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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Zootropolis Masterclass

Wow! What a busy Disney weekend this is turning out to be, this is the first of possibly a few blog posts about it- all focused around London and the goings on of Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the directors of the new film Zootropolis -Zootopia for you American folks and, apparently, Zoomania if you are in Germany!

I have just got back from a Disney Zootropolis Guardian Masterclass at the Mayfair Hotel, London, which I will review in this post along with the preview screening of the film, the following Masterclass with the directors and the finishing Question and Answer session. Thankfully time to myself on the train on the way home has given me an opportunity to blog about the experience whilst it is still fresh in my mind.  

When I arrived at the Mayfair Hotel I registered and was given my sticker which I was told to wear at all times. I had arrived with plenty of time thinking it would be better to get there early but this wasn't necessary as we were told doors wouldn't open until 12.30 (time the event was due to start). They actually didn't open the doors until about 12.50 leading to an uncomfortable wait in a downstairs lobby with little air conditioning. I was grateful to finally sit down in the cinema, and all the discomfort of the wait was soon forgotten. I am not usually in the position of watching a film before it's released so I normally don't think much about spoilers- don't worry- I won't give much away except to say "wow!"- this film is a definite hit! Funny, creative with a lot of jokes which all Disney fans will love.

Zootropolis is set in a world filled with animals who speak and walk on their hind legs, making them human like. The film is very creative in how the world the animals live in contains communities of all shapes and sizes- the attention to detail in creating communities of animals on different scales within the larger community of Zootropolis really makes me want to watch it again. The main characters, a rabbit called Judy Hopps and a fox called Nick Wilde have a convincing growing relationship as the detective story in the film plays out. The characters really reflect the actors who voice them- Nick really does make me think of Jason Bateman throughout the film! I think it might be the shirts! I was really pleased that the main lead is a strong female character, Judy the rabbit, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. My only disappointment is that they felt that they had to give her such a tiny waist. Considering so much of the presentation after the film was about the research that was done into the animals, as an owner of two bunnies, I have never seen a rabbit (or many humans) with a waist like Judy! This is the sort of thing that Disney often gets criticised about but I guess it is just about the only thing I can pick the directors up for- I thoroughly completely recommend this clever and humorous film for the whole family.

After the film we had a coffee and wriggle break and then returned for the Masterclass itself. I took notes of as much as possible, without wanting to miss out on the enjoyable discussion and video clips being shown throughout so I am blogging about some of the more memorable bits for me, I didn't always record who said what- I was just interested in what they were saying, they were all very engaging speakers. Ali Plumb (I googled him- radio 1 and 1 xtra film critic), introduced the event and hosted the Question and Answer session. First he introduced Clark Spencer, Zootropolis producer, who began by saying he had never been more proud of a movie, I can see why. We then watched a long compilation of clips of cinematic moments from Disney animation. Spencer talked about a key moment in recent Disney history being the development of the Story Trust which he described as putting filmmaking back in the hands of filmmakers. He described the four key elements of Disney filmmaking as timeless moments, humour and emotion, story telling which appeals to all ages and the Walt Disney standard.

The directors, Byron Howard and Rich Moore then joined Spencer on the stage. Howard described how the Disney animated Robin Hood was a favourite when he was growing up and an inspiration for this film. The director described how he pitched Zootropolis to John Lassiter who was so excited he hugged him and picked him up in the air like baby Simba! Howard and Moore then shared photos, stories and insights into spending 18 months researching up close with animals at the Disney Animal Kingdom Park and then out in Kenya. This research helped them in their quest to get the scale of the animals correct and look at their unique body types which would need to be able to all function together in one world. They researched fur on a microscopic level and designed the city with different neighbourhoods to celebrate the different environments animals live in. They joked that Tundratown was a great way of reusing snow from Frozen!

Using fun clips showing the creation of some of the animals in the film the directors touched on the challenges of animating the animals on two legs but still make them feel authentic. They had to consider how would a moose eat a 'popsicle', an elephant serve ice cream and gnus act together as a pack. They studied foxes and how wide they opened their mouths and this was then portrayed in Nick the fox. They studied rabbits binkying and included this in Judy's response to being startled. I loved how they researched for a scene where a character has to eat a (relatively) tiny piece of cake with a tiny fork by getting John Lassiter to do the same!

The afternoon ended with a Question and Answer session with the three speakers, hosted by Ali Plumb. The questions were taken from the floor. These included:
  • Why were chimps and gorillas left out if the film? - They seemed too human.
  • What were the render times for the film? - 100 hours per frame on average, some were only 20-30 hours!
  • What are the differences between the American and international versions? - Not much- due to trademark issues in parts of Europe, Zootopia became Zootropolis, in some countries like Germany it has been named Zoomania. This has affected signage in the film and some of the voices vary.
Other interesting discussion which came out of the Q and A included Moore describing the new render engine- Hyperion- used in Big Hero 6 which had been a 'game changer'. The way that fur and trees move in the wind are the sorts of details I didn't even notice until they were pointed out but the level of detail is fantastic. They also discussed the dramatic change in story which had occurred during production when the film changed from being about Nick to starring Judy and from a spy theme to a detective one. They described having to ditch the work they had done animating the 'Wild Times' theme park which they were convinced would be in the film. Fun fact to finish on (and typical of the Disney jokes/references in the film) - look out for the character Duke Weaselton- it should come as little surprise that he was voiced by Alan Tudyk, who also voiced the Duke of Weselton in Frozen.

I didn't manage to get to ask my Q and A question but no hard feelings- this was a great afternoon! The Masterclass cost £25 which included hot drinks in the break, I think this was fantastic value for such an entertaining insight into the film. There wasn't opportunity for autographs although the directors had been doing that at the Disney Store whilst we were watching the film! When I signed up for the Masterclass I noticed that the Guardian had done a few similar Disney Masterclass events previously. To find out about future similar events I recommend finding them online and signing up for Guardian Masterclass email updates.


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