Every kid has that moment of awe when they're sitting in the movie theater watching their favorite animated movie come to life before their eyes. From "Fantasia" to "Frozen," animation has been moving young audiences (and older ones) for decades.
Lance Summers, Environmental Look Supervisor for Disney Animation Studios, grew up loving Disney movies and had the same feeling of amazement watching his favorite stories evolve on screen. Little did he know that one day, he would be mentored by an animator who worked on his favorite childhood classic, "Beauty and the Beast."
Summers recently wrapped work as one of the head animators for Disney's latest film, "Zootopia." The movie follows rookie police officer Judy Hopps, who discovers that being the first bunny on a police force among tougher animals isn't an easy task. She is determined to prove herself by cracking a mystery where she partners with Nick Wilde, a scam artist fox. At the heart of the story is the lesson that no matter what you are - from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew - you can be anything.
Designing the World of "Zootopia"
While moviegoers typically see the characters as the heart of a film, many would be surprised to discover the major role the environment plays in telling a movie's story. As the Environmental Look Supervisor, Summers is in charge of a team of 16 animators who create the extensive worlds surrounding the characters.
"My role is to take the 2D drawings from the visual developers and art director, and then paint textures and create the look of the scene and environment," said Summers. In traditional movies, this is done through the construction of building physical sets. In animation, Summers and his team do this within the computer.
"We essentially construct the full set in the computer," he said. "It's like when you have clay and use that to mold a tree or person. But instead it's inside the computer and you have to form and configure it to look the way you want. We make sure the world looks as real and as good as it can."
Building the environment in "Zootopia" was an extensive process as the movie takes place in multiple worlds, including Rainforest District, Sahara Square, Tundratown, Outback Island and others.
Every detail within those worlds was accounted for by Summers and his team. Even factors as simple as the precise number of hairs on an animal, or drawing dew on a leaf and making sure trees slightly sway contributes to the viewer perceiving these scenes are alive and real.
Summers notes a train sequence that shows Judy Hopps staring out the window. The glass windows are covered with slight smudges from previous passengers' hands. While that detail is only visible for seconds, it contributes largely to the reality of the picture.
Seeing his completed movie on the big screen is certainly a thrill for Summers. But he admits that his favorite part of his job is actually the team dynamic that forms when working on the movie's animation process. "Each movie has its own team, and that makes everything unique and a fun process," he said.
One of the exciting parts about being an animator is hiding details and messages into the movies, which Summers admits happens more often than not. For example, the street names at an intersection within Rainforest District were chosen because that was the location of the team's animation studio during the making of "Zootopia." Summers notes that artists' initials (including his own) are woven into flooring and backgrounds, and a car's license plate numbers represent a producer's birthday. Audience members should look carefully for the "Frozen" characters Elsa and Anna as baby elephants, and a hidden Mickey on a stroller, and a "Frozen" snowflake.
Making a Dream a Reality
When Summers was growing up he was interested in history and archaeology, but always enjoyed drawing and painting. As he grew, computer animation sparked his attention. Coincidentally, it was painting environments on canvases that Summers enjoyed the most. He still paints those landscapes; only now within the computer.
Summers attended Full Sail University, earning a bachelor's degree in computer animations. After graduating in 2009, he joined Disney as a look development trainee. He worked on movies including "The Lion King 3D," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Tangled," and "Big Hero 6."
His career in animation supervision really took off during the making of "Frozen" where he was responsible for the scene in which Elsa constructs the mammoth ice castle during the famed "Let It Go" sequence.
But as easy as Elsa makes it look, constructing the ice castle was not an easy endeavor for Summers. He admits to having worked on the concept for three months, and then told to go back to the drawing board. He spent another few months redesigning the castle to make it look more icy. His hard work paid off. Summers and his team won a prestigious Visual Effects Society Award for the design and sequence.
Summers is excited for "Zootopia" to hit the theater, and admits he loves going to work everyday and working in the ever-changing world of animation.
"I always loved Disney films, but I never dreamed I would be here and working for the company now," said Summers.
His work goes to show that - echoing the words of Disney - dreams really do come true.