Move over, New York City; the trendiest urban metropolis is now none other than “Zootopia,” Disney’s latest animated brainchild. An urban city created by animals for animals only, “Zootopia” marks the largest animated world the studio has created to date, with double the number of digital models used in “Big Hero 6.” Matthias Lechner, the film’s Art Director of Environments spoke about the world-building process on Thursday, Feb. 18 on campus in a lecture sponsored by the Michigan Animation Club.
Lechner emphasized that the “city should be a character itself:” it should feel imaginative, but still be grounded in believability — this is a modern city, after all. To begin the design process, Lechner’s team mentally walks through a typical city experience from the eyes of an animal.
The research started by looking into organic architecture shapes, particularly the work of Sagrada Familia architect Antoni Gaudi. The shapes of buildings and city planning are informed by animal behavior and habitats. Zootopia has a city center with outer districts representing different artificially-created climate zones: Bunny Burrow, a hilly, rural countryside with kid cubbyholes in houses for the constantly growing bunny families; Sahara Square, a slick desert canyon with an active nightlife to match its nocturnal lifestyle; Tundratown, an icy locale with Russian-inspired architecture; Little Rodentia, a model town scaled to the size of a mouse and the Rainforest District, a towering tropical borough. Because animals love nature, buildings are organically integrated into the backdrop.
Lechner believes that “a model is successful if ‘life’ is felt, but the audience doesn’t really know why.” He stressed the importance of creating a backstory for every single detail about the city and how it came to be.
To recreate the feel of a city’s ever-progressing history, buildings showcase different eras of architecture while sprinklers artificially create the rainforest districts’ constant showers. The city infrastructure contains tall metal pipes disguised as plant roots, and a plethora of car options fit every animal shape and size. The team also created a subway map connecting the different districts, and contemporary products, billboards and advertisements targeting specific animal needs peek out behind — details seemingly minor, but essential enough in building a fully fleshed out world that signage design merited its own job title. Even the flags in Little Rodentia are stiffer because they require smaller pieces of cloth. This meticulous attention to detail is what makes the world of Zootopia burst with vibrancy.
Lechner chuckled when a student asked about “Easter Eggs” — hidden references to other Disney animated pictures — scattered throughout the movie, saying that as a parent of a young child, he feels confident that “Zootopia” contains a wealth of little background stories to withstand repeat viewings. One such instance to watch out for is a calendar featuring “Big Hero 6” ’s San Fransokyo in the police chief’s office.
However, it’s important to note that environment design is not an isolated process. Designers and screenwriters work closely together at the beginning of the filmmaking process, meeting in collaborative meetings at least every six weeks for critiques so that the storyline and animation can build off each other and grow in the same direction. Though Lechner estimated 80 percent of designs didn’t make it to the final movie, his team can tweak elements to fit new storylines. For example, a scene featuring a Bunny Burrow house was cut, but the house design was adapted to become the train station in the final version of the film.
For every shot, the art director oversees sketch creation, which the modeling department digitally arranges. Next, the looks department, supervised by the production director, takes these basic shapes and adds textures, surface colors, and other artificially created details. The optimization team uses a program to bounce light off shapes to further render color and detail. The process for each scene takes about a month and a half, though the teams do work on multiple scenes concurrently.
A delightfully bumbling tale of talking, two-footed animals needs an environment with the zeal to match. With its large scale and lovingly crafted details, “Zootopia” delivers.
“Zootopia” will be released on March 4, 2016.