An Animator Gets Hopped Up on Zootopia (and Judy’s Eyebrows)

©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection

A lot’s being written right now about Zootopia, the latest Walt Disney Studios 3-D animated movie: The story leaves most critics enchanted (a word Disney loves, by the way), and many attribute the acclaim to the film’s underlying sociopolitical message about overcoming racial and ethnic—or, in this case, speciesprejudice and stereotyping. There’s also a rather sophisticated (for Disney), multilayered mystery behind this coming-of-age tale, which many have likened to such classics as Chinatown and The Big Sleep. I’d like to explore this film, however, from a 3-D animator’s standpoint, to provide some insight to “civilians” who don’t need me to re-spin what has already been spun. 

As an animator, I can’t help but approach these movies with professional scrutiny. Of course, I’m looking foremost at the quality of the animation, reflected in the characters’ movement. Animators are actually introverted actors, when you think about it. We channel our performances through the characters we create in film. How well their design matches their movement, how their look reflects their personality and body language, and how the designs and motions mesh together are of paramount importance. And specifically as a digital animator, I’m always curious about the technology applied or developed to achieve the look and life of a film, so I make sure to do my research before and after attending a screening.

ZOOTOPIAFrom a tech standpoint, Zootopia gives us a lot to discuss. Since many other articles address this subject in depth, I won’t venture too far into technical waters, but a quick rundown of the 3-D production process would probably be helpful before we begin. Essentially, what you as a viewer see on theater screens is completely different from what we as animators work with. Animation in 3-D is based on virtual models that are defined by geometric calculations (remember high school geometry?) in a virtual space. You’ve noticed this geometry before in video games—it’s the “chunky” look that objects and characters in games all have. They don’t look this way in films because higher resolution models can be used, models that would slow down a video game to a halt.

The surfaces of all 3-D models must be defined by shaders, that is, sets of instructions and 2-D images that are mapped onto the models’ geometry to create a look (e.g., color, texture, reflectivity, transparency, etc.). Animators don’t usually get to work with models in their shaded state, since a 3-D scene first needs to be rendered in order to see the shaders. Think of rendering for a 3-D scene like developing film from an analog camera in order to see the images. As in shooting a live-action film, 3-D scenes also need lights, which are virtually added before rendering can begin; lighting for 3-D animation is an art in itself.

The biggest tech topic for me with Zootopia is its treatment of fur. The pelts on rabbit heroine Judy Hopps, her foxy friend Nick Wilde & Co. are nothing short of incredible. I found it hard not to just wonder at them in admiration. Animators finally, I thought, have a believable fur shader (not just for hair—an important distinction) they can work with interactively rather than adding it in later during the rendering process. Wow, is it gorgeous! More than two million individual strands of fur sit on each major character’s head (that’s the heads alone, folks). I must have lost at least 10 cumulative viewing minutes just staring at Judy’s eyebrows. And the fur reacts to wind! It never could before, instead needing to be cheated with deformers (mathematical processes used to warp, bend and, yes, deform 3-D objects). Yikes!

ZOOTOPIA, 2016. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett CollectionNearly as breathtaking is the flora on display in all parts of Zootopia City, particularly in the rain forest district. And all this excellence was largely made possible by Hyperion, new 3-D rendering software Disney Studios developed, which allows more geometry to be rendered in scenes than ever before. Rendering takes time: A single high-resolution frame for a film can take many hours to render, and more geometry equals ever more rendering time and the need for bigger computers. Hyperion can process masses of geometry faster than ever.

Aside from all this techno-blather, I’ll say the real eyepopper in Zootopia is still the sheer beauty of the animation itself. There are only a handful of films I really kick myself for not having worked on; this is one of them (and if you meet any animators who tell you otherwise, well, they’re probably in love with motion capture or something). There are so many fun characters in this film, so many figure types of different shapes, sizes, species, personalities, modes of locomotion…damn. It’s an animator’s all-you-can-eat lobster buffet. Animation is hard, and great animation is incredibly hard, but when you have the privilege to work on stuff of this quality, you can’t wait to get up to your neck in it. When I wasn’t fixated on watching the fur, I tried to pay attention to all the amazing subtleties of motion and acting in the characters’ bodies and faces.

ZOOTOPIA, top: Officer McHorn (voice: Mark Rhino Smith), right: Judy Hopps (voice: GinniferDisney is a no-brainer for quality animation, and has been for lifetimes, but Zootopia is as good as any I’ve seen—maybe some of the best as far as 3-D is concerned. The characters fit seamlessly with the world they inhabit; they’re not too cartoony, not too “realistic.” It’s made in the best tradition of Disney Studios, drawing on past experience and reputation without relying on it to carry an otherwise uninteresting, pandering or overly simplistic story to its conclusion.

Zootopia enjoyed one of the biggest opening weekends (about $233 million worldwide) in animation history, outperforming such Oscar winners as Disney’s previous blockbuster, Frozen, and Pixar’s Inside Out. People really love this film, and I—animation curmudgeon that I am—have to confess that I do too. My hat’s off to those annoying lucky sods who got paid to animate this thing. Go see Zootopia. It’s one for the ages.

Photos: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection