Day one of the VIEW Conference, held each year in Turin, Italy, is complete. The conference brings Hollywood to Italy, along with sessions on games, storytelling, virtual reality, and more.
While many of the talks have covered films and shows that have been released for a while, it certainly doesn’t take away from the value of the sessions. Even though we’ve already covered many of the films and shows here at fxguide, the talks still revealed lots of nuggets of great information and were well received by the audience. We’ll be posting recaps of the sessions throughout the week in order to give you a flavor of the conference.
Byron Howard, Director of Zootopia, opened up the 2016 VIEW Conference with his keynote covering the film. A day earlier, Howard lead a workshop session discussing his background as an animator and director, as well as a deep dive into various aspects of the film.
For this brief recap, we’ll touch on two parts of Howard’s talk. One is focusing on how, like many animated films, real world reference informed the character animation and behavior. The other was the team’s desire to use the animals at real world scale instead of cheating and making the large animals smaller and the small animals larger, as has been generally done in the past.
The team at Disney had the benefit of being able to examine animals in their own theme park, but at Lasseter’s suggestion a group of 15 traveled to Africa to view the animals in their native habitat on the savannah. Not only was the experience a life-changing moment, according to Howard, it also proved as useful as promised to guide the animation and character development in the film.
One example of that impact on character development in the film is that of the Wildebeests. For the initial character sketches, the Gnus were drawn with glasses and suits — as the Disney team thought they would serve as sensible businessmen. However, once the Gnus were observed in their environment, the team realized they were not the brightest of animals, recounting the story of a chaotic river crossing scene. So in the end, the Wildebeests were treated in a less flattering manner, with one illustration showing a Gnu wearing an “I’m with Gnu-pid” t-shirt.
Even though all animals were treated as bipeds in the film, behavior exhibited in the wild informed motion on screen in numerous characters. For example, Howard and the crew noticed that even though giraffes running in the wild were running at full speed, they appeared to be running in slow motion so they re-created that onscreen. Gazelle and camel movements show clear parallels to their counterparts on the savannah of Africa.
Zootopia’s head of police, Chief Bogo, is a cape buffalo which in nature can weigh from 500 to 2,650 lbs. (700 to 1,200 kilograms) as adults. While in Africa, Howard noticed their tendency to stare down the jeeps whenever the team came on one of the buffalos — and animal’s huge size made them incredibly imposing. So it made perfect sense to cast the animal in the police chief role, complete with an “I’m watching you” test animation.
As mentioned earlier, the decision was made to have bipedal animals in Zootopia. But this wasn’t the case in all moments in the film. In general, if the animals were talking or interacting with other animals, they would act more human-like. However, if they were scared or agitated, they would revert to acting like an animal and how that animal would actually act in nature.
Early on, the decision was made to have the characters exist in the film at the same scale as they exist in nature. For example, the scale of a wildebeest compared to a mouse is 1:24, and giraffe to a mouse is 1:95. Generally, in the past, this hasn’t been the case because it poses a large number of challenges to overcome.
Another challenge was for the environments. Zootopia is meant to clearly be a city created for and designed by animals, not just a “human city they threw animals in,” says Howard. For instance, Zootopia has different neighborhoods that focus on different animal cultures such as Sahara Square, Tundra town and the Rain Forest. Different animals live in different neighborhoods, scaled for the creatures.
This scale difference is used at many points in the film and drive aspects of the action, including a key chase with the heroine rabbit policewoman, Judy Hopps, chasing a weasel thief into the mouse-sized neighborhood. The weasel almost knocks over a row of homes due to his large size and they are only saved by the chasing rabbit. She also saves a mouse in the crosswalk from a giant donut sign knocked over by the weasel.
However, the animals are far from isolated as they intermingle in numerous public areas. So the environments must be approachable and provide no barriers for both small and large animals. One such example of this are the trains that connect the various regions of Zootopia. Instead of having one door on the train car, multiple doors exist for the various sizes of creatures.
Howard has been at Walt Disney Animation Studios for over 20 years and has seen the positive influence of Disney’s Pixar acquisition in a big way. He admitted that before Pixar became part of Disney, there were issues with their creative system and some of their “films were not very good.” But that changed dramatically once John Lasseter and Ed Catmull joined the team. “What was so critical is that they took filmmaking at the studio and put it back in the hands of the filmmakers where it belongs.”