Josie Trinidad, Trent Correy, and Nathan Curtis discuss the new Disney+ series of six animated shorts that take deep dives into many of Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s 2016 Oscar-winning film’s most intriguing mammal metropolis residents.
We live in a wonderful age of entertainment, where even the big-time studios aren’t afraid to poke fun at the industry with clever and, sometimes, even corrupt characters.
That is, provided it’s fun and funny to watch. And a con-artist weasel who sells bootleg DVDs on street corners starring in his own musical certainly meets the criteria.
Disney’s Zootopia+ releases today, November 9, on Disney+, a six-episode series of shorts revisiting the fast-paced mammal metropolis’ characters audiences didn’t get nearly enough time with in Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Oscar-winning 2016 film. The shorts – with themes ranging from action and romantic comedy to noir thriller and heist – spotlight Fru Fru, the fashion-forward arctic shrew; ZPD dispatcher Clawhauser, the sweet-toothed cheetah; Flash, the smiling sloth who’s full of surprises; Mr. Big, Zootopia’s most feared crime boss; con-artist king Duke Weasleton; and Judy Hopps’ adoring parents, Bonnie and Stu.
Returning voice talents from the original film include Idris Elba and Nate Torrence as Chief Bogo and Clawhauser; Maurice LeMarche as Mr. Big; Alan Tudyk as Duke Weaselton; Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as Bonnie and Stu; Raymond Persi as Flash; and Leah Latham as Fru-Fru.
But the actors are not the only returnees. The series is directed by Josie Trinidad (Head of Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet) and Trent Correy (Director, Once Upon a Snowman), and produced by Nathan Curtis (Producer, Raya and the Last Dragon). All three worked on the original film back in 2016: Trinidad was a writer and guest voice, Correy an animator, and Curtis a production supervisor for lighting.
As much as the trio say they’ve loved the chance to return to the anthropomorphic animal universe and use some unexpected creative freedom to create episodes they never thought Disney would let them make, it was equally important that Zootopia+ provide a second chance for other creatives from the film to take on greater roles.
This was their chance to mine for more Zootopia stories, expand the narrative and environments of a jaw-droppingly beautiful world, and showcase up-and-coming artist talent. And we got the chance to talk with Trinidad, Correy, and Curtis about the ins and outs of the production, the big challenges, favorite episodes, and how creative freedom for showrunners continue to expand at Disney.
Victoria Davis: This show’s episodes run parallel to the plot of the film. What was the benefit, or just the general appeal, of interweaving these new stories with the film versus creating a series of prequel or sequel stories?
Trent Correy: The early pitch was actually a choose-your-own-adventure. So you would watch the whole movie, and these interactive choices would be embedded in there. But it limited us a little bit. So, in terms of storytelling, so we decided to lose that part of it.
But it was also about the places, like Little Rodentia, and going back to those areas you saw in the film, saying “I want to see more of Mr. Big’s house.” It was mostly about wanting to go back to those moments and that world building.
VD: I believe you guys noted this is a board-driven series – why did you decide to produce the series this way?
TC: This is the way Disney did it frankly for 75-85 years. Josie, you really pushed for that and the episodes are better for it.
Josie Trinidad: I completely agree. Disney Animation has a history, a legacy even, of being part of creating the medium of storyboarding. Also, shorts have a great legacy and home here at Disney. So it just felt really right.
Also, the process was going to take a bit of time, the process of finding the perfect writer, when we knew we just really wanted to jump in. We had outlines of at least four episodes that were really solid and we felt that we, as a team, could build them together. So we thought, why don’t we try? We were excited to get started.
So we said, ‘Why don't we hold off on a writer and let us try for once?’ It harkens back to the old days at Disney Animation where the story team was really instrumental in helping craft our features. It was exciting, it was fun, it was collaborative, all things that we really love here at Disney Animation.
VD: To make sure I have this right, when a show is board-driven, it means the visuals come first, and that is how the story begins, rather than having a script detail what visuals are needed?
TC: Yeah, and it was different for each episode. We would sometimes write an outline and give it to the board artists and say, ‘Run with it.’ Sometimes we'd get in the room and just throw scenarios back and forth and take notes. And then on some episodes Josie, Michael [Herrera] and I would start to build an actual script. So, it was very organic and was whatever the episode needed.
JT: We were incredibly aided by the characters and the world already being crafted. So, we could just dive right in. We knew who Mr. Big was. Yes, he's the most feared crime boss. But he had a Nana, he had a grandma, and his origin story was that of an immigrant who couldn't find his way.
