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Clark Spencer Talks Disney’s ‘Zootopia’

A major late-in-production story shift and co-director addition are all in a day’s work for the veteran Walt Disney Animation Studios producer.

According to Zootopia producer Clark Spencer, Disney strives to make animated films based on four key directives:

  1. Tell timeless stories for today’s audiences
  2. Create films that are entertaining for audiences of all ages around the world
  3. Films must contain a combination of great humor and deep emotion
  4. Films must live up to the standard of Walt Disney

If the selected footage recently shown to a group of journalists in advance of the upcoming March 4 release is any indication, Zootopia will have little problem meeting all four of the aforementioned criteria. Funny, touching and beautifully designed, the film is poised to join the long list of successful Disney animated features. Logically, that means the veteran Walt Disney Animation Studios producer has done his job. Logically, that also means the production of such a charming and engaging film must have endured at least one particular harrowing experience. Alas, in this manner, Zootopia also doesn’t disappoint.

In a recent conversation, Spencer talked about the production, sharing his insights on the film’s origins, technological innovations and major story challenge - a fundamental narrative shift a year ago November that led to Rich Moore, director of Wreck-It Ralph, joining Byron Howard as co-director.

Dan Sarto: What was it about the original pitch and story development that got this film greenlit?

Clark Spencer: I think two things really. One was that John [Lasseter, the studio’s chief creative officer] has always been a huge fan of talking animal films - Wind in the Willows is one of the favorites he grew up with as a kid. So when Byron [Howard, Zootopia co-director] pitched that was the world he wanted to go into, John was like "I will support any film where characters are walking upright on two legs and wearing clothes." That was the original concept. The second one was, and it took a while to get there by the way, once the world of Zootopia started to evolve, an all mammal city where we're going to hold on to scale and we're going to have to figure out how do all these animals fit on a train, or how do they fit in a building, or how they all coexist together, John got really excited.

What John does is he really pushes us to figure out our world and our characters first before we start worrying about plot. That's really valuable because then the audience, hopefully, not only is going to enjoy the story, but also enjoy the world we're going to take them to. John really “got” that aspect. You could just see him light up and say, "That is going to be amazing." The two years it took to really build what this world ultimately became, in terms of defining it and coming up with the idea of Tundra Town, Sahara Square and Little Rodentia, that doesn't happen overnight. That takes months and months of thinking about it, doing research and then building it. That's what John loved about it from the beginning. Those two things really got John to say, "I'm in on this movie. Let's go make it."

DS: What about this production, if anything, is fundamentally different from Wreck-It Ralph?

CS: Well, one thing is the technology. The amount of technology that's gone into creating this world is astounding to me. We've always been evolving. If you look at our movies from Bolt to Tangled to Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen to Big Hero 6, with every film we're getting more technically savvy, we’re pushing boundaries. But on this film there were so many new things we were going to have to go tackle. We had to tackle the fur because even though we wanted it to be realistic, it needed to be different on each of the 50 species of animals. Normally people would actually just use hair as a proxy for fur, color it and say, "That's what the fur is going to look like." We said, "No, every fur has to feel exactly like the real fur out there in the real world," which meant doing all kinds of research and then building all the shaders that could handle all those aspects.

In addition, wind is a key element. If you're in a major city, there's always movement, there's always some amount of wind that’s going to make the world feel alive. So, how do you do it on trees and how do you do it on fur?

There’s a shot in Bolt where he sticks his head out the window [of a car]. That's one shot. When we said we wanted to do that, the whole team said "You can't do that, you can't do wind through fur." At that moment in time [making Bolt] we actually did distortion. It's not even real. It's distortion on the screen that makes you think his fur is moving. But it's not. On this film there's actually wind blowing through it.

We knew we needed to build a muscle system, so big animals would feel robust and we'd see actual muscles. Typically, you put a rig into a model, but that doesn't mean it has muscles. If it's going to feel like a cape buffalo or an elephant, there have to be muscles that the skin moves on top of. Then we put cloth on top of that which is a very...putting cloth on top of fur is almost nearly impossible from the standpoint that you've got to be thinking about how is that fur penetrating all that cloth and how do we make those two things work together?

