Creating the Citizens of Zootopia is a challenging task. From gnus to shrews, lemmings to leopards, rabbits to rhinos, Disney's Zootopia is home to animals of all shapes, sizes, stripes, and spots. Creating each character requires the inventiveness of artists throughout the production disciplines—and with over a 1,000 unique animals, the challenges on the Disney Animation team have never been greater. Character Art Director Cory Loftis shows us how Disney character design and appeal merge with revolutionary work in look and simulation. Cory was the kind of kid who was always drawing on napkins at restaurants. He started his career as an engineer, left to work in the video game industry, and then came to Disney Animation to work on his first animated film, Wreck-It Ralph.
While I'll never be an animator, Cory walked us through how to draw Judy Hopps while we were chatting with him at Disney Animation Studios temporary home (the real facility was getting a makeover during our visit).
At the design level there are two team that help develop the look and feel of Zootopia: one for the Environment and one for the Characters. One the environments have been established and the districts within Zootopia defined, it's Cory's job to work with a team to populate those districts, but that populating comes with challenges.
Challenges of Creating the Citizens of Zootopia
1. Scale of characters
Disney Animation wanted to represent a realistic scale of characters within Zootopia. “That meant we’re going to have really large and small animals,” Cory said. “Doesn’t seem like a challenge until you consider the main characters, Nick and Hopps, until you think about having a camera pointed on them at the same as a giraffe.”
For scale reference 90 mice stacked head to feet equals one giraffe in Zootopia.
The scale was a challenge and the had to figure out what that meant. Does Hopps’ detail hold up when she’s standing next to the giraffes legs? Are their legs going to be as detailed as she is? What happens when she interacts with the smallest characters. Is the fur the same density as it is on Hopps and do they look realistic next to her? So many questions to be answered.
“We wanted to have every mammal species in Zootopia and needed to figure out how to make those and their outfits,” Cory said. “One task we had was to design cops, but it’s not just one cop outfit, it goes on a lot of different animals so we have a variety of different cops. So if you take one of those species, like the mice, you needed to have diversity within the mice so you didn’t see the same mice copied over and over and over again.”
“You can see how both of those things come together when we are talking about the rabbits. You needed to have men and women, adults and children, brothers and sisters, you needed to have them look all different, all different outfits, and this is just a small slice of the many, many rabbits we had to create for The Burrows.”
The third challenge, doesn’t seem like a big one, but you have animals walking around on two legs. When you look back on the classic Disney animal characters, you remember all these great personalities and they had such great designs. “But one things they didn’t have to worry about, is these dudes didn’t have to wear pants,” Cory said. “Most of them were walking around nude at the time, but we wanted fully clothed animals because this is a modern world. They have jobs, they get coffee in the morning, they go to work.”
“So what that meant was we had to sort of combine the human anatomy and the animal anatomy to be able to pull that off. When we get dressed in the morning and we look in the mirror we have an expectation of how our clothes fit. We see them on everybody everyday, we see them on ourselves. If it doesn’t fit right, we can tell immediately. And when we saw the characters in Zootopia we didn’t want you to question them wearing the clothes, we didn’t want it to fit wrong, so that meant giving them a more human lower body and trying to introduce more or that animal anatomy elsewhere.”
“So you can see pants fitting on a lot of different body types but they are still recognizable as pants, we didn’t have to bend or contort them in weird ways. But actually on some of the animals, they had special considerations, like the fox here, his legs actually weren’t even long enough to pull off pants, so he wears shorts all the time. Then you see the sheep, he’s carrying around about an extra 50 lbs of wool, so he can’t tuck all that in jeans, so he has to wear these jeggings.”
To explain that combination of animal and human anatomy, they did a lot of drawing. Not just to inform their team, but to inform all the other departments. They have modeling, rigging, animators. They need to explain how that combination of animal and human anatomy work in almost every conceivable position.
Evolution of Main Characters in Zootopia
Overtime, the story changes. As the story changes, the character changes along with it, and that means the designs have to change as well. Nick started as a slick, one-dimensional con man, become more well rounded. Has a lot of aspects to his personality. He can be a sweet friend, he can be funny, intimidating.
Likewise with Hopps. She started out as this cute bunny. That was the only direction she went. As the story changed and she was next to these rhinos and hippos, she needed to be able to be able to be a convincing and full-fledged police officer and do really physical things, she needed to be able to prove herself next to these big cops.
Sometimes the designs aren’t straightforward. Director Bryon Howard asked Cory to design a cheetah—but not just any cheetah. “This guy is stuck behind a desk, he doesn’t get to run the way he normally does, so he’s put on a few pounds,” Cory joked.
Gazelle started off as a pop star without much personality, but as the story changed she really became a humanitarian and she really cared about the citizens of Zootopia and they needed to make sure that her design wasn’t so dimensional that she couldn't pull that off.
ZOOTOPIA Trailer featuring Shakira's “Try Everything”
Walt Disney Animation Studios' Zootopia opens in U.S. theaters on March 4, 2016.