INTERVIEW: The “Zootopia” Environments team tells us how the world of the movie was built from the ground up

in Disney, Movies

Image Copyright 2015 Disney

Welcome to the third and final part of our in-depth “Zootopia” interview series (view Part 1, Part 2, and the Intro.) This week we will be talking with the movie’s talented Environments team, who designed the world of Zootopia, via an interview I conducted with them after a presentation at the Walt Disney Studios’ temporary Animation building in North Hollywood, California.

First I wanted to know how the world of Zootopia was designed, from the ground up. “It started three years ago, and the script was quite different,” Art Director Matthias Lechner told me. “It was very different, actually. It was in such a rough state that in the beginning they would tell me, ‘Okay, we want a scene that plays in the desert,’ or something like that, and I would just [take] two weeks and draw and come up with things.

“For example, you saw [in the presentation] the little fun sketches of what could happen, with little logic. ‘This could be the traffic,’ and so on. And then I would go back two weeks later, I would talk to them again and sometimes they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea. We could use a hotel or something like that in the movie, the Palm Hotel.’ Or they would say, ‘That’s great, and let’s move on. Now we wrote something that’s set at a harbor. What would that be like?’ And that was the process, basically.”

Production Designer Matthias Lechner and Environment Look Supervisor Lance Summers. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
Production Designer Matthias Lechner and Environment Look Supervisor Lance Summers. (Photo by Alex Kang. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

Then I asked how the individual zones were created for the city of Zootopia itself, including the desert-like Sahara Square, the frozen Tundra Town, and the Rainforest District. “It’s very interesting, actually, and you would never guess from seeing the movie,” Lechner noted. “And I like that, because the city [now] has a history of how it developed. Like, Sahara Square, for example, was a backdrop for the Palm Hotel, where [we find] Gazelle, played by Shakira, who had a big part in [the movie]. And we were to go inside, and there was [a scene about] sneaking into the room, and so on. And that was all set in [what is] basically the Las Vegas [area] of the city, on the strip. [And now it’s] completely out of the movie, but the set’s still there.”

Environment Look Supervisor Lance Summers chimed in, “We still pass by it.”

Lechner agreed. “We pass by, it’s there, and it’s part of the city: the Palm Hotel. And it’s like a real history. Tundra Town had a whole other story [that took place] in it, with this bad guy called Koslov, and he had a restaurant, and we figured out what his schemes were, and [that’s] all gone.”

Summers picked up from where Lechner left off. “Yeah, we used to spend a lot more time there and see that part of the city, but then as story changes, we have these sets… if you only knew the story that would [have been] taking place there, but obviously [it’s been changed].”

“But I love the fact [that] it’s like a real city,” Lechner concluded on the topic. “there [are] stories that are not this story but you can see the remains of them.”

I wanted to know if “Zootopia” takes place on an alternate-timeline Earth where humans never evolved into being, or if the movie was set on another planet entirely. “It’s Earth,” Lechner stated definitively. “And we made sure that plants don’t look out-of-this-world, that there’s a ground to [it]. And that’s partly why we had to make it look believable, because it’s not fun if it’s on another planet. Then it’s just all a fantasy. It’s more exciting if it’s just a different evolutionary branch, and this really happened.”

Summers added, “We even went to the extent of bringing in a scientist from NASA, because he’s an environment scientist—he works on climate change with NASA, I think. So we would ask him certain questions like, ‘What if this rainforest was right next to Tundra Town and there was a border there?’ And we found out there’s actually going to be pretty violent thunderstorms right at that border, but we took that knowledge and in our film, used what we could.”

Lechner continued, “I think of it as a second planet Earth. If you want to be specific, I think of it as in South Africa somewhere, maybe, because it’s a moderate climate, so it could be like the western world, but it has enough African parts to it. And Kilimanjaro has ice on it, so [that works]. But that’s not in the movie, that’s just my own private backstory.”

Image Copyright 2015 Disney
Image Copyright 2015 Disney

Next, I wanted to know why the movie focuses exclusively on mammals, omitting any other type of animal species. “The story was very focused on the predator/prey [relationship], or the history of those two groups, in the beginning,” Lechner responded. “And it just seemed too complicated to bring in reptiles and birds, and it was more clear with ‘predator and prey’ if we just [stuck] to mammals. It’s also humanly relatable a little bit easier. It was a simple reason like that, and then we just stuck with it. So in my mind, there [are] other cities, and I would have liked to have some tourists. In some of the drawings I drew in some tourists, but you don’t create a character for just one little [joke].”

Finally, I asked about a point they made in the presentation about creating a texture for each little speck of the environment, even to the point where corners are dirty and clean spots look as though they have been recently cleaned. Was that kind of attention to detail important in the design of “Zootopia?” “Definitely, yeah, because you want to break up that speck and [make it] feel like it’s lived-in. Otherwise it just looks like it was created in outer space or something, you know, and [like] it wasn’t created by animals or people or anything. And so it helps give a story to why that’s there, and not everything has to be grungy or dirty or something like that, but it does have to be [lived-in].”

Lechner elaborated on the topic, “There’s a thing that we call ‘motivated garbage,’ for example. When I do the drawing, I use pencil, and I have a lot of control over the line, and that brings charm into it. I couldn’t translate [that] into 3-D, and so I had to find other ways to put charm into it. And I think the amount of thought and love people put into details like that, that will translate as charm. Like, when we have some trash lying around, it has to look like an animal tried to hit the garbage can, but it landed there. So whatever you see has a little story, and that just shows people that we cared, and that translates as love, and that makes you want to be there and accept the world.”

Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Image ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Zootopia” opens March 4th in theaters nationwide.

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