With more than 20 years at the studio, Byron Howard is a veteran of Walt Disney Feature Animation, starting as an animator on Pocahontas, Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear, and the short film “John Henry.” He was co-director with Chris Williams on Bolt (which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature), and then co-directed Tangled with Nathan Greno.
Rich Moore’s tenure at Walt Disney Feature Animation started in 2008, coming from the world of TV animation with a lengthy run with Fox in a variety of positions on The Simpsons and The Critic before becoming the supervising director for Futurama. His first feature film was 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, set in the world of video games (where he also provided the voices for the characters Sour Bill and Zangief). The movie also earned a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination.
The pair came together on Zootopia, Disney Feature Animation’s latest film, with Byron Howard helming the movie solo until a sharp turn about a year-and-a-half ago changed the movie’s main character from sly fox Nick Wilde to the earnest bunny police officer Judy Hopps. The changes required to get the movie finished on time led to Rich Moore signing on as co-director. Zootopia has earned near-universal critical acclaim and, as of this writing, over $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales, making it the fourth-most successful animated feature film ever (right behind Toy Story 3) and the second-most successful original movie in movie history (i.e., non-sequel and not based on other material), behind only James Cameron’s Avatar. Toonzone News was able to talk with Byron Howard and Rich Moore over the phone about Zootopia on the eve of the movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD.
NOTE: This interview contains minor spoilers for Zootopia. You should probably read this after you’ve seen the movie, but you’ve probably already been spoiled if you’ve seen clips or merchandising.
TOONZONE NEWS: I saw you mention in one interview that you talked with police officers, both male and female, as part of the research for the film. I was wondering if you could talk about that angle of the research and what ended up in the film from there.
BYRON HOWARD: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We talked to many different police officers, several from Los Angeles and some from Glendale, and I have a lieutenant friend who was in the force for a long time. One of the unique people we talked to early on was a lieutenant, and she had made her way through the police department in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. That was a time when there were a lot of big, tough dudes in the police and there weren’t a lot of women. She ran into a lot of obstacles and a lot of the same issues that Judy ran into that you see in the film. Nobody wanted to partner with her because the guys didn’t know if she could protect them when they were out on patrol. Even her first partner, who is a great friend of hers now, was trying to protect her because she was a woman when she was out in the field. She got mad at him, and she said, “Don’t protect me because I’m a woman. I’m your partner. You should treat me like an equal person.” They’ve known each other for almost 30 years, and you can see that they have this great respect for each other now.
But we didn’t really draw from real-life as much as possible. Judy goes into the ZPD and into this big city, expecting that, “Well, I’m smart, I do a good job, I’m great at what I do, and I want to do good. Why would I have any trouble at all?” These blocks that people run into that they don’t expect, and all these limits being put on her throughout the first part of the film…that’s common to a lot of experiences, not just being a police officer. I think that’s one of the reasons that people really connected with her, because she’s so determined to overcome these things.
RICH MOORE: Also, I think we really wanted to show the profession of being a police officer as a positive thing. We didn’t want her to find that there was corruption or anything bad like that at the core of the ZPD. I have a good friend…he was a neighbor for many years, his name is Mike…and he’s a pretty high ranking officer now at LAPD. Knowing this guy really changed my perception of police officers. When I think about Judy in the movie, I would always think of my friend Mike, who became a police officer because he really wanted to help people. Just the commitment to protecting good people from bad guys. I would always think of him and be like, “That’s kind of where Judy is coming from.” She has a really solid moral code that she’s coming at this job with, and she just wants to make the world a better place. There are people like that. There are police officers where that is really the creed that they live by, and it was nice to infuse that from a real person that I met in my life into our main character.
TOONZONE NEWS: I liked how that even pops up in a character like Chief Bogo, even though he comes off initially as almost an antagonist to Judy.
RICH MOORE: Right. We would say, “Well, when she gets there, we want Bogo to feel like he’s a foil or an antagonist.” And maybe even feeling, “Is Bogo the villain in the movie? Is he a bad guy?” But really he is the chief of police. He’s worried about his crew. He wants to make sure that Judy isn’t just a token bunny coming onto his force, and that when push comes to shove, she could have the back of another officer even though she isn’t a bigger animal. So we always thought of him that in his heart, he’s a good person. He wants the best for his police force, and he wants every officer to be the best that he can be, but it takes Judy proving to him that she can do it. He’s not just going to believe it sight-unseen. And when she does prove it, he becomes kind of a best friend and a mentor figure to her.
TOONZONE NEWS: One of the big themes of the movie how our biases can creep in even with the best of intentions. That’s been in the news a lot recently, especially in regards to the police. Was that something that came up while you were making the movie?
