During an early press visit to see how production on Zootopia was going, my favorite part was the walk through of the story process. Maybe, it’s because I’m a writer and I totally soak up all the info given by the people doing what I want to do someday.
So how do you follow up Frozen and Big Hero 6?
Create an animal movie like no one’s seen before with Zootopia.
The Disney Animation studios operates through a Story Trust that puts their pictures in the hands of filmmakers not studio execs. This formula is simple: keep a Disney standard that ensures timeless stories keep being told, they’re entertaining for all ages, have both humor and deep emotion as well as live up to Walt’s legacy.
With Zootopia directors Rich Moore and Jared Bush are taking us into a world created and designed by animals where no humans exist. Past Disney animated films with animals included people but this one is strictly anthropomorphic life. The massive metropolis that animators have created gets explored through the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the city’s first bunny cop who leaves the countryside to make it in the Downtown police beat but comes to find out that no matter what aspirations you may have, the world might not share your view.
In the writer’s room we got to see a cut of a scene in which Judy comes home defeated from her first day out as a meter maid and not the crime stopping rabbit she knows she is. After accidentally making a call to her parents, Judy has to explain that she isn’t where she’d like to be much to her parents delight since she’s not in danger. Much like real parents at the first sign of any challenge, they’re willing to run to her side if need be but also share with her that they’re proud of where she got because they couldn’t imagine one of them making it out there before. While amazingly executed, the emotional weight of the scene was really heavy in the first act and co-director Jared Bush explained why it was cut, “When a better idea comes in, you have to make it work.”
So they went back to the writer Phil Johnston who contributed a new idea to polish the tone of the first act of the movie and they went with something more lighthearted but keeping Judy emotionally steadfast in her ‘new in town’ which is crazy if you think about the turn around for it. For a writer the process is always ongoing to suit the needs of the film’s story, “I think of things and I write them down. The thing that’s particularly crazy is there 1,000 drafts. Writing is all about re-writing.” Johnston said about the craft.
While the cut scene was well written and animated, it just didn’t fit the flow of the tale being told. Head of editorial Fabienne Rawley explained, “You think the problem is what’s after. The problem is what comes before and finding where you want your audiences to be. You have to find it.” With that particular scene, the film didn’t need the audience to be at the heightened emotional place and so in fine tuning it, the team made the discoveries that let the pace breathe and propel forward. As Rawley added, “The film will tell you what’s best for it.”
Keeping to Walt’s vision of storytelling isn’t the easiest job but seeing how the team behind Zootopia strive to hit those benchmarks is testament to the quality of film the studio produces across it’s now very wide spectrum.
Zootopia opens March 4th!