‘Zootopia’ Interview: Producer Clark Spencer Talks Disney’s Latest


2015 marked the first time in eight years that Walt Disney Animation did not release a new film, but with two Pixar offerings last year, you’d be forgiven for not noticing. This year, the studio is making up for their absence by releasing two animated tales, and they’ll be getting started this weekend with Zootopia

Featuring the voice talents of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, Zootopia imagines a world where humans don’t exist, and animals have evolved beyond their primal instincts to create a fully functional society – complete with many of the flaws that we experience in our own lives. Judy Hopps (Goodwin) is the first bunny to ever join the Zootopia Police Department, but when the chief’s preconceived notions about her species limit her opportunities, she joins up with Nick Wilde (Bateman), a con artist fox, to investigate a series of strange disappearances all over the city.

During a recent press tour, we were invited to sit down with several of our fellow journalists for a roundtable discussion with Zootopia producer Clark Spencer. Check out some of the highlight below.

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When we take a look at the current political climate in this country, it feels like this film couldn’t be coming out at a better time for the message to really have an impact. Obviously, animated films have a longer development cycle, but at what point did you realize that Zootopia might be even more relevant than you originally anticipated?

Clark Spencer: The project was started five years ago by one of the directors, Byron Howard. He had finished Tangled, and he was pitching this idea – at that time, he actually didn’t have the theme. He really just said “an all-mammal world, where humans never existed, and animals evolved and used our technology.” But in doing the research, we went out to Africa and learned this incredible statistic: 90 percent of animals in the natural world are prey animals, and 10 percent are predators.

And we thought, what an interesting dynamic, where you have one really large group and one really small group, and they have to figure out how to coexist. And especially when they’ve evolved past eating each other, so now the question is “do [the prey] actually believe that they’re completely safe?” That’s where the theme started to come in, about a year later – so four years ago.

But it wasn’t until about the past nine months where we started to say to ourselves, it’s incredibly interesting how this idea that was started five years ago is starting to feel like it’s coming at a moment in time where there’s a lot of those things around the world. We always knew, thematically, that this was an idea that would be universal. But in terms of where we are right now, it’s incredibly profound. It’s a world confluence of events that just all lined up.

This movie has something for everyone, regardless of their age. How do you balance the whimsy of an animated film, with a detective story that’s aimed at adults?

Clark Spencer: It’s not easy. We’re always trying to figure how to [make films] for people of all ages, and it’s not science – you can’t sit there and say, “well, we must have 50 percent of the jokes for parents, and 50 percent for kids.” You can’t do it, there’s no science to that, so at the end of the day we have to look and say “what makes us laugh?” And then hope that it also makes the kids laugh, because it can’t be too esoteric and it can’t be too deep.

So when we look at a scene like the DMV, we know that for adults it’s going to play great because they’re probably had that experience. And the kids haven’t, but they’re going to think the sloth looks funny, and the sloths sound funny because they’re talking slowly. So we hope that both can enjoy that scene together.

When it came to the police procedural and having this sort of mystery in it, that was a really interesting thing that came up early on, in terms of the pitch. We hadn’t done a mystery in a long time – Great Mouse Detective was really the last one – and I’ll tell you there were times when we said “should we lose the mystery?”  Because the mystery would get so complex that you would get lost trying to figure out the mystery, and forget about the theme of the story, and these characters.

But I’m so thankful the directors never let that idea go, that they really fought hard and said “our job is to figure out how we get the mystery to be interesting enough to get caught up in it, and simple enough that we can understand it.” I’m so proud of keeping that in there, because I think it’s one of the layers that’s unexpected.

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There’s also a sort of “film noir” vibe to it, with shades of Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon. Were there specific influences you drew from to get that tone?

Clark Spencer: Oh, absolutely – we looked at those films in particular. When we were talking about the police procedural [aspect], the visual development artist said “I’d love to have a film noir feel to it.” And that’s kind of what said to us that we should go look at those movies. It’s a very interesting genre, and it adds another layer to the film and allows you to start to see those elements that we remember from amazing movies.

About a year ago, the decision was made to shift the focus of the film from Nick to Judy. Can you talk about that shift, and what the film was like before, with him as the protagonist?

