Zootopia Animator Darrin Butters on Drawing From Disney’s Rich Heritage

Disney’s latest animated film Zootopia imagines a world where predator and prey live together in harmony- not to mention talk and wear pants. We talk to animator Darrin Butters about drawing on Disney’s rich heritage, the benefits of CGI animation and his side gig as a warm-up guy.

Zootopia is such a richly drawn world: did you enjoy having a blank canvas to be able to create this society filled with different creatures?

Oh, yeah. It was very interesting. We were inspired by the movies like Robin Hood where animals are walking around on two legs and wearing human clothes, and we thought, What if we made a modern day mammal metropolis and had animals walking around on two legs, and predator and prey living together, how would that work? We did a little research, and in Africa there is an agreement between predator and prey that they won't eat each other around the watering hole.

Except for the crocodiles…

Yeah. We didn't include the reptile world, but yeah, they have an agreement that they won't attack each other around the watering hole, so we built Zootopia around a giant fountain in downtown. That's a symbolic gathering of predator and prey agreeing to live together in peace. Then we thought, okay, let's take that predator and prey thing down to the individual level, and we had a rabbit and a fox who were natural enemies. In any drama, you're looking for conflict, and in any buddy movie, you're looking for, at first they don't get along, and then they learn to respect each other, and then they like each other. With the fox and the rabbit, it was very interesting to see how they're not going to get along and how they were going to resolve their, not only philosophical differences, but their biological differences to solve this crime and help the city.

In terms of the CGI animation, can you talk me through your role in the process? Are there particular characters that you work on?

When I first started at Disney you would have a lead for a character in the film, and they would primarily draw all the scenes for that character, then you have teams for that character. When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came over and brought their Pixar philosophy, we also adopted their process, where every animator animates every character in the scene that they're given.

Then we have supervisors and leads that make sure that the acting continuity is there throughout the movie, which is awesome because I get to animate a variety of characters throughout the movie instead of one character.

Did you have a particular character that was your favorite to work on?

The sloth. I got to animate the shot where he gets the joke and he starts laughing. That was such a treat to work on. I was very lucky to get that shot. I had done tests with the sloth character doing really slow walk cycles and expressions. I worked with the modelers and riggers to get the facial expressions for this character.

Can you tell me a little bit about the movies that you worked on in the past?

Yeah. I started in 1996 on Dinosaur, which was Disney's first movie in which all the characters were computer generated. That was a really great first movie to be on, because there was so much attention to realism and I learned so much on the job that first time. Then I worked on Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt. Bolt was the first movie that John Lasseter oversaw.

From then on, the trajectory of our movies have really taken off, the quality. He took over and put the filmmaking back in the hands of filmmakers. Before, it was executives making story decisions, and middle management stepping in and giving notes. John Lasseter came aboard and said, ‘You really shouldn't be giving notes on a film if you haven't made a film.’ He reinvigorated the studio that way. Now, we have creatives making creative decisions

You worked on Frozen and Tangled. Were they highlights for you?

Tangled was probably one of my highlights of my career, because we were working every day with [animator] Glen Keane, who was the lead on Tarzan, and the Beast, and Ariel. He just brought so much appeal and so much of the rich traditional craft to our work. Just learning at his feet was a career highlight for me. Frozen was amazing. We really are delighted with the audience reception to that.

You could never have predicted that, I guess?

No, no. When we working on it, we knew that the story was great, and the music was very new and fresh, but we had no idea it would be the phenomenon that it is.

How has the technology changed since you started?

We are able to work with small teams of modelers and technicians who create the puppets. They're more like puppets than they are drawings. We're able to work with them, instead of a department handing off their product to the next department, and then that department handing it to us, we're able to work with small teams of individuals from those departments and throw the character back and forth to get many iterations and improvements faster.

So you can be more collaborative during the process?

Yeah. Yeah, totally, that is such a different technique than what we were using before. Yeah, the collaboration is so much better.

How much do you draw from the tradition of hand animation?

Drawing is a very important part of our entire process, from design to story artists to blocking our shots out. We work with traditional artists all the time. I just started on Moana and I am blocking out my shot, which means doing the main poses to break down the scene. I took my work to one of our traditional animators, Randy Haycock, and he drew over my poses and showed me a little bit more clarity. It's so nice to use that experience and that legacy that they have to make our computer movies as Disney as our classics.

You also do a bit of improv on the side and you work as a warm-up guy for TV audiences sometimes?

Every once in a while, and it's a nice little side gig. It's not work for me. Getting a crowd to cheer and making noise and have a party is something that I've done all my life. It's recess. It's that and improv, to get up on stage and just play. How often do you do that as an adult anymore, just take a break and pretend for a while?

What was the last show were the warm-up guy for?

We're doing Liv and Maddie right now. My brother-in-law and I work as a team.

We have the same sense of humor and we play off each other. I think we're the only warm-up team do audience warm-up. We do a lot of the Disney channel shows, because we're a lot of fun and we work really clean. We did a lot of regular sitcoms, but when we started doing warm-up for the tween audiences, we really found our groove.

Does that play into your work as an animator at all? You have a key role in bringing these characters to life, so I imagine there's a symbiosis between the two?

Oh yeah. It's all performance. The improv doesn't really help directly with the animation, but improv exercises different disciplines like listening, and working with a team, and being positive and building on other people's ideas. That's something that everybody needs in the workplace. It's also good for when I'm shooting video reference of myself for a shot and I'm able to give a varied performance and present it to the director and I've been on stage and I've acted like a goofball, so my ego is really low.

Related content:

Read our interview with Zootopia's Animatino Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki here.

Featured image: A still from Zootopia. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures



Alice Wasley

Alice Wasley is a freelance writer based in Sydney. When she’s not watching as many movies as she can get away with, she writes for a range of publications including GQ Australia and Marie Claire Australia. You can follow her on Instagram: @alicewasley or visit her website: www.alicewasley.com.