An Interview with Matthias Lechner from ZOOTOPIA


Being the type of geek that really gets into minute details that many other people don’t care about, I’m usually struggling to explain my passions. As luck would have it, I finally got to see what it is to be on the other side when an animation club at the University of Michigan invited the art director of Zootopia’s environment, Matthias Lechner to visit and give a presentation. I gained a new appreciation for art animation as well as a sneak peak into a fandom I have never thought of before.

Mr.Lechner was incredibly kind and broke down in amazing detail and the hard work that creating the world of Zootopia requires. Attention to detail does not begin to cover it.

They start off with a Story Trust – A mix of veterans and young talent, they then challenge each other. They bring stories and find flaws in the hopes that other people have better ideas. This is an interesting way of making a story. It takes a long time but yields good results. “The studio’s goal each and every day is to come up with contemporary and ground breaking films” as Mr. Lechner said.

The purpose of a story trust is so every person who works there is at their A-game. This is the 55th feature film from Disney Animation.

The world of Zootopia was built by the animals themselves. As Mr.Lechner said, “the city is a character itself and not just a backdrop. The premise is so outlandish that it has to be grounded in reality for people to go along with.”

They start with research. After a few months gathering contextual styles for the environment, the team came to the conclusion that animals would probably like organic design.

“We wanted natural islands in the urban environment” and they often asked what would animals like?

“We tried everything, we went really far in one direction and the other but we didn’t want it to be science fiction. New buildings next to old ones, nature integrated. Some buildings look like rocks and some look like 1800s architecture and there are cars and there is chaos.” Mr.Lechner even worked with infamous car designer J Mays, former chief designer for Ford Motor Company. The idea of two very different artists working together to authentic the cars of this fictitious world I found fascinating.

One thing that stuck out to me while watching Zootopia (my movie review can be found here) was how they seemingly managed to have a world with such different sized animals would stand side by side in an ice cream parlor or walking down the street. Mr.Lechner had this to say: “What’s different than other animal movies is that these are not people wearing animal suits, these are supposed to be real animals. What about animals can we use in the movie? (We) researched the fur. (We) wanted to feature the animals as they are in real life. (We) collected hundreds of ideas, for instance a helicopter that looks like a dragon fly. We wanted all these different scales. Public buildings have to work for all the animals so big enough for an elephant but safe enough for a mouse. There are some buildings that are just big enough for one size but the public buildings are for all.”

Seeing how Mr.Lechner is from Germany, he drew on inspirations from his home country for Zootopia as the train station was inspired by a station in Berlin. Zootopia is a global environment. “Watching the movie, it feels quite personal.”

Here’s an example of some of the brainstorming: “Different climates. Follows natural climate patterns. Air rises towards the rainforest and the moisture falls down as rain and it’s colder up higher and the dry air is behind the mountain which is where the desert is. They’re all equal difference from the center. Would have to be artificially produced. It looks a little bit like Disneyland which is not what we aimed for but it doesn’t hurt either. It looks a little bit like different countries that come together to downtown which is a little bit like the castle.”

The team used a program called City Engine which they also used on Big Hero 6.

It even had a subway map so “I imagine a camel could live in Sahara Square, then commute and work in an office downtown.” It’s a contemporary city so people have cell phones, we have billboards and advertisements. Public service posters, traffic signs, credit cards are also present. One person worked only on signage for the movie. What would the animals want to see?

At one point they created an indoor amusement park. Inside and outside was built on an entire set in an abandoned warehouse. Fifty animal-inspired games were conceptualized but you won’t see any of it in the film because it no longer fit the story and therefore it had to go.

Walking out of the presentation and getting to pick Mr.Lechner’s brain, I didn’t just fall in love with the details of Zootopia, I fell in love and have gained a new appreciation for the animators themselves. At one point he described that 80% of the designs created that were not featured in the film and I was shocked.

I mean 80%?! “It’s not frustrating because every time it changes it gets better. So I didn’t want to go backwards. In this process you find what works and what doesn’t and you can improve it later on.” The animation teams have to give 150% at all times and are certain that most of the details will not make it to the film. That is what I call passion and professionalism.