Clark Spencer: The original version, when we were developing it, had Nick as the main character. Nick is obviously a very cynical character – it was still Jason Bateman and it was still that character you see on the screen – and to us, there was something fun about going into the world with a cynical character. But what we started to realize was even if the movie was super funny, people weren’t rooting for Nick – it’s very hard to get the audience to root for a cynical character. And we would tell the audience, much later in the film, why he was cynical – but it was too late.

So [after] a screening we talked deeply about “what if we switched it?” And there were two things that came out [of that conversation] – one was that it was going to be easier to root for Judy. As a small rabbit wanting this dream, it was going to be easier for the audience to want to root for her. But the more interesting thing was that we were going to love the world of Zootopia more.

If we learn Zootopia through the eyes of a cynical character, we start to think the world is already broken, from the beginning of the film. A really profound statement [we heard] was “You talk about this city, with Tundratown and Sahara Square, and it feels like the most magical place in the world, and yet your main character is telling you it’s broken. So from the beginning, I’m waiting for the world to get fixed.”

If you start from Judy’s POV, and we see what she’s seeing and we believe that anyone can be anything – because that’s all we’ve been told – we’re going to realize over the course of time that it’s actually not that perfect, that there are chinks in the armor, and we’re going to discover it through her eyes.

For each animated film, it seems that there’s one big technical hurdle you have to get over. For Tangled, it was the hair, and for Frozen it was the snow. What was the big technical hurdle for Zootopia?

Clark Spencer: The big one for us was fur. When we do characters with hair, everybody has the same hair. Once we create one strand of hair, we can put it on any character – give it a curl, make it a different color, straighten it – we can create variety through that. But animal fur is different for every single species of animal, and there are 64 different species of animal in this film.

So we studied the fur of those 64 different species under a microscope, to understand what was different about each one. Polar bear fur is actually clear – light that goes through it creates a reflection that makes it appear white. Fox fur is dark at the root, and gets lighter as it goes to the tip. Sheep’s wool is so thick that it’s filled with dirt and twigs – so if you look at any of the sheep in the movie, they have dirt and twigs [in their wool]. An arctic shrew’s fur is very soft, an otter has a little bit of oil on the fur.

So we had to create technology that would allow us to create each one of those different types of strands of fur. A giraffe in this film has 9.2 million strands of fur on it, 2.6 million on Judy, 2 million on Nick – and then we have to create shaders that would allow the lighting system to understand how it’s supposed to react to each of those different types of fur. Because it’s going to react differently to a sheep’s wool, that’s very thick, than it is to the softness of an arctic shrew – so it just kept layering.

And then we’re going to put clothes on those animals, and the clothes have to move in a way that feels realistic. We’re going to have an elephant be as tall as a real elephant, and a mouse be as small as a real mouse, so they’re going to move differently on something very tiny, and on something very large. So it really just exponentially built, but it all started with one key thing: we wanted the fur to look realistic. We didn’t want to use human hair, which is what we’ve always done – if you watch the movie Bolt, it’s human hair that we’ve made look like animal fur. But in this case, we wanted it to be actual strands of fur for those 64 species.

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What do you think your greatest personal contribution to the film has been?

Clark Spencer: You know, I always try to hold onto this, it’s something someone told me when I produced my first film. I sat down with a woman I really respect, and said “as a producer, how do you think about it?” And she said “the most important thing to do is think about what the best story is.”

And what’s important about that is to know, in those moments – a year from finishing this film, and you start talking about the idea that you’re going to take your main characters and flip-flop them. You’re going to tell Jason Bateman he’s not the main character, you’re going to tell Ginnifer Goodwin she has to re-record most of the move so she can be the main character, you’re going to throw out animation that’s done and create new characters, like the sloth – and your instinct is to say “we can’t do it, there’s no way we can do this.”

But I knew [if we didn’t], the story wasn’t going to be the best story possible. So for me, I think [my best contribution] was not panicking, not telling the directors that we can’t and letting the directors go and start building that story to see if it was truly going to be better than the Nick version of that story. I always knew we had that sitting on the shelf, and we could go back to that if this other idea wasn’t right. But in the moment, I had to let the team creatively have an opportunity to see what this would look like.

So as I look back, I think this is completely the right version of the story to be told. And I think that was the biggest thing I did for the film: just relax, and not panic.

Zootopia opens on March 5th in theaters everywhere.

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