Disney Art Director speaks to EMU students about new film, Zootopia

Matthias Lechner, his wife Sarah Hill (who is a 3D animator) and daughter Eva live in Ventura.

Picture modern day New York City. Now, remove the humans and put together all the mammals in the world into that city. The result would look a lot like the modern mammal metropolis, Zootopia, a thriving city created by animals for animals in Disney’s newest animated feature, “Zootopia.”

The Art Director of Environments for Disney’s “Zootopia,” Matthias Lechner, came to EMU to speak to students on Friday, Feb.19 in Roosevelt Hall. He spoke about the design process, creation and ideas that went into the production of Zootopia.

Lechner joined Disney in 2012 after working as a freelance artist and producer for projects like Escape from Planet Earth for Rainmaker Entertainment, and Keinohrhase und Zweiohrküken, a Thilo Graf Rothkirch cartoon film by Warner Brothers. He relocated from Vancouver and started on the early version of Zootopia after being contacted to work for Disney.

“I love Disney animal movies,” he said. “I saw The Jungle Book when I was six and it sort of made me want to go into animation. I never thought I would end up at Disney though I feel strictly lucky and privileged to have worked with an amazing team there.”

In first creating the city, Lechner had to see the project as a character in the film and begin with research. As the animals in Zootopia are from different species there are different artificially created climate zone to accommodate them, for example, Tundra Town for polar bears and the Sahara Square for camels. The research consisted of sketching, seeking architectural styles, ideas and animal behavior.

Lechner talked about each climate zone having its own style. For Tundra Town its Russian inspired. The Rainforest is South American inspired. Lecher also described Zootopia as a “globe-like city.” A train station in Berlin, Germany that he liked inspired an early version of a train station in the film.

“I grew up in Germany and traveled around the countries and worked in America for a while so I got to infuse the city with my own experiences. It makes this movie kind of personal for me and I love looking at what the outcome came from and I feel quite at home, actually.”

By integrating nature with the urban environment the designing team faced challenges when working with the scale and models of public places and animal sizes.

“We wanted to have real animals; a mouse the size of a mouse and an elephant the size of an elephant. There are different scales so when the animals evolve, the environments evolve.”

In the presentation he also talked about the works that didn’t make it into the film.

When designing different parts of the film, Lechner said that 80% of what they design does not make it to the movie.

“I know it sounds frustrating and it is a little bit, but it is also not because every time it changes the story gets better,” he said.

A scene in Bunny Burrow is an example that Lechner designed that consisted of 200 sketched bunnies all doing different things. It was a challenge for him where he said he had to put himself in the “head of the bunnies.” Although his sketches didn’t make it in the movie, the Bunny Burrow inspired the crowd animators of Zootopia so they used the idea in other parts of the movie.

“There are a lot of stories in the background. You’ll discover a lot in Zootopia. It’s what makes the story really alive.”

Zootopia opens in theaters on March 4.

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