the Savannah, get a sense of their movement and their natural environment. Now to find out what a real animal society is like, we needed to go there, see them all around us. And when we got out of that plane, we saw huge birds and giraffes and zebras way out in the distance. And as we got closer to the animals, the animals got closer to us. 

And when we left Africa, our lives did change. They truly changed. We were inspired by these trips to make our characters feel like the animals they are, and capture what makes them so amazing. And we wanted everything from the big city of Zootopia to the individual strains of fur, each animal character to feel believable. So that led us back to research again, literally researching fur at a microscopic level. 

For example, an individual, strand of fox fur is dark at the root and it gets lighter as it goes to the tip, and that’s what gives it its overall coloring. And here’s a fascinating one. Polar Bears’ fur is not actually white. The individual strands of fur are clear that you can see here.  It’s actually clear and hollow.



It’s all in the Details…

So as we have learned, a LOT of research went into making the animals in this film believable and accurate. But a lot of work also went into making the city functional and making sure that things were set up for all sizes of animals. That wasn’t an easy task, but Byron explained to us how it all came together, how  Zootopia had to be built for every size of mammal. They had to accommodate the largest and smallest animals. Newspaper stands that would have papers up high for the elephants and down low for the mice. Subways that would work for all passengers: 

Zootopia Subway

In a movie like this, scale is a BIG (and little) deal. This fun graphic shows just how much size difference there is between the largest and smallest animals. It was also a challenge to get all of the animals upright and on two feet. By studying the animals and their movements and behaviors, they were able to do this for each and every animal in the film. I’m pretty impressed with how natural they were able to make all of these creatures look, aren’t you?

Zootopia Size Chart

The Story

Of course, for this whole idea of a Zootopia city, they needed a story to bring the whole thing together. Byron shared with us how that all came to be, and why it works, and that it all started with an optimistic little bunny named Judy Hopps:

Judy Hopps is an Optimist.  She lives by the mantra that in Zootopia, anyone can be anything. But when she arrives to the Zootopia Police Department, she’s hit by the reality of the world and that is, that while all the other big cop animals get the really cool assignments, she gets what? Rich, what does get?

Rich smiled and answered:

She gets Parking Duty.  It’s not so cool.

Byron quickly continued:

She wants to be a real cop like the other big animals, not just a Meter Maid. But this is Judy Hobbs you’re talking about and Judy is an optimist and an over achiever so she decides she’s gonna make the most of her assignment and try even harder to prove herself.


Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps

This all leads to the development of Judy’s relationship with Nick Wilde. A sly fox (natural enemy!) who through a series of events, teams up with Judy to form some exciting and hilarious adventures that we will all be able to see on the big screen soon! I can’t wait!

ZOOTOPIA hits theaters on March 4, 2016

The modern mammal metropolis of Zootopia is a city like no other. Comprised of habitat neighborhoods like ritzy Sahara Square and frigid Tundratown, it’s a melting pot where animals from every environment live together—a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything. But when optimistic Officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) arrives, she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of big, tough animals isn’t so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), to solve the mystery.



on Facebook and Twitter. Also check out the ZOOTOPIA website!

I jumped right on the subway to Zootopia, it just seems like my kind of place:

Zootopia Subway

Remember! ZOOTOPIA hits theaters on March 4, 2016

Photo Credit: Disney

Meet the author – Keri Lyn

The creative and frugal mind behind She Saved for over 12 years now, Keri Lyn shares her adventures in parenting along with her love for family travel, country living and brand marketing. A self-proclaimed “brand loyalist”, Keri Lyn is known for her strong and enthusiastic voice when it comes to the products and brands that she loves. She Saved has become a community for like-minded consumers who appreciate saving money, time and sanity by getting the best deals on quality products and experiences.

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