Finding the Emotional Core of Zootopia


In Disney Animation, story is king. For the film Zootopia, seven creators worked to shape the story that began in the mind of Byron Howard. In the later portion of their five-year battle to bring the Zootopians to life, major plot changes occurred while they remained true to an idea of discussing prejudices frankly, through film.

Thanks to the aid of the writer’s room and the guidance from Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter along with the infamous Story Trust, Zootopia found its place among an ongoing list of Disney classics.

Creative Screenwriting spoke with co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and producer Clark Spencer, about the pop culture references in Zootopia, the Disney collaboration model, and serious themes in animated films.

Zootopia. © 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Zootopia. © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Where did the idea for Zootopia come from?

Byron Howard. Image courtesy of Disney Wiki

Byron Howard. Image courtesy of Disney Wiki

Byron Howard:  I pitched the idea to John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) about five years ago, right after I finished directing Tangled with Nathan Greno. When John asks you to pitch an idea, he asks you to come in with multiple ideas.

At the time, Nathan and I were pitching together and we came in with six different concepts and while there wasn’t one that John felt was the complete package, three of the ideas had one thing in common, which was animals that walked upright and wore clothing. John said, “I will do anything to support a movie that has animals running around in little clothes.”

He was very excited about doing an anamorphic animal movie, which Disney had not done in a long time. I grew up loving Robin Hood—the 1970s Disney film. I was a big fan of that type of animated film. We had done animalistic films like The Lion King and Bolt, where the animals are on four legs, this was something we thought that we could revisit and give new life through the updates in our film technology.

Nathan stepped away to do another film, but I continued to work on the project, which was called Savage Seas at the time. It was a spy movie with animals. It was an all-animal world where humans never existed, but it did have that James Bond feel to it.

As I pitched it, I got the same response over and over:  “Well, we’ve seen the spy thing a lot—like in The Incredibles and Cars 2—but you have a really unique first act where these animals live in an all-animal city.” The suggestion there came from John and the “Story Trust,” where we decided to make the first act the entire movie.

That’s the story you see today. Jared Bush (Penn Zero, Big Hero 6) came on to co-direct and write, and then Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) jumped in about a year and a half ago and we all finished the film together.

Mostly the ideas start from a little notion that grows into something much bigger. Over the years, it’s like a living, breathing thing, and it’s incredible to see the film take a life of its own as it tells you what it wants to be.

Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in The Incredibles © 2004 - Disney/Pixar

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in The Incredibles. © 2004 – Disney/Pixar

Rich Moore. Image by Gage Skidmore.

Rich Moore. Image by Gage Skidmore

Rich Moore: I got involved as part of the Story Trust, which is made up of all of the directors here at the studio, along with some of the writers and story artists. We’re always there to support our fellow directors when they are creating a new project or making a film.

I got involved upon the film’s conception five years ago and I followed along with it in an insular fashion until the summer of 2014 when I came on as a co-director with Byron on the film, when the story took a big left turn. The movie then became more of a two-person job than a single director job.

Clark Spencer. Image courtesy of Disney Wiki

Clark Spencer. Image courtesy of Disney Wiki

Clark Spencer:  I came on in 2012, so I was on for about four years, but this film took about five years from the beginning to the final product. Usually, a Disney Animation director spends about a year without a producer, as John encourages directors to spend about a year with themselves or with a screenwriter or production designer to conduct research and develop the concept before the idea before production. Then, the producer comes on to build the team and manage the project.

Byron and I had worked together as far back as Lilo & Stitch (2002). So when he pitched the concept of Zootopia, I fell in love with the world of the story and the idea of how predators and prey could live together.

I knew it was going to be a great project so I begged our Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, to let me do the movie. I had just finished working on Wreck-It Ralph at the time and I said to him, “Look, I don’t need to go on vacation. I will jump on this movie. I really want to be a part of it,” and I’m lucky enough to have gotten the job.

Wreck-It Ralph

Ralph (John C. Reilly) in Wreck-It Ralph. © 2012 – Disney. All Rights Reserved.

In addition to Robin Hood, what other influences led to Zootopia?

Byron:  My dad took me to see a lot of films growing up. I remember Billy the Kid at the drive-in, which may have been a little violent for a seven-year-old. I think Westworld may have been a double feature with it at that time in the 70s. We went to see Star Wars. He’s a big sci-fi geek and I caught the film bug from him. I always had an appreciation for film. Growing up, I also loved The Godfather and Amadeus.

In college, I thought I wanted to be a live-action film editor and I did that for about a year and then I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I liked Disney animation before, but I had never thought to look at that way. That film was so daring and different in what it was trying to do. It really made me shift my focus to the animation business.

I’ve now been at Disney for twenty-five years, but that’s how it began. I started as a cleanup artist, then an animator before I fell into directing. But directing is great because it combines everything you could ask for—music, animation, and cinematography. It all blends together in this job and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing.

Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) and Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit © Walt Disney Studios

Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) and Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit © Walt Disney Studios

How many drafts went into those collaborations of story ideas and what is the most important aspect to hold it all together?

