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How relocating to a leaky old warehouse made rebooting Disney's smart, subversive "Zootopia" so much easier

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How relocating to a leaky old warehouse made rebooting Disney's smart, subversive "Zootopia" so much easier

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It was the one-two punch that would have felled a lesser group of filmmakers.

Back in November of 2014, the "Zootopia" story team had just realized that - after 3+ years of developing this project for Walt Disney Animation Studios - they were going to have to change this movie's protagonist.

"And doing that sort of reboot, changing our film's story so that it could then be told from Judy's point-of-view rather than Nick's, was going to cause a lot of upheaval," recalled Byron Howard - the co-director of Disney's "Zootopia" - during a phone interview earlier this week.


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Little did Howard know that the upheaval was just getting started. For - that exact same month - Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, made an announcement that would then have a profound impact on "Zootopia" 's production.

This announcement had to do with the Roy E. Disney building, that 240,000-square foot structure which had been home to WDAS since December of 1994. For while the exterior of this Robert Stern-designed building had long been praised for its playful detailing (EX: That 70 foot-tall Sorcerer Mickey hat that stands over the structure's main entrance), its interior was another story entirely.

"The outside of this building was a masterpiece," Byron admitted. "But the insides really isolated people. There was no sort of central core where you could then get the whole crew together. And since Ed and John (Lasseter) had been trying to foster this new sort of creative culture at Walt Disney Animation Studios, one that depended on people talking to one other and regularly learning from each other ... Well, given the way that the interior of this building had originally been designed, where - even at the height of production - you never saw anyone because they were all locked away in these dark back offices, something was going to have to change if that new creative culture was really going to flourish at Disney."


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Which is why - in November of 2014 - Catmull revealed the Company's plans to completely overhaul the interior of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building. Which involved gutting this 20 year-old structure so that a large, open communal space could then be created where WDAS employees could gather, eat and share ideas.

"For months, we had been hearing rumors that this redo was in the works. But now it was finally officially here," Howard said. "With the downside being that - given they wanted to get started on this 16 month-long construction project as soon as possible - the 'Zootopia' production team would have to pack up just as we were getting started on our reboot and move."

And where exactly would they be moving to? Byron remembers the exact moment when "Zootopia" producer Clark Spencer first called up the address of their new home on Google Maps.


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"We're both looking down at this image of a big triangle-shaped warehouse that sits 30 feet away from the end of the runway at Bob Hope Airport. And right behind the building, there's this track where Metrolink & Amtrak trains go whipping by all day. And to the other side of the warehouse, there's this junkyard filled with reclaimed cars and tires," Howard said. "Which is why I joked - as Clark was showing me this image - that I was looking down on a war zone."

We now jump ahead six weeks to January 1, 2015. Which is when Byron finds himself standing on the loading dock of this freezing-cold building with the "Zootopia" production team as the first moving trucks from WDAS arrive on the scene.

"Now you have to understand that this building had originally been a warehouse for Walt Disney Imagineering. In fact, when we first got there, there were all these huge crates on the loading dock that were full of props that the Company was about to ship off to Shanghai Disneyland. But the building itself was pretty beaten up. It looked like a real rat trap," Howard said. "But Rich (Moore, the co-director of 'Zootopia') and I told the crew 'We are going to embrace this. This is going to be fun.' And to the crew's credit, that's exactly what they did."


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Mind you, it took a while for the "Zootopia" team to fully settle into what eventually became known as WDAS' Tujunga campus. They first had to learn all of this building's quirks (i.e., which corners of this warehouse's roof leaked right after it rained. More importantly, which of the building's toilets were prone to backing up). But as they prowled around this two story-tall structure, learning all of the ins & outs of the place, there were all sorts of Disney-related treasures to undercover.

"I remember one day opening a door and finding myself in the room where the Imagineers must have edited all of those CircleVision 360 movies that they used to make for the theme parks," Byron said. "I mean, given that the calendar on the wall of that room was from 1994, it had obviously been decades since anyone had last been in there. But there were film cans for 'Reflections of China' and 'Muppetvision' right by the console. So that was pretty cool."

And speaking of cool, Howard had high praise for how the artists & animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios embraced this space. Truly made this old Imagineering warehouse their new home.


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"I mean, you'd go down to the building's loading dock area. Which was this truly massive space. And during the first couple of months we were in that warehouse, at lunchtime, there'd always been five or six drones flying around," Byron recalled. "People actually figured out how to hang hula hoops off of the ceiling so that all of these drones would then have a challenging course to navigate through."

"Another time, I remember being in this story meeting and then looking out a window onto the building's loading dock area. And there was this one guy out there - I think he was from the Effects department - right in the middle of this space, practicing his lightsaber moves. He had one of those light-up, Force FX lightsabers. And he was actually really good. Very nimble. Agile," Howard continued. "A week goes by. And as we're having another story meeting, I look out that window again down into the loading dock area. And not only is the lightsaber guy back, but he's now got two disciples. Two padawan, if I may use the proper Star Wars parlance."

"And as the weeks went by, this guy kept acquiring more & more people who would then go out and buy these light-up lightsabers just so they could then take part in this cool lunchtime activity," Byron laughed. "He eventually accumulated this whole Jedi Academy of students who then put on a tremendous show for the rest of the crew at our Halloween party."


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And it was that exact spirit - that, because all of these artists & animators found themselves directly under the flight path of Burbank Airport, they could then really put themselves out there, take chances - that then began to filter into "Zootopia." Which is why this Academy Award-nominated film is now seen as the smartest, most subversive thing that Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced in years.

Of course, once work was completed on the retooling of the interior of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building last Fall, people began packing up the workspaces that they'd personalized with Christmas lights and/or 7 foot-tall inflatable triceratops & heading back to Burbank.

"And don't get me wrong. I love what they've done with the Roy E. Disney building. A lot of its large new shared spaces remind me somewhat of what we had back at the Tujunga campus," Howard stated. "But when we were all working out of that crummy, drafty, leaky old warehouse -- where some mornings you'd come in and find out that baby possums had somehow gotten inside of the snack machines -- there was just something about that place that reminded me of what it was like when I was just starting out in animation. Back when I was first hired by Disney and was working on 'Mulan' & 'Pocahontas' inside of these temporary trailers. There's just something about working together under rough, weird conditions like that really binds you as a team."


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Which is why Byron now has to fight the urge to return to the Tujunga campus. Where - every 25 minutes or so - a Southwest Airlines flight passes directly overhead and shakes the entire building.

"I honestly think that working out of that warehouse is why 'Zootopia' turned out the way that it did. Working there, it felt like we were on this weird little island away from everybody else. So it felt like - for a while, anyway -- the rules were off. That we didn't have to follow the exact same rules that we followed back in Burbank," Howard concluded. "Which is exactly what we needed when we were rebooting this movie."

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, February 17, 2017

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