Given that "Zootopia" is set in a mammals-only city, it's
entirely appropriate that this Walt Disney Animation Studios production took
home the lion's share of the prizes at this year's Annie Awards.
This Byron Howard / Rich Moore movie wound up claiming six
of the top trophies at Saturday night's ceremony at UCLA's Royce Hall. Among
them Best Animated Feature, Best Directing, Best Storyboarding, Best Character
Design and Best Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production.
But perhaps the Annie that was the hardest earned / the
sweetest to receive was the one that Jared Bush & Phil Johnston won for
Best Writing in An Animated Feature Production. Given that - five years ago -
Bush & Johnston were the guys who had to figure out what "Zootopia" was
actually going to be about.
"Early on, this was going to be a spy movie," Jared
recalled. "When Byron originally invited me to come be a part of this project,
'Zootopia' was going to be this spy action-adventure movie featuring an
all-animal cast that was set on this mysterious island out in the middle of the
ocean. And since I love spy movies, I immediately said 'Yes' to the project."
Unfortunately, between the time when Bush initially agreed
to begin working on "Zootopia" and when he actually started turning in script
pages, the project changed. Now instead of being a spy movie where only the
first 10 minutes of action would be set inside of that all-mammals city, now
what the WDAS Story Trust wanted was a mystery that would then allow audiences
to explore many of Zootopia's more colorful neighborhoods.
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"That's what John Lasseter eventually decided we should do
after looking over all of the material that had previously been developed for
'Zootopia.' Why should we send our characters off to some mysterious island in
the middle on the ocean when we already had this awesome city to explore? John
felt that this was what the audience would really want to see. And in the end,
his story instincts were obviously correct," Bush continued.
That said, given that one of Lasseter's hard & fast
rules when it comes to developing an animated feature is that you have to
really understand the world that your story is set in ... Well, that meant
research. Which - in this case -- involved Jared traveling all the way to Kenya
in order to figure out how the city of Zootopia actually came to be.
"And the key to that particular story point turned out to be
the watering hole," explained Johnston. "That's the one place where predator
& prey intermingle all the time. You'd think that - if you had a lion here
and a gazelle over there - they wouldn't get along, they wouldn't like each
other. But in the wild, these creatures can often be found around the watering
hole at the exact same time. And for the most part, they kind of get along
until someone needs to eat."
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Which was what got Jared & Phil thinking. What if -- at some distant point in the
past, say 10,000 years ago - predator
& prey had brokered a peace accord while standing at the edge of a
particular watering hole? Wouldn't that spot have then become something special
in the eyes of all those who lived in that world? The sort of place that a
great city could have eventually grown up around?
"That's why - if you look at the way the City of Zootopia is
laid out -- right outside of City Hall and the Police Station, there's this big
water fountain. That's actually supposed to be the watering hole upon which
this city was founded thousands of years ago," Bush said.
"Mind you, we don't ever come straight out and reveal the
significance of that fountain over the course of 'Zootopia,' " Johnston stated.
"At one point, we did have our characters discuss how their world was founded,
how predator & prey eventually found a more peaceful way to interact. But
in the end, we found out that this was information that the audience just
didn't need as we were telling our story. What really mattered to them was Nick
& Judy and whether they'd ultimately be able to find a way to work together
and solve this mystery."
That sort of deliberate economy (i.e., only sharing what the
audience really needed to see & hear at a particular point in the story)
also impacted "Zootopia" 's production design. To be specific, which parts of
this all-mammal city actually got built for this film.
"Because when John asked us to design the world of Zootopia
... Well, that's what we did. We designed the entire world," Bush said. "So over
the course of this movie, you get to see some of the continent where the
mammals live. But there are a lot of other places that the audience didn't get
to go to. Like the reptile continent or the place where all the birds live."
"And even within Zootopia itself, as Nick & Judy are
trying to solve the mystery of all those missing mammals, they wind up visiting
only five of Zootopia's burrows. Places like Tundratown, Sahara Square, Little
Rodentia and the Rainforest District," Johnston continued. "But our design team
actually built 10 burrows. And there are places like Outback Island and the
Nocturnal District that were fully realized that the audience never got to
because ... Well, in the end, we only sent our characters to the places that
would best serve our story."
And speaking of best serving their story ... Given that John
Lasseter insisted that Zootopia-the-city was basically a character in this
movie, he insisted that this character's introduction be something truly
"That's why we spent 8 months working on just that one
scene. Given that we had to find a way to visually suggest heat in Sahara
Square, followed by snow in Tundratown and then rain in the Rainforest
District, this was one of the most complicated sequences in the entire film.
There's a lot of heart & soul & art that got poured into this part of
'Zootopia,' " Bush said.
"This is also why the burrow that Judy comes from -
Bunnyburrow - wound up being moved far out into the countryside. That way,
because she then had to take the train in from out-of-town to begin her new job
at ZPD, Judy was introduced to Zootopia at the exact same time that the
audience was. And her obvious delight at seeing all of these tall buildings and
the different districts of the city wound up coloring how the audience felt
about Zootopia as well," Johnston said.
Crafting just the right introduction to this world took a
lot of trial & error. There were earlier versions of Judy's train trip into
the city that were much longer. There were also versions of this movie's
opening where Officer Hopps was already on Zootopia's police force. And by
doing lots of little pop-arounds over Judy's narration, the filmmakers were
able to quickly sketch out how the city was laid out / the way Zootopia
"Which seemed like a fun idea at the time. But in the end,
we found out that this wasn't information that the audience actually wanted or
needed. What they really wanted was to be able to experience Zootopia just as
Judy was. Have this awesome city unfold itself over the course of an
adventure," Bush said.
Which isn't perhaps how most people think the screenwriting
process goes. But that's the thing about Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Everyone who works there then has the opportunity to "plus" a project while
it's in production there. Take - for example (SPOILER AHEAD) - that "Breaking
Bad" gag that gets such a huge laugh from all of the adults out in the
"I think it was Jason Hand who originally boarded this scene
that way. There was this moment in the movie where we had these sheep were
working in a laboratory. But Jason - all on his own - decided to draw these
characters wearing 'Breaking Bad' meth lab outfits," Johnston explained. "And
so he brings in those boards and we were like 'What?!' And Jason went 'I don't
know. I was trying something different.' And we were like 'That's hilarious.
Let's go for it.' Which is why we changed the names of those characters to
Jesse & Woolter. Just to strengthen this gag's tie to 'Breaking Bad.' "
So for the past five years, that's what's been going on at
Walt Disney Animation Studios. Jared & Phil have been taking the creative
input of people like John Lasseter & Jason Hand and then turning what was
originally supposed to be a spy story into a mystery with mass appeal.
Which - given that $1.02 billion that "Zootopia" earned
worldwide last year (not to mention that Golden Globe this Byron Howard / Rich
Moore movie won just last month for Best Animated Feature) - seems to have been
something that Bush & Johnston actually pulled off.
This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Monday, February 6, 2017