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‘Zootopia’ Co-Director Jared Bush and Writer Phil Johnston Talk Perfecting Script Over and Over Again
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Last fall, a group of journalists were invited to sit down to talk to the creative team behind Disney’s upcoming film Zootopia. The film is an animated play of the buddy cop genre that pairs a naive bunny with a con artist fox. That sort of predator and prey dynamic would really help make the buddy cop feel more fun to watch.

We’ve already posted reports on the design and functionality of how Zootopia could exist in real life, and our sit down with directors Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Bryon Howard (Bolt, Tangled). But we also got to learn about what goes into a Disney script. Below is our chat with co-director Jared Bush, screenwriter Phil Johnston, story lead Mark Smith, and editor Fabienne Rawley. During out sit down with them we learned about the importance of story boarding, how much a story can evolve before a scene gets animated, and how many iterations of a scene from film can get done before they decide on one.

Before we get to our coverage with the writers and editors, here’s a small description of what the team does.

As co-director Bush’s responsibility includes trying to figure out how the world works so there is a lot of world building. So this includes research on environments, how animals would interact with each other, making this world believable. Then he goes into characters, what the story will be about, characters’ personalities, etc. Once that is all figured out, they head straight into writing a storyline, and then from there they go onto the script phase.

Phil Johnston, who had worked on Wreck-It Ralph with director Rich Moore before Zootopia, co-wrote the script with Bush. For him, he simply thinks of things, and writes them down. According to him, with animation, there are thousands of drafts. “It’s never not finished, until we are told it has to be finished,” said Johnston.

Mark Smith, story lead. First pass at the acting, the composition, the lighting, the continuity. Works closely with the writers and directors.

Fabienne Rawley is part of the editorial team. They record scratch dialogue. What that is, is that she and her team record their voices first to see what parts of the story works and doesn’t work. This needs to get done really quickly, and they put that to images and sound effects. This process also helps figure out the pacing of the film.

The story team as a whole does many many many iterations of the script and scenes.

One of the iterations that was worked on multiple times that was shown to us during the long lead was when Judy discovers that her act of kindness was in vain when she sees Nick Wilde sell the jumbo pop that she thought she bought for a little fox child was actually a con to melt down the pops into smaller ones to sell to lemmings and using the sticks to be sold as building material in Little Rodentia. Unable to prove that he did anything wrong, Judy feels defeated.

So the scene we were shown is what happens after all of that.

Story board artist does these pitches for scenes that will be in the film. To show how these scenes would work, the artists would act the story boards out. Everything from the dialogue, gestures, sad sighs, heavy breathing, right down to sounds like cars pulling up, city noises, phone dialing, microwave’s whirring, and the microwave “done” ring.

So here’s a very brief description of the storyboards there were used to create a scene and how:

Judy pulls up in her little meter maid car into the police station and parks next the much larger and more intimidating police cars. Johnston makes the sputtering sounds the meter maid car makes as she pulls up. She is squished in between two larger animals taking the while taking the subway home. It’s just not her day. Walking through her neighborhood to get to her apartment is just as bad with neighbors shouting at each other. When she goes into her apartment, it appears much smaller than it did when she first left it. She microwaves a TV dinner for one, which is a teeny tiny little carrot. She looks at pictures of her family on the phone, calls her mom, but before she does, she gives one little sad sigh and tells herself to suck it up. When she decides not to call them, she throws her phone to the side, not realizing that the phone has autodialed her parents. As she frantically tries to cancel the call, her parents pick up. Excited to hear how her first day went, you could hear a crabby old bunny talk about how foxes were made by the devil, to which Judy says “That’s offensive, Grandpa.” Judy lies about how her day when, and parents know something is wrong because they see her droopy ears. So being the overreactive parents, they want to see her immediately. But Judy assures them that nothing is wrong, and that she is finally achieving her dreams. Proud, her parents tell her that all she needed was a chance. Judy responds with a sad “yeah.”


After they get notes from the storyboard, and agree that it is as good as it is going to get, they send it over to storyboard where they record the scratch actors, then you put the voices to the images add the sound effects, etc. From there it is a matter of figuring out the pacing add music, and adjusting to the scene appropriately. Sometimes just how long a character stands in front of a door before they enter can even change. After this is done, they play a rough version of the scene in front of the directors. The idea is to get it cut as quickly as possible so the directors can see it as fast as possible so that they can give notes to the editing team, and then they can make changes like if there are more boards needed or stage the scene slightly differently. They do this for all the sequences so that the director can have an idea how it works.

