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Creating the Story of ‘Zootopia’

We attended the press event as a guest of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

A lot goes into creating the story of an animated feature film before the animation process begins. Last month, we had a special opportunity to speak with some of the key people who brought the story of “Zootopia” to life. There was a group of about ten of us who attended the “Zootopia” press event together. We walked into the very room where the dream team that consisted of Jared Bush (writer and co-director), Phil Johnston (writer), Marc Smith (story artist) and Fabienne Rawley (Head of Editorial) created many of the scenes in the upcoming movie.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

Phil Johnston, who many of us know for his work on “Wreck-it-Ralph,” began by telling us that in his filing cabinet at home he probably has a thousand different versions of the “Zootopia” story. Then Mark Smith stepped in and mentioned that, “there were almost a million story drawings made for this film.”

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

The process of creating a scene for the movie begins with the team acting out a sequence in the film for the directors by using a storyboard created by the storyboard artists. “We come into the room and really have to ‘sell it.’ The story artists are like actors by using voices to give the directors a feel for the movie” said Phil Johnston. They act out the story, and then there are notes, and then they act out the story again. Once the storyboard is approved, then it goes to editorial where the storyboard is edited with sound effects and dialogue. They often go through this process 10-12 times before a scene is sent to animation.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

Once our group was done learning about the storyboard process, the team acted out for us a storyboard from “Zootopia.” We got to hear the people who brought the character Judy to life share a scene from the story to us with their own words. I had chills go down my spine as I got to see true storytelling happening before my eyes from some of the best storytellers in the industry. The scene that they shared with us was when Judy feels discouraged, and goes home where she has a phone conversation with her parents. The scene was emotional, sad and hit many sweet notes.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

We then found out that they ended up crumbling the entire scene and tossed it into the garbage. As they were reconceiving the character, Judy, she was becoming a stronger character. They wanted to make her active and as strong as possible, so they made the tough decision of re-writing and editing the entire scene.

Then the team acted out the new scene where everyone in the room all laughed at many points, especially the end. “We wanted the audience to be prepared for what is coming next. So they have an idea of what is going to come next vs. wah wah wah. In the new scene, the audience will see that things are going to get worse, and then they are going to get better,” said Jared Bush.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

It came down to the wire with this scene, and the team had a short time to rework it to make it fit with the film. “It is a big Disney film, but sometimes it feels DIY. Just some buddies in a garage, making a movie. It is great when that happens. It doesn’t always happen, but it is cool when it does,” said Phil Johnston.

The story of “Zootopia” will come to life for children of all ages everywhere in theaters on March 4, 2016. Learn more about “Zootopia” online, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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