Byron:  Someone asked our screenwriter on Tangled, whose name is Dan Fogelman (Bolt, Crazy, Stupid, Love), “When is the screenplay was done for an animated film?” It’s really never done.

We constantly rewrite, even up until the last couple weeks of production on the film. I would imagine we did over one hundred drafts of the script, over the years, and that would be small and large rewrites and overturns. It’s so constant that it would be ridiculous to actually count, because it’s constantly in motion.

Another writer at Disney once said it’s like “…trying to paint a moving train.”  It just goes and goes and goes—especially once it goes into production. Animation is also so expensive that we really try to work out the story as much as possible before we dive into production, but that doesn’t always work out that way.

To answer the second part of your question, the story itself is the most important thing. If the story doesn’t work as a film, then all of the most beautiful animation in the world won’t bring it together. So it really comes down to story and finding that emotional core that is going to make your audience invest in the character who is driving the movie.

Not only do you want for them to like the character, but you also want for the audience to find something in common with the protagonist. In this case, Judy Hopps is driving the story, so that’s who we’re following throughout the film.

It’s critical to find that balance of emotion, humor, and that classic Disney pathos so everyone can have a complete experience with the film. With a Disney film, I think people want more than just entertainment; they want to experience a deep, emotional reaction. It’s tough to make it fire on all cylinders, but that’s why we spend so much time reiterating and reinventing it.

Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) and Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) from Zootopia. © 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) from Zootopia. © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Rich mentioned a “big left turn.” It would seem extremely difficult to backtrack once the animation process begins. What changed within the story?

Clark: The original version of this film centered around Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) as the protagonist. We built that version of the film until about a year before the movie came out when we realized that people would not be rooting for Nick as a character. Your audience has to root for your main character and he was too cynical to root for, so we decided to make Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) the protagonist. That was a massive change for the story and we had created many things that had already been animated that then needed to be taken out of the movie.

But John Lasseter has a strong feeling that the story has to be great, so we do not release a film because of the release date, we release a film because it’s great. The release date didn’t change, but we went in and re-tooled the story and the animation team had to work that much harder so we could make Judy our main character and as that version came together, we could feel just how right that idea was.

We could feel like it was going to work and all of the artists really rallied around it to make the movie work. It feels like that hard work has paid off as the film continues to be embraced around the world. It’s really amazing.

Rich:  The story was about the difficulty of a predator living in Zootopia and in that version of the film, the city was much more oppressive towards predators, so the story was much more about Nick not liking the city and being unhappy with it.

That created a problem for us, because we designed this amazing city with all of these various districts from a desert to a tundra, but then it struggled because Nick didn’t like the city, so audiences were saying, “Well, why doesn’t he just leave?”

They didn’t want to see him stay and fix the city because it felt broken beyond repair. They didn’t like a city that would make its’ citizens feel that way.

So we took a step back and decided we were telling the story the wrong way and we made Judy the main character. We had to do our due diligence and it just didn’t feel like the way Byron had described the film when he first pitched the idea.

Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) from Zootopia. © 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) from Zootopia. © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There are several pop culture references within the film, such as nods to The Godfather and even Breaking Bad. How do you decide when to use homage and how to do so respectively?

Byron:  It’s funny—we don’t sit around the table trying to stuff things into the movie. But, in that example of Mr. Big, who is The Godfather character, we thought it would be funny to play with the scale of different size animals where we would have the most dangerous mob boss to be a really tiny animal.

From our research, we knew that the most vicious animal on earth is the shrew. As a carnivore, they’re the most vicious because they have to consume more than three times their body weight to survive. If you put four shrews in a bucket and leave them in their for the night, you’ll come back to find one fat shrew.

So we thought about having this mob boss who is a tiny shrew would be funny and we also used that idea to pay tribute to Marlo Brando and Francis Ford Coppola, so we put a little Godfather veneer on it to see how far we could go. We actually studied Brando with the animators and the voice artist, Maurice LaMarche, who did a terrific Brando.

Then, the Breaking Bad thing was kind of accidental where we had this sheep lab and this blue formula, which was a coincidence, but once we added the hazmat suits, we decided to embrace it and we actually named the characters Walter and Jesse. People really loved that around the world. In Russia, that was a huge joke, so Breaking Bad must be very popular there.

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

It seems like writing for animation has changed in a way that there are just as many jokes meant for children as there are for adults. What’s it like writing within this new spectrum?

Byron:  That’s true. We’re really happy that Zootopia has such a broad audience. We definitely received as many compliments from teens and adults as we did from families with kids. That’s a good balance and we certainly have a responsibility to balance the affection that people have for Disney so we don’t want to step on that at all. There is a “goodness” in Disney films where the audience expects it to be classic and feel timeless in a way. But, at the same time, our audience is so smart that it needs to feel relevant.

One example would the DMV, where kids wouldn’t understand that experience but their parents definitely would. In Belgium, I was watching this father and son watch the film in Flemish. The father, a man in his 40s, was cracking up at the sloth scene, and I looked down at his son. His son wasn’t watching the scene, but he was cracking up watching his dad laugh. I thought it was such a sweet moment and that kid will always remember his dad cracking up at the movie that they both could enjoy. It reminded me of going to films with my dad and discussing movies together.