Ultimately it then gets animated.

“As the movie changes and evolves, and the character changes and evolves, Judy especially, she became a different kind of character deeper into the process,” said Johnston. “Where she feels a little young here, she feels a lot more vulnerable, she feels kind of like a Frank Capra kind of character, and we wanted her to be more like Charlize Theron’s character in Mad Max [Fury Road]. A stronger more active woman, who is going to be driving the action.”

Basically when a part of the film’s story doesn’t work, it gets reworked, and sometimes new boards are added. There can be a point where there are 20 different versions of a film is iterated before settling on a particular sequence they want. And sometimes the problem isn’t what comes after but what comes before. “So very often, and this happens with all movies, live-action too,” said Rawley. “You just think it’s this, because the thing that isn’t working is what comes after, but really it is what comes before,” she added.

Sometimes adding little bits of elements of antagonism like Judy having to impress her parents or noisy neighbors telling her to turn down the sad music will help reinforce the idea of Judy’s day being really bad, which is goal for the scene, which then ends on the audience being left hanging, and wondering how she will recover, which will be answered in the next scene.

“So much of this is figuring out where we want the audience to be at various points. You have to find it. It’s just not there. It evolves,” said Rawley.

“There’s hundreds of people who work on this movie, and you get the feedback the entire time people are adding and scripting, but sometimes you get these moments where the movie has to work, things are going into production, the scene has to be good, and there are a few people sitting around a table going around like, ‘how could we make this thing work,'” said Bush. “Ultimately it comes down to a few hours and one afternoon, and that’s what becomes the actual movie.”


Change is constantly happening, but the story team does not like it to happen as late as it is now. What we saw at D23 back in August has since had a few subtle changes. “We don’t like it to happen later,” said Bush. “Because once things are animated , there is a lot of people who put their time into that. But when it is really important for a character, it’s going to affect the whole movie. That scene, which we love, Jumbo Pop, it worked really well. Nick was a con man, and so everyone was in on the joke, the problem was Judy did not see it. So what that made you think was ‘well the audience and I can see this, why is you main character not smart enough to also see that this con was happening.’ That becomes a big character issue trying to make this really fun, smart, compelling character. She can’t figure out what you can, then she’s dumber than you, and that’s not where we wanted the character to be.”

Johnston joked “It was a long summer. It was a fun summer.”

“I remember we had redone a bunch of stuff, and we were suppose to screen it for John Lasseter, on a Monday or Tuesday, and we watched the film cut together on a Friday. We were like ‘Oh god it doesn’t work. Oh my god.’ It was a horrible night. Things we had thought worked, weren’t working,” said Johnston. “So we scrambled and reworked stuff all weekend. Cut stuff together on Monday, and put it up on Tuesday, but it changed a lot very quickly. Throwing that stuff out, often, it’s killing your darlings, that’s for sure. But you have to be violent in your approach, otherwise it is not going to work to well.”

Rawley added, “You have to do what’s best for the film. The film will tell you what’s best for it. You really have to listen to your instincts, and just try to forget about things you really like.”

Bush then chimed in. “Part of what it is that is the rule. If it is better, and technically doable in the amount of time we have, you have to try to make it work, because this is it. At some point the movie is released, and you can’t change it. So you have to go through it, and just say that this is going to be better for the character and the story.”

“You never don’t give an idea,” added Smith. “You never hold back any sort of idea. Someone else can say no, we can’t do it, don’t have the time to do that.”

Johnston said, “Part of it is the legacy, the 92 years. We are very aware of where we are working. If you can make it better, make it better.”

“What you are usually up against is if you adjust it, what is the ripple effect. Change some character dynamic, those things can be pretty massive. It’s not so much effecting one scene, as it’s going to do this and this and this, and then that’s when it becomes problematic,” said Bush. “Further down the production process you are trying to be very surgical with all the changes that you are making, and not disruptive later on”

Zootopia opens in theaters on March 4, 2016.

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