VD: You guys have talked a lot about how collaborative this project was. And, Nathan, you mentioned in the press conference this was a project that allowed you to give leadership roles to storytellers, many of whom worked on the original Zootopia film and who now get to have bigger roles on this project. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Nathan Curtis: It’s important we grow this studio for future generations, acknowledging the work that has come before us, but also acknowledging the skill of the people who are up and coming. We want to celebrate everyone and what they bring to the table.
For Zootopia+, specifically, we were in a more refined schedule. We did six shorts, we weren't doing a feature-length film, and that provided a little more flexibility to allow people to flex their skill set levels. So most of our leadership was on for only for about a year to maybe a year and a half. And I'm happy to say that most of the leadership that was on Zootopia+ has gone on to other leadership positions throughout the studio, and have continued to grow in their careers.
VD: You can see a lot of those skillsets and specialties highlighted not only with the show’s quality, but in its menagerie of stories and art styles. The one that stood out to me the most was ‘The Godfather of the Bride.’ It’s very cool getting to see modern CG animation used to make something look like a very old film reel.
TC: Our directors of cinematography Joaquin Baldwin, who did layout, and Gina Warr Lawes, who did lighting, would give us these master classes on period piece films in the 40s and teach how you would use a certain type of lens, [how to get] all sorts of scratches and things on the lens, and how the panning would be slower. And we got to learn specificity for every episode, which was just fascinating.
A fun fact about the lighting – it wasn't as simple as just doing a black and white filter. If you look at the first frame and the last frame, the episode starts very desaturated and almost black and white. And then gets a little more of color tones towards the end a little more warmth as Mr. Big becomes who he's meant to be.
JT: Shout out to lighters like Gina and Roger Lee because the first look images were gorgeous. And they would play with the nuance of things like adding a bit more film grain and a little more sepia tone. We originally wanted black and white, but they gave us these beautiful presentations on all these films – some we had seen, some we hadn't – and their approach was so much more thoughtful than us just saying evoke The Godfather Part 2. They went so much more beyond that.
VD: For the character animation, how much did you borrow from the film’s animation toolbox?
TC: We had the great chance to be able to use the rigs and looks of the characters from the film. Now, there was work put into it. Our general TDs would have to port these characters over. Technology has changed a lot in the last six years. So, there's still a lot of work to it. And, in addition to that, we did build some new characters and new environments and it's pretty wild to watch the whole team – whether you’re a character or texture artist, a lighting head or an environment artist – come together to do that.
VD: Do the three of you, all coming from the original Zootopia, have your own favorite episode from this new series that you got to work on?
JT: I always say “The Godfather of the Bride” because I love that we showed this immigrant story. But my guilty pleasure is watching Clawhauser in “So You Think You Can Prance.” It’s so funny and Clawhauser is such a charming, genuine article.
NC: For me, “Dinner Rush” is one I personally identify with. I used to be a server in a restaurant and, as much I love Flash, I really feel for Sam and I understand the amount of stress that must have come with serving through that entire dinner course.
TC: I'm going to go with “Duke the Musical,” just because I can't believe we got to make it. Honestly, Victoria, here we are pitching a musical at Disney about a con artist weasel in Zootopia who sells bootleg DVDs on the corner.
VD: It is interesting because I talked with the writers of the Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers movie and they also were genuinely surprised that Disney let them include some rather dark nods to the industry’s past. Disney does seem to be taking some risks, and letting creators dive into the seedy underbelly of the entertainment world. What was that like getting to have a bit more freedom this way for Zootopia+?
JT: I have a bit of a dark sense of humor, and we wanted to push it. The original Zootopia was so clever, so smart, and it doesn't dumb things down. And so, we wanted to do that and see how far we could push it, because you could always pull back. But we wanted to push it as far as we could. And we're sort of shocked Disney continued to encourage us.
I mean, Jennifer Lee, Jared Bush, and Byron Howard were so supportive, and they would honestly say, ‘Actually, you could push it further.’ My goodness, what creative freedom they gave us and allowed us to run with.
TC: We can do different at Disney, and we have lots of different stories to tell.
VD: Speaking of which, do you guys have any plans to expand Zootopia+ past these six episodes? I know you’re probably not allowed to say…
TC: We just keep saying that there's a hunger for Zootopia. There's an obvious hunger. The internet tells us that, the employees inside Disney want to work on more Zootopia and there's even a Zootopia Land in Shanghai. So, I love that idea of more Zootopia, but time will tell.