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“Zootopia” is a movie about an animal metropolis where animals — ranging from predator to prey — live together and thrive. The main character, Judy Hopps, is the first rabbit to join the metropolis police force, but is assigned to parking duty. Eager to make more of an impact in the force, Hopps jumps at the opportunity to crack a case, even if it means partnering up with Nick Wilde, a sly fox.
Kira Lehtomaki, the animation supervisor for the film, has been working with Walt Disney Animation Studios since 2007, and has worked on films such as “Bolt,” “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” as well as Oscar winners “Paperman” and “Frozen.”
This is the first movie Lehtomaki has been an animation supervisor on since joining Disney. In this role, Lehtomaki was able to animate a little bit, but her main tasks were getting Judy Hopps ready for other animators to animate and making sure that Hopps’ performance was consistent throughout the movie.
“Zootopia” had a team of 70 animators, and most of them worked on Hopps.
“I have to make sure that it doesn’t look like it’s 70 disjointed performances on this character,” Lehtomaki said. “She has to feel consistent and that she’s the same character in every scene.”
Lehtomaki originally began her career as an animator working on previous Disney movies. As an animator for a movie, you are assigned a scene and a direction from your supervisor and you work with any supervisors in charge of the characters in the scene.
Now that Lehtomaki has moved up the ladder as an animation supervisor, she was able to start work on the movie about a year before the rest of the animating team did. She worked with a character designer, a computer model creator, a groom and a creator for the skeleton of the character.
A groom is in charge of the fur on the character, and the creation of the skeleton allows the animators to “move the puppet around” inside the computer.
All those people create the character team and they work together for almost a year to get characters — Judy Hopps in this case — ready for animation.
Once the animators rolled in, Lehtomaki had to make sure her ideas were consistent with the directors’.
Lehtomaki provided acting examples for the directors to give them insight into the different personality traits of Judy Hopps so that the character Lehtomaki had worked to create would manifest accurately. She wanted to make the directors feel like Judy Hopps was a living, breathing character that wasn’t worked on by 70 different people, and to make it seem like Judy Hopps was a cohesive entity.
To achieve this cohesiveness, researchers had to study various types of animals in person to capture certain traits. A team of 12 people went on a trip to Africa to study animals. Even though Lehtomaki wasn’t a part of that team, she was still able to tag along on other research trips, including to local animal shelters.
Lehtomaki primarily studied rabbits and enjoyed picking out the qualities of the rabbits that could be incorporated into an anthropomorphic version.
“They’re not hopping around on all fours,” Lehtomaki said. “We have to have them walking and talking.”
Ear and nose movements and posture were vital to Judy Hopps because they gave her less of a human posture and more of an animal one.
The animation team wanted to make “Zootopia” different from other talking animal movies by depicting a world in which animals had evolved to walk on two feet and to emphasize that they’re not just humans in animal costumes.
Lehtomaki said that the story of “Zootopia” came about when the research team discovered that only ten percent of animals are predators in the wild and the rest are prey.
“Predators may feel underrepresented in their worldview,” Lehtomaki said. “Prey animals, like Hopps, might have a hard time standing out from the crowd.”
Lehtomaki said that Hopps’ character resonated with her on a personal level. Judy Hopps had big dreams and everyone constantly told her that she wasn’t going to make it as a cop because she’s just a dumb bunny, but she persevered and held onto her big dreams.
“In the end she sees the world in both Nick’s eyes and her own eyes,” Lehtomaki said. “And she’s still able to hold onto her dreams and be resilient.”
“Zootopia” opened in theaters everywhere March 4.