Disney’s ‘Zootopia’ not only looks great, it has meaning, says animator
Families love Disney animated films more than any other studio’s for one reason, according to Lance Summers, the environment look supervisor for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“It always comes down to the story,” he said in an exclusive phone interview with Upstate Parent. “I think that’s the most important part of any Disney film.”
Disney’s “Zootopia” is the latest family-friendly animated movie to hit theaters, releasing Friday nationwide, and Summers can’t wait to hear people’s responses to it.
“I think the story is amazing, and the world in it is really exciting and new,” he said. “I don’t think any film has ever featured the amount of characters that we have — the different animal types and the different cities — all in one place. You get to travel through this world, and it’s a unique experience to see.”
“Zootopia” continues Walt Disney’s legacy of using talking animals and state-of-the-art animation to entertain audiences of all ages. As the title implies, it showcases the modern metropolis of Zootopia, which is home to a variety of talking mammals, including rookie police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) — a bunny — and Nick Wilde, a fast-talking, scam-artist fox (voiced by Jason Bateman). When a mystery develops, the ambitious Judy jumps at the chance to solve the case, even if it means partnering with Nick to do so.
Summers and his team of computer animators were responsible for designing the way the world of Zootopia looks on screen. He said they examined many cultures before bringing this particular world to life.
“Think of it as a gray clay model,” he said. “They shape the geometry, and we take that and we paint on top of it. We make metal look like metal. We make fur look like fur, and we add foliage and plants and place that around the scene. We build the scene up to look how it should look.”
The result in “Zootopia” is a world seemingly designed by animals for animals. There’s ritzy Sahara Square for desert animals, Bunnyburrow for billions of rabbits, Tundratown for polar bears and moose, the hot and humid Rain Forest District, Little Rodentia for tiny critters, and Savanna Central, a melting pot where mammals from all over come together.
“I love the story, but I really love where we ended up with the actual look of this film,” Summers said. “I was in charge of that, and I remember having conversations early on with our art director and production designer. In my opinion, I wanted it to look different than ‘Big Hero 6’ and have its own unique style. That can be a challenging thing to do.”
When Summers saw finished shots of characters walking through the city, he felt both relief and joy. Everything from his team’s color choices down to lighting and camera shots created a world he hopes will leave audiences awestruck.
“I’m excited to see the public reaction to ‘Zootopia,’” he said. “The story has some good meaning to it. It’s not just cute characters running around the streets of Zootopia. There’s a good meaning behind it. I don’t want to give it away, but I think people should go see it because of that alone.”
Do you want to be an animator, too?
Summers joined Disney back in 2009 at age 20 as a look development trainee. His first Disney feature was 2010’s “Tangled.” His credits also include 2011’s “The Lion King 3D” in the stereo department, the short film production “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” for ABC television; Disney’s arcade-game-hopping hit “Wreck-It Ralph”; and Oscar winners “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.”
A native of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, Summers’ interest in computer animation was sparked when he was 16, beginning with drawing, painting, digital design and eventually 3D visualizations.
“I was interested in computers and technology and things like that, and I got into painting,” he said. “I was taking art classes outside of high school. I came across a couple of classes that merged the two of them. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh. There are schools teaching computer animation. That’s definitely what I want to go to college for.’”
He attended Full Sail University in Florida, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer animation. He said his path to becoming a Disney animator was accidental.
“Starting at Disney was a surprise,” he said. “It was a bit of luck and timing. Once you have that luck and timing, your portfolio is what carries you through. It just happened to be when talent development needed a look development artist to start as a trial. Then I had the opportunity to work on ‘Tangled’ and from there, I kept working on other films.”
Now 27, Summers is a supervisor for one of the world’s largest movie studios. He advised students interested in following in his footsteps to pursue art first and foremost.
“You’ve got to be painting and drawing and sculpting, and doing that constantly,” he said. “Also, don’t loose appreciation for math and physics because it’s a highly technical field. You have to be technically adept and a problem solver. That’s one of the things that makes it really hard to be good at in any of the departments in computer animation.”
He said aspiring students should also look toward the industry for inspiration.
“There are websites out there you can go to and look at other artists’ works,” he said. “Go to the website for people who are already in the industry and look at what they’re doing on the side. Finally, don’t overlook the value of networking. Networking is important, too.”