We have cloth that's on huge tall animals like elephants and on tiny mammals like the mice. So, we have to think about how do those garments lay and how do they move? It's just layer upon layer upon layer of things that we’ve had to figure out and to me, that was one of the really exciting and also scary things about the film. As a producer, you keep thinking, "Can we solve all of this in time?" Can we solve it? Yes. Can we solve it in time? That's always the key.

DS: And of course, there’s never enough time.

CS: Never. We're jumping off a bridge together because we know we're going to make the movie, and we're not going to stop the movie because we're not sure if we can do all this technically. But, we know that if we want it to look the best it can look, we're going to have to figure out, in paths parallel to developing the story, how technology will solve all these problems for us. It was massive from that standpoint. I love the story and I love the characters, but I'm also very proud of all that work our people have put in, all that research, all that detail, all the work that most of the audience is not going to pay attention to. And that's fine because the thing is, if they don't pay attention to it, it means we must have done our jobs right.

DS: If they have no idea how sophisticated the film is, you've done your job.

CS: Exactly.

DS: What led to the rather significant story focus change as well as bringing on Rich Moore as co-director?

CS: They happened at that same moment in time. It was a year ago last November and we were in screening four or five of the film. We always imagined that Nick was the main character of this film. We screened that version and afterwards went into a room with the story trust [a group of senior Disney and Pixar creatives] to spend three or four hours. People sort of talked about how Hopps could be the main character. People were really picking at it. All we could do with that piece of information was say that we haven't done Nick correctly. Meaning, we have to go in, we've got to figure out how he becomes the main character because that's what was in our heads.

The same thing happened early on Ralph too, where as a producer I say, "Let's just give it a try, there's nothing to lose. This version of the movie sits right over here. Let's go give this a try where Hopps is the main character." We put up the first act and a half - we didn't even do the whole movie. We did it in six weeks, really fast, down and dirty. We put it up for the story trust and said, "How do we feel about this?" And you could just tell it was the right idea. We immediately knew at that moment in time that we were headed down the right path. We also realized we all were too close to the movie. Bringing Rich [Moore, Zootopia co-director] in was a way of saying, "Okay, Rich, even though you've gone on this journey with us as part of the story trust, you're not quite as deeply vested in this one version of the film. You're going to help us move very quickly.” We couldn’t make small steps in November. We needed to make big steps very fast. That's one of the reasons you bring someone else in at that time.

It's been really fascinating to watch Byron and Rich build this great partnership together. One of the unique things about our studio is that we can do that because we have such great talent and we all work together well.

DS: What have been the biggest challenges for you so far on the film?

CS: In addition to all the technical aspects of the production, it was a real challenge trying to figure out how do you provide the right environment creatively for everybody while you're trying to move so quickly. When you're making that big a change in November, that's a tough thing to get the entire team to buy into. You have sequences that have been animated, you have people who are invested in the journey with Nick as the main character, then a small group in a room with the story trust decides we’re going to actually make Hopps the main character. Your job as a producer is to come out and talk to five hundred and fifty people and tell them, "It's going to be okay. This is going to be the right thing to do."

They're not on that journey yet. You're so much closer to that journey than they are. So, the challenge is about really convincing everyone that this is going to be the right thing to do. It takes time. But what ends up happening is they start to see where the movie is going and then they buy into it one hundred percent. I always say the best moment on a film is when you screen a version of it and your entire crew comes up to you and says, "I love this movie." Because they don't in the beginning. In the beginning it doesn't all work and they're already worried about how much they have to do and how hard the characters are - they're thinking about it from the production standpoint.

But there's a moment where they watch a version and none of that matters. At that point, they will go to the ends of the earth to make it great because they love the characters and they love the movie. That's what happened after we finally made that switch. When we screened the whole version last January, the crew came up and said, "Even though we know how hard it's going to be, we're in." As a producer, that's a great moment. That’s where you feel, "Okay, we're going to be able to do this."


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.