Zootropolis: Rich Moore and Byron Howard interview

The directors of Zootropolis on the big, late change to their film, how 1/24th of a second matters, and Jason Statham…

Zootropolis finally makes its bow in UK cinemas this weekend, and it’s been well worth the wait. It continues an astonishing run from Walt Disney Animation Studios, and we were lucky enough to spend some time with its directors, Rich Moore (RM) and Byron Howard (BH), to chat about the film.

Here’s how it went…

Can you take us mere mortals inside a Walt Disney Animation Studios pitch meeting, where a project like this begins? Where you take four or five ideas to John Lasseter? Is it as brutal as it sounds?

BH: He’s not as brutal as you might think!

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RM: John’s mom was an art teacher. So John really has that talent of picking out something nice about everything that someone does. I’ve never heard John… we went to art school, and we had some brutal teachers. But John, he’s not one to say ‘this sucks’. He’ll say I like this and I like that. I’ve never seen him tear something apart.

BH: He might say I like this part of the idea. But when he lands on something, his eyebrows pop up.

RM: From my experience, at the meeting when I pitched him Wreck-It Ralph, which was called Joe Jump at that time, and three other things… the other three things, there was one you could tell from his expression that we should hurry through this one! And there was one where he was up and down. But on the videogame one, he was leaning forward, taking it in… it looked like he was hungry! Like he was craving it, so into it, that he wanted to bite it!

BH: John Lasseter wanted to eat my film! [laughs]

There’s an extraordinary passage in Ed Catmull’s book on Pixar, and the creative process, where he talks about Pixar’s notes day. And he talks there about John Lasseter standing in front of the whole company and admitting his biggest fallibility to everyone…

RM: Pretty incredible. We’ve never had anything like that at our studio, because I think that maybe we’re too young to have a day like that. It’s too soon for us. We’re almost 100 years old, but we’re the younger studio from the Ed Catmull/John Lasseter point of view. I think Disney Animation is too young to be having those kind of meetings. Those [Pixar] guys have grown up together for the past 20 years, and like any kind of relationship, that’s appropriate therapy that somebody could have after that length of time. But we’re still young. We’re at least half that since John and Ed came in.

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BH: We’re just stretching our legs. We’re getting used to this idea of how it works, and I think you see it with Tangled and Ralph and Frozen and Big Hero. It feels like the films keep building.

Byron, you were in the midst of the initial culture change at Disney after John Lasseter came in, and got it full blast, working on Bolt?

BH: That was the first film that John saw from start to finish at Disney. It was a great opportunity for myself and Chris Williams, because we were brand new to directing on that film. And John was a very present mentor throughout that whole film. A lot of what I know about directing – in fact probably all of what I know about directing – is from John. And then to see how the studio has continued to mature and change, and how our Story Trust – this group that myself, Rich and the other directors belong to – grew. It was formed when John and Ed [Catmull] came in, and it was meant to come in and beat up on the stories.

In the first year as part of the Story Trust, John watched us a few times and said ‘you guys are being way too nice. If you’re holding back your notes about what you really think of a film, then you’re hurting your friends and you’re not helping our film’.

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And now we’re brutal and honest about these stories. I think we trust each other with the fact that we don’t take offence at what people say. We know that these are hard movies to get right, and we’ve got to make sure we’re pushing all the buttons.

[Legendary Disney composer] Alan Menken had a lovely quote about you, Byron, after working on Tangled

BH: [Laughs] Oh boy…

I remember interviewing you for Tangled, and said to you at the time that it seemed much of your job on that film was to say no to Disney royalty.

BH: Oh right, right!

Alan Menken – and he did it light-heartedly – apparently watched you at work with some of the animators, and said to you and your then co-director Nathan Greno that you actually beat up everybody, not just him.

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BH: [Laughs] It’s true! [Looks a bit relieved]

You made, with Zootropolis, a fundamental narrative change very late in the day with this film, to turn the film to make Judy the lead character, rather than Nick. The pair of you, in Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, have come up with some of Disney’s most interesting characters in recent times, with Mother Gothel in Tangled, and Vanellope in Wreck-It Ralph. Yet the cynical outside view I’ve read on the internet suggests that the working was Frozen made lots of money, so we’d best make our lead character female.

But can you take us to the nub of what actually happened? How many versions of the film had you gone through by the time you switched the lead characters, and what did you feel was missing?

BH: It was screening five, I think. The fifth version, with Nick as the lead.

All through development and the treatment stage, and our table reads, Nick was the main character. And he still is: principally, the characters are the same. But your way into the film in the past was Nick, and he’s a cynical character, who had been beaten down by the city of Zootropolis. He didn’t like it, he didn’t feel like people supported him. As a result, when we showed the film, people said that they don’t like the city because the main character doesn’t like the city. And we thought that was a huge problem.

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RM: Just to get nerdy about it, it was Andrew Stanton [of Pixar, Finding Nemo director]. My involvement with the project early on was just as support, as part of the Story Trust. And it was Andrew, at a screening of the film you guys had up at Pixar, who said ‘I don’t like the world. I don’t like how it treats Nick, and I’m learning everything about the world through Nick. In fact, I want him to leave Zootropolis’.

