“There’s a point where timing comedy goes from artistic to science! A frame can make or break a laugh.”
“I think we’re sort of interchangeable,” Byron Howard says, while doing a funny Charleston crazy legs motion with his arms. The person he’s interchangeable with is Rich Moore, and together, Howard and Moore comprise the directors of the new Walt Disney Animated Studios movie Zootopia.
We’re at the St. Louis Zoo in Café Kudo as it’s about to close, talking about the film and the work that went into it. My recording of the conversation sometimes makes it difficult to discern who’s talking at any given time, Howard or Moore, further backing up their interchangeability. Thankfully, Moore makes my job easier by often smacking the table for emphasis when he speaks: Any “whump whump” sounds during a speech tips me off straight away. “It’s more like two brains on something at the same time,” says Moore, inadvertently calling sci-fi imagery to mind.
Of course, Moore is simply referencing the onerous amount of work that has to be done to get a movie like Zootopia made. It’s hardly a one-person job; just look at the 1,000-plus names in the credits. Here, my thought process falls down a rabbit hole of what a two-brained Frankenstein-type creature would have come up with.
Howard’s and Moore’s brains are an interesting match. Howard is best known as the co-director of Bolt and Tangled, where Moore did Wreck-It Ralph and some of the best episodes of television, animated or otherwise, ever produced: the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons (Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on rakes!), “Roswell that Ends Well” from Futurama (Fry is his own grandfather!), and more.
Zootopia takes place in a large metropolis for animals (called, of course, Zootopia), housing all different types, large and small. Our main characters are Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who aspires to be the first-ever bunny policeman (a job usually taken by larger animals, like rhinos), and a shady fox she encounters named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), who isn’t terribly interested in helping her achieve this goal.
While ultimately Judy’s story, Zootopia wasn’t always that way. “For the longest time, the story was more about Nick,” Moore explains. “The city was much tougher on predators in this earlier version, in the divide between predator and prey.” (Note that, in real life, the majority of a fox’s diet is rabbits.) “[Nick was] starting to lose a lot of his humor, because he felt like a person getting stepped on and oppressed by this city that began to feel like a pretty ugly place to live. It was very confusing to the audience with Nick as the protagonist, their entryway into this world, telling them, ‘I don’t like this city. This city sucks.’ If our main character is saying ‘I don’t like this city,’ but we’re being told that we should kind of like it, then who do I believe? And it created a big disconnect.”
In the final version, on top of being more Judy’s story than Nick’s, Zootopia feels like a celebration of big cities, melting pots, and various cultures intermingling. Much of this comes from the design of the city of Zootopia, which to me appeared to be modeled on New York City—note that Judy comes from “the Burrows” (rabbit pun, har har), which sounds an awful lot like the boroughs of NYC— but, of course, it was much more complicated than just that.
“We wanted to be sure that the city didn’t just feel like an American city, so we looked at cities all around the world. We looked at Asian cities with hyper-modern architecture, like at Hong Kong and Beijing and Shanghai and Tokyo. And for some of the more interesting organic architecture, we looked at Barcelona, that has amazing [Antoni] Gaudí architecture,” says Howard.
He continues to explain that I’m not wrong about New York City’s influence, as well: “[NYC] was the inspiration for the boroughs,” though not exactly the Burrows (which are more rural). “If they have boroughs, like New York does, why can’t we have Tundratown, Sahara Square, The Rainforest District? So we played around with different configurations, and weirdly, we wound up with sort of this strange Disneyland.”
But then, you also have to account for the fact that Zootopia has to be a place accessible to and attractive to animals as small as mice and as large as giraffes. Howard continues, “In the central area where there are different-scale animals, all the buildings and the trains and the cabs and the buses have to work for multi-scale animals.” This actually led to some borderline-obsessive behavior to follow their own rules. “We talked to the Americans with Disabilities Association; they thought we were nuts. ‘If people existed where a two-inch tall person had to get into the same building as a 25-foot tall person, what would you guys have to do?’ And they were like, ‘Oh my God, what is Disney up to?’”
If you’ve seen anything about Zootopia prior to its release, you’ve likely seen the scene where Judy and Nick go to the DMV to have a plate run, only to find that the entire office is operated by sloths. This scene is strong enough and plays well enough on its own that it, in its near entirety, makes up the film’s most commonly run trailer, which an untold number of people saw as they were waiting for The Force Awakens to begin over the holidays. It’s with this trailer that it’s likely to dawn on you that Zootopia isn’t going to be quite like the talking-animal animated movies we’ve gotten so accustomed to in the past. Here we see the use of time as comedy, which compares to the aforementioned, side-splitting sequence in The Simpsons in which Sideshow Bob gets plunked down in a parking lot full of rakes that are waiting to be stepped on.
“With the sloth scene, we spent a long time editing it. When we got it to our animators”—here Howard finishes Moore’s sentence—“They made it longer. They came back to us and were like, ‘No, it’s not nearly long enough.’” Moore: “‘No, we need more time; to really milk it; we need more time.’” Howard: “We started to freak out a little bit. Especially that scene where—“
Here, Howard rather ably imitates the sloth slowly beginning to smile at the punch line to Nick’s joke. “Darrin [Butters], the guy who animated it, kept coming back and kept adding footage, adding footage, and it became so long.” Howard: “We call it ‘the animation creep.’ The timing of it was so great, and much longer than we had planned for, but we kind of knew something magic had happened.” Moore: “It’s damn near immaculate; it’s almost scientific. There’s a point where timing comedy goes from artistic to science! A frame can make or break a laugh.”
Howard continues the back and forth, saying, “It’s like an involuntary human trigger to laugh at that point. And it works no matter what language it’s in. We sent it over to China, because you have to have the films reviewed by the Chinese government to see if they’re appropriate. Even those guys laughed! We were worried that they thought we were making fun of red tape, but they loved it. Everyone in the world finds bureaucracy frustrating and funny.” | Pete Timmermann