How Zootopia changed the animation game (for animals!)

I don’t have to tell you that Zootopia had one of the best animated film in 2016 because the film already has an Oscar to prove that. What I can fascinate you with though, is the creative and technical work behind-the-scenes that might change the way you watch and appreciate Disney or any another animated film for that matter.

Zootopia is your typical mammal metropolis with residents that are 100% clothes-wearing and upright walking and talking animals. Like any world, it is comprised of various neighbourhoods from meadows to snow and to sand which mesh together to form a community where no matter who you are, you can be anything.

Zootopia (Image Credits: Disney 2016)

Visually, the film is delightfully outstanding and evidently shows how far the animation industry has come since the hand-drawn-frame-by-frame days. Sadly, while the film has been soundly celebrated for its original, well-rounded story and lovable characters, the aesthetics and meticulous effort in detailing have not.

With a thriving inspiration and ambitious goal to push animation technology and innovation, the film brings animal animation to the next level. Featuring over 64 animal species (around 800,000 character builds), each animal species has been extensively researched into to understand their specific movement and characteristics. Luckily for animators, in this day of digital-age, most animations are now computer generated. Still, it doesn’t mean extra time to sit back and watch the tech do the work. For a team of animators and directors, 18 months were spent studying animal behaviour in the Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World and safaris of wild Kenya, in order develop an accurate and realistic representation of each species.

Of course, with so many different animals builds, textures and colours, the team had to find quick and simple technological adjustments even if it did mean taking 550 people and 5 years to bring the film to life. Pre-existing software was continuously built upon to make the talking animals life-like and more realistic. But dreams to push animated technology meant creating new programmes that didn’t already exist.

Animation. (Image Credit: Disney 2016)
Final fur & flesh added. (Image Credit Disney 2016)

For Zootopia, fur and hair was its game-changer. Different fur-types were studied under a microscope in various lighting setups to see how different fur-types reacted to light and make the animals look as accurate as possible.  A giraffe from the film had 9 millions strands of hair. And a mouse? 480,000. That beats Elsa’s 400,000 strands of golden locks. To master fur manipulation, each piece of hair had to also be manipulated individually. Animators and engineers created a specialised fur shader program ‘i-Groom’  – a never-before used fur controlling tool which would brush and shape individual hairs after being applied to the design.

i-Groom Fur Generation (Image Credit: FXGuide)

An imaginary underlayer was added to give the animal ‘plushness’ – the illusion of fur density which made each character that much fuzzier and realistic. Combined with path-tracing, a technique that predicts how light will move between the fur, these techniques are what makes the bunnies so fluffy, otters oily and every animal so cuddly and real.

To develop each character further, flesh simulator PhysGrid was introduced and also extensively developed to mimic muscle and fat movements beneath the skin for each character, giving them a natural build and shape and expanding their life-like and lovable characterisation.

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Visual Development for flesh and muscle simulation of ‘Clawhouser’ the Cheetah (Photo Credit: Disney) (2016)

Between enhancing existing technology and creating new ones, Zootopia establishes new standards in replication real and naturalistic animal characters. However, the film itself is also one to be praised. Hidden beneath layers of innocent humour and cute, cuddly characters, Zootopia is harsh but profound social commentary, that shines light upon the dangers of stereotyping and discrimination in a multicultural society. Bright, inventive and very colourful, Zootopia sparks inspiration towards budding animators and continues to push the already high-bars within the animation industry, while continuously evolving the art of animation.

For more behind-the-scenes animation work, check out Fusion’s documentary ‘Imagining Zootopia’

Header image credits to Disney 2016.