‘A world that could make life that bad for Nick? I don’t think that’s a world that I want to be a part of’.

When you changed the film, then, was it primarily a character positioning change, or a world change too?

BH: A little of both.

RM: It never was intended to be a utopia hiding a dystopian underlayer. The goal was to make a city that feels as real as London, or Manhattan, or Paris, or L.A., that has great parts and bad parts. That it felt authentic, not as a storybook place. That note was taken duly to heart from Andrew, and it really caught everyone off guard, and we took a minute to talk when everyone got back from Pixar.

Do you all feel that is wasn’t working at that point?

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BH: It felt like it was a struggle. That the story was swimming upstream, really putting your weight into a storm. It was harder than it should have been.

RM: You can tell.

BH: When you’re trying to push these stories through, because he was a cynical character, people wanted to know more and more about Nick’s backstory. Why does he feel like this? What’s his goal?

RM: What’s he struggling against?

BH: So for you to understand the character, we had to give him a dark backstory, and the dark backstory dragged the movie down. His comedic edge was falling off. Even Jason Bateman [who voices Nick] was having a hard time getting his bearings with the character…

Was he playing Nick more like his character in The Gift at that point?!

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RM: I love that movie!

He should have been Oscar nominated. One of the most striking performances of last year for me.

RM: I know. So brilliant. To cast him in that film. I was like, dude, you deserve the Oscar nomination for that!

There was a moment with Zootropolis where we said this is the experiment: let’s try Judy in the role of the protagonist. Let her character introduce us to the city and this world. And suddenly, all that struggling and trying to make traction into this story was done.

Good news: we figured it out. Bad news: it’s late in the game! We have people who have been working on locations in Nick’s story for about the last year, and we probably do not need that! But, as with Pixar, at Disney Animation, story is king. We can’t put up a movie that looks beautiful, but doesn’t have substance.

The tough decision was made to make the story change. We were all in agreement, and John Lasseter was saying you’ve got to do it. And that’s when he asked me to co-direct. It was going to be a very tough year to make it happen, to practically finish the movie. We had this much vision to be crunched into a schedule.

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The cynicism point is an interesting one. I was looking into how well American comedies travel around the world. The cliché is that it doesn’t travel. Actually what I found is that ‘crude’ comedy tends to travel. If you go R-rated, you’re on much safer ground.

RM: That’s why Adam Sandler’s such a big hit in Germany! [laughs]

But the hard bit, and I think Goosebumps more recently has been the most successful at this, is finding not just comedy that transcends national borders, but also transcends generations. For a family comedy to work, you’ve got to have something for me, and my kids.

RM: Yeah, yeah.

Can I zero in, then, on the trailer where you showcased Flash the Sloth? Because I think that’s the first time Disney has effectively released a full scene as a trailer since The Lion King.

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RM: I think Pixar did with Brave?

But I can’t think of another Disney example? I think the sloth scene is a masterclass in universal comedy. And it strikes me that one scene is all about timing, isn’t it?

BH: Absolutely.

I interviewed Adam McKay about The Big Short earlier in the year, and he was talking about how he cut five frames out of one sequence. That’s, what, a less than a quarter of a second. How do I notice that?

RM: You would, you would.

So can you talk about the physicality and nuance of the comedy in that scene?

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RM: That was a scene that was conceived and born in a flash. It happened very quickly. Our head of story, Jim Reardon, we were pitching what are funny locations and jobs that animals could do? And Jim said what about sloths at the DMV? They’re notoriously slow, and embody the frustration with bureaucracy the world over. And the next day we saw John Lasseter and we were like, we’ve got an idea for a scene. And John lit up!

Did his eyes slowly open and bulge like Flash’s?!

RM: Yeah [laughs]! And suddenly, in real time, we were acting out the scene beat for beat pretty much as you see it in the movie. We must have gone through it about three times, just to cement it in our brains. Great. It was born like that.

Then began the long process of nuancing it, and recording it, working in the editorial room. I have never worked harder or longer on one scene like that sloth scene. Adam McKay is exactly right. And that’s live action! Five frames in live action makes a big difference. In animation, one frame – 1/24th of a second – can make or break something. This was something that, on The Simpsons, I learned. My job as a director, we had to time every bit of acting down to exposure sheets, which is a piece of paper that explains to an animator how many poses, and how quickly, things go from action to action. It was down to the frame.

It went from editorial, to the animators, and they said that some of these beats need to be longer. We thought it was already too long, and they were telling us it needed to be longer.

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Lee Unkrich [Toy Story 3 director], he came up to us after we’d screened the film, and he said ‘that is one of the most self-indulgent sequences in animation I’ve ever seen. It basically the same joke, and it carries on for four minutes’!

Most people would say you never could do something like this. But only in the genre of comedy will the audience allow you to take four or five minutes to go off on a flight of fancy. As long as it’s funny!

[We get the signal that we’re out of time. Bah.]

Last question, then. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

RM: Ummm, I loved The Expendables 3 [laughs!]

BH: I loved him in Spy!

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RM: Yeah, that was good, that was good. You know, I loved what he did in Gnomeo & Juliet. I loved his performance in that!

Rich Moore and Byron Howard, thank you very much!

Zootropolis is in UK cinemas from Friday.