Getting “Zootopia” just right really challenged Disney screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

Getting “Zootopia” just right really challenged Disney screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
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Given that Zootopia is set in a mammals-only city, it’s entirely appropriate that this Walt Disney Animation Studios production took home the lion’s share of the prizes at this year’s Annie Awards.

This Byron Howard / Rich Moore movie wound up claiming six of the top trophies at Saturday night’s ceremony at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Among them Best Animated Feature, Best Directing, Best Storyboarding, Best Character Design and Best Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production.

But perhaps the Annie that was the hardest earned / the sweetest to receive was the one that Jared Bush & Phil Johnston won for Best Writing in An Animated Feature Production. Given that – five years ago – Bush & Johnston were the guys who had to figure out what Zootopia was actually going to be about.

“Early on, this was going to be a spy movie,” Jared recalled. “When Byron originally invited me to come be a part of this project, Zootopia was going to be this spy action-adventure movie featuring an all-animal cast that was set on this mysterious island out in the middle of the ocean. And since I love spy movies, I immediately said ‘Yes’ to the project.”

Unfortunately, between the time when Bush initially agreed to begin working on Zootopia and when he actually started turning in script pages, the project changed. Now instead of being a spy movie where only the first 10 minutes of action would be set inside of that all-mammals city, now what the WDAS Story Trust wanted was a mystery that would then allow audiences to explore many of Zootopia’s more colorful neighborhoods.


“That’s what John Lasseter eventually decided we should do after looking over all of the material that had previously been developed for Zootopia. Why should we send our characters off to some mysterious island in the middle on the ocean when we already had this awesome city to explore? John felt that this was what the audience would really want to see. And in the end, his story instincts were obviously correct,” Bush continued.

That said, given that one of Lasseter’s hard & fast rules when it comes to developing an animated feature is that you have to really understand the world that your story is set in … Well, that meant research. Which – in this case -- involved Jared traveling all the way to Kenya in order to figure out how the city of Zootopia actually came to be.

“And the key to that particular story point turned out to be the watering hole,” explained Johnston. “That’s the one place where predator & prey intermingle all the time. You’d think that – if you had a lion here and a gazelle over there – they wouldn’t get along, they wouldn’t like each other. But in the wild, these creatures can often be found around the watering hole at the exact same time. And for the most part, they kind of get along until someone needs to eat.”


Which was what got Jared & Phil thinking. What if -- at some distant point in the past, say 10,000 years ago – predator & prey had brokered a peace accord while standing at the edge of a particular watering hole? Wouldn’t that spot have then become something special in the eyes of all those who lived in that world? The sort of place that a great city could have eventually grown up around?

“That’s why – if you look at the way the City of Zootopia is laid out -- right outside of City Hall and the Police Station, there’s this big water fountain. That’s actually supposed to be the watering hole upon which this city was founded thousands of years ago,” Bush said.

“Mind you, we don’t ever come straight out and reveal the significance of that fountain over the course of Zootopia, “ Johnston stated. “At one point, we did have our characters discuss how their world was founded, how predator & prey eventually found a more peaceful way to interact. But in the end, we found out that this was information that the audience just didn’t need as we were telling our story. What really mattered to them was Nick & Judy and whether they’d ultimately be able to find a way to work together and solve this mystery.”


That sort of deliberate economy (i.e., only sharing what the audience really needed to see & hear at a particular point in the story) also impacted Zootopia‘s production design. To be specific, which parts of this all-mammal city actually got built for this film.

“Because when John asked us to design the world of Zootopia … Well, that’s what we did. We designed the entire world,” Bush said. “So over the course of this movie, you get to see some of the continent where the mammals live. But there are a lot of other places that the audience didn’t get to go to. Like the reptile continent or the place where all the birds live.”

“And even within Zootopia itself, as Nick & Judy are trying to solve the mystery of all those missing mammals, they wind up visiting only five of Zootopia’s burrows. Places like Tundratown, Sahara Square, Little Rodentia and the Rainforest District,” Johnston continued. “But our design team actually built 10 burrows. And there are places like Outback Island and the Nocturnal District that were fully realized that the audience never got to because … Well, in the end, we only sent our characters to the places that would best serve our story.”


And speaking of best serving their story … Given that John Lasseter insisted that Zootopia-the-city was basically a character in this movie, he insisted that this character’s introduction be something truly spectacular.

“That’s why we spent 8 months working on just that one scene. Given that we had to find a way to visually suggest heat in Sahara Square, followed by snow in Tundratown and then rain in the Rainforest District, this was one of the most complicated sequences in the entire film. There’s a lot of heart & soul & art that got poured into this part of Zootopia,“ Bush said.

“This is also why the burrow that Judy comes from – Bunnyburrow – wound up being moved far out into the countryside. That way, because she then had to take the train in from out-of-town to begin her new job at ZPD, Judy was introduced to Zootopia at the exact same time that the audience was. And her obvious delight at seeing all of these tall buildings and the different districts of the city wound up coloring how the audience felt about Zootopia as well,” Johnston said.


Crafting just the right introduction to this world took a lot of trial & error. There were earlier versions of Judy’s train trip into the city that were much longer. There were also versions of this movie’s opening where Officer Hopps was already on Zootopia’s police force. And by doing lots of little pop-arounds over Judy’s narration, the filmmakers were able to quickly sketch out how the city was laid out / the way Zootopia actually worked.

“Which seemed like a fun idea at the time. But in the end, we found out that this wasn’t information that the audience actually wanted or needed. What they really wanted was to be able to experience Zootopia just as Judy was. Have this awesome city unfold itself over the course of an adventure,” Bush said.

Which isn’t perhaps how most people think the screenwriting process goes. But that’s the thing about Walt Disney Animation Studios. Everyone who works there then has the opportunity to “plus” a project while it’s in production there. Take – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) – that Breaking Bad gag that gets such a huge laugh from all of the adults out in the audience.


“I think it was Jason Hand who originally boarded this scene that way. There was this moment in the movie where we had these sheep were working in a laboratory. But Jason – all on his own – decided to draw these characters wearing Breaking Bad meth lab outfits,” Johnston explained. “And so he brings in those boards and we were like ‘What?!’ And Jason went ‘I don’t know. I was trying something different.’ And we were like ‘That’s hilarious. Let’s go for it.’ Which is why we changed the names of those characters to Jesse & Woolter. Just to strengthen this gag’s tie to Breaking Bad.“

So for the past five years, that’s what’s been going on at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Jared & Phil have been taking the creative input of people like John Lasseter & Jason Hand and then turning what was originally supposed to be a spy story into a mystery with mass appeal.


Which – given that $1.02 billion that “Zootopia” earned worldwide last year (not to mention that Golden Globe this Byron Howard / Rich Moore movie won just last month for Best Animated Feature) – seems to have been something that Bush & Johnston actually pulled off.

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