BYRON HOWARD: We were certainly aware of it. We started working on the film about 5 years ago, and the themes landed really early. I think it shocked us all that while we were working on this movie about bias, the news just got more and more pointed as far as those issues. I think it just convinced us even more that the subject really needed to be talked about and explored, so I think it really encouraged us. You’ll see on the DVD and the Blu-ray that we tried many different ways to talk about bias and how to approach it. We tried the film from Nick’s perspective at one point, when he was a very oppressed character and the world was very Machiavellian and kind of 1984, where you had this dominant part of society that was oppressing a smaller group. After a while, we figured out that to make it feel contemporary and like our real world, we needed to be more subtle with it and really look at the more sneaky part of bias that you don’t expect. It’s not always in your face. Sometimes you really have to look for it to see that it’s there, and that’s what Judy goes through. I don’t think she expects to find what she finds in the city, and when she goes there at first she believes that people at their core are good, and why wouldn’t everyone want to get along?
The fact that she grows up a lot during this film is great, because we get to take that journey with her and see and experience this world through her eyes. She has this great summation at the end of the film with that little speech that she gives at the ceremony when Nick is becoming a police officer, where she admits that the world is tough. It’s a tough place to make your way, and simple, trite philosophies aren’t always going to be the answer. The fact that you’ve got to look at yourself first to make those changes. That’s a very layered and mature conclusion for an animated character to come to, and I’m really proud of the fact that everyone worked together to find that voice for her.
BYRON HOWARD: Well, besides the approach of what we were talking about with making Nick the main character, I think that was more of an approach to how we were telling the bias thing. The great thing is that audiences are so smart now. I think there were times when we were worried about, “Will they follow all these little pieces in this mystery?” and “Will they get the message of the film? Are things getting too layered and too complex?” There’s also always the issue of time. But we’re constantly impressed at how smart audiences are, even when you’re talking about very young children. Like even how kids that are five-, six-, or seven-years-old will follow a story.
RICH MOORE: Especially, I think, because we’re coming at it from an emotional approach. I think that when we tried to get too intellectual with the subject matter or the themes, that’s when it started to get a little too preachy or felt too much like we were getting on a soapbox. We would always pull it back to, “Well, what is Judy feeling right now? How is this affecting Judy and/or her relationship with Nick?” I think as a filmmaker, when you come at things from more of an emotional point of view than an intellectual one, like what Byron is saying, that’s when you’re really speaking to the audience. You’re speaking to their heart, you’re not trying to prove theories or saying, “I think this is how the world should be.” When we’re talking about how moments in our lives made us feel, I think that’s when we’re really connecting to a wide audience.
TOONZONE NEWS: You just mentioned how audiences are becoming more sophisticated, but it seems like animated movies are becoming more sophisticated, too. There’s a lot more variety and sophistication in movies like this, or Pixar’s Inside Out, or that movie Anomalisa that got an Oscar nomination. How do you perceive this from the inside of the industry? Do you feel that you have much more freedom now to push those boundaries?
BYRON HOWARD: I think we’re always encouraged to make very diverse films. The nice thing I would say specifically about working at Disney is that no one ever tells us that we have to make a cookie-cutter movie that’s like the last one. Wreck-It Ralph is very different from Tangled and different from Frozen and very different from Zootopia. I think just speaking personally, it was very encouraging for me to see that there is an audience out there for films like this, and that can talk about really mature subjects. We certainly wanted to fit into the Disney tradition because everyone has expectations about great storytelling and great emotions. The fact that it can handle something that tricky is pretty great.
RICH MOORE: I agree. I think it’s a very exciting time to be making animated films, especially in our studio, where we are invited to tell personal stories. The stories are not coming from executives, they’re not coming from production-level. They’re coming from the directors, from his or her heart. Something that they are passionate about. We have the opportunity to kind of explore these things on a universal level and connect them to the audience.
TOONZONE NEWS: I expect you guys are both starting up on your next projects, and I expect that you probably can’t talk about them very much yet.
RICH MOORE: You suspect right! Byron’s got a little time off. I’m working on something right now. I jumped right back in.
BYRON HOWARD: He was here on Sunday, all day.
TOONZONE NEWS: My sly way of weaseling information out of you is to ask if you can talk about something on your next project that’s really exciting you, or really lighting you up, or making you go, “Wow, I really want to see how this comes out.”
RICH MOORE: Well…I can say that I’m excited about the characters that I’m working with right now.
Toonzone would like to thank Byron Howard and Rich Moore for taking the time to talk with us, and to the teams at Disney and Click Communications for arranging the interview. Zootopia is available now on Blu-ray and DVD (and even still in some theaters, only dropping out of the top 10 domestic box office performers this past weekend). You can also follow Rich Moore and Byron Howard on Twitter.