A great target for us to aim for is to not exclude any age group. It can be done. We don’t have to talk down to the audience. We can be smart and we can do things that are complex. Zootopia is a layered film, but kids got it and adults got it. It was really gratifying to see that people connected with it.

Clark:  Animation is a medium. It’s not just for families with kids—it’s for people of all ages. It’s a way to tell a story and if we do our jobs well, it can be entertaining and emotional for everyone and that’s our fundamental goal. So when we build the world and the characters, we aim to have content for everyone. We don’t do it as a science where we have 50 percent of the jokes for adults and 50 percent for kids, but we do try to make the humor try to come from the characters themselves. 

Zootopia. © 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Gazelle (Shakira) from Zootopia. © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Can you describe some of the differences between producing animation versus producing live action?

Clark:  Live action producers often find the projects themselves and then they must try and find a director who would like to be involved. They may also hire an actor to help find funding from a studio, but those aspects don’t exist within Disney Animation. The studio has already funded the project and the directors are working on the story themselves, because John and Disney do not want to find a story and then give that story to the director, rather, they want to find a director who has the story within themselves.

These movies take four to five years to make, so they really need to come from the director’s heart, as a passion project. From that standpoint, they’re very different, but they are then very similar, as you have to find and manage a team and then work a budget.

I work very deeply with the 550 people that are making the movie so I can figure out how to make their jobs easier. Towards the end, as an animated producer, we’re also very involved with the merchandizing that is being created for the film and we work with the marketing team and theme parks to see their plan of how to market the movie.

Of those 550 people, it looks like there are seven writing credits. Can you share some details about how they all work together in the room?

Clark:  There are two screenwriters, which are Jared Bush (Penn Zero, Big Hero 6) and Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids, Wreck-It Ralph) who wrote the screenplays. We give “Story By” to seven people and we divide that up by who is writing the dialogue and figuring out the story, but it is a very collaborative environment, so everyone is involved when determining the fundamentals of what the story might be.

That includes the two directors, the two screenwriters, our two co-heads of story who work with the story artists, and then Jennifer Lee, who was a partner of ours on Wreck-It Ralph and also one of the directors on Frozen. She loved this movie from the beginning, so she really helped with the story and that group of seven spent a lot of time in a room talking about who the characters were, what journey Judy Hopps needs to go on and what was her flaw that comes out and what mystery we could build on and the basic plot for the film.

Then the screenwriters, Jared Bush and Phil Johnston have to put the rubber to the road and figure out the dialogue and how we can mechanically bring all of those parts together. It’s very collaborative from beginning until end, unlike some live action where someone will work on a project and then someone else may come on later and then another group at the end. We tend to work as a group from the beginning until the end. That’s our process here in animation.

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6. © 2014 - Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Baymax (Scott Adsit) and Hiro (Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6. © 2014 – Disney. All Rights Reserved.

What’s it like being in the writer’s room with that many people helping to shape the story?

Rich:  To me, those are the best writers working today. The best of the best as far as story is concerned. I really enjoy being with that group of people.

There’s nothing like working side-by-side with people that you respect and that you love. We share sensibilities and, as a team, we’re trying to make it the best it can be, so everyone is bringing their A-Game into it. That’s why I got into this business.

Despite the shift of the film’s protagonist, it would seem that the idea to discuss prejudices stood firm. Can you describe what it’s like to take on such a serious matter and thread it within an animated film?

Rich:  When I came on board, I felt that the idea to have a frank discussion about discrimination and stereotyping in a film shouldn’t come across as preachy or bad. We wanted Judy to see how discrimination was occurring and then fall prey to it herself. We wanted to make a movie that was about something.

At its core, the story revolves itself around those themes. It makes it feel like something new. It makes it feel like this talking animal film sets itself apart from the others.

As a kid, when I was watching those films, I would always ask, “How is it that a lion and a sheep became friends? Doesn’t the lion still want to eat the sheep?” So we really wanted to try and explore that. We made it where they had resolved that in the past so they had a social contract.

Then we thought, “What if that broke? What if it all fell apart? What would happen to their world?” The wild thing about it was how it then became a metaphor for our real world. Suddenly, I was seeing parallels in the news and with current events. It felt timely.

It felt like it hit on something with the audience. That made it even more clear to us that we needed to give a genuine story, rather than a cliché or a simplified version of the issue.

Zootopia. © 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Yax (Tommy Chong) from Zootopia. © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Is there anything else we should know about the film?

Clark:  I’m incredibly proud of the film. Spending that much time on something, you do wonder how it’s going to be received when it goes out there. You can’t control everything, so at the end of the day, there could be things that make a film successful, so to have been on the journey, seeing how hard the crew worked, even when we made such a big change story-wise, so late in the making of the movie, for it to yield a movie that’s been so well embraced, both by critics and audiences has been the best moment of my career.

I’m very proud to be here at this Disney animation studio.

Understanding ScreenwritingIf you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out Tom Stempel’s analysis of the film in Understanding Screenwriting #143.

Featured image © 2016 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures


Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

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