Three Screenwriting Lessons that Disney's "Zootopia" Can Teach Screenwriters

by Ken Miyamoto on June 15, 2016

Disney's animated Zootopia has finally debuted on Blu-ray and DVD, offering adults and children alike the chance to revisit — or discover — one of 2016's breakout hits.

Directed by Byron Howard (Tangled, Bolt) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) and produced by Clark Spencer (Wreck-It-Ralph, Lilo & Stitch), the progressive mammal metropolis of Zootopia is a melting pot where animals from every habitat live side-by-side and "anyone can be anything." But when new rabbit police officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) arrives in town she discovers that being the first bunny on a police force of tough, hulking animals isn't so easy. Determined to prove herself, she jumps at the opportunity to crack an unsolved, challenging case even if it means working with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox, Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), to solve the mystery. But the case leads these two unlikely partners to an uneasy conclusion that Zootopia’s "evolved" society is being pulled apart by unseen forces determined to use fear to take control of the city by turning predators and prey against each other.

On June 5, 2016 the film crossed the $1 billion mark, becoming the second film of 2016 to do so — Disney/Marvel blockbuster Captain America: Civil War being the first.  As of this home entertainment release, it is the fourth animated film, the eleventh Disney film (third Disney animated film) and the twenty-sixth film overall to break the $1 billion milestone.

And believe it or not, Zootopia is the second highest-grossing Walt Disney Animation Studios film of all-time in its original release — after Frozen — and the second highest grossing Disney film overall behind Frozen.

Even better, the animated flick is the second highest-grossing original film of all time, behind Avatar.

Needless to say, Disney Animation did something right with this release.

Animated filmmaking is a much different beast than traditional live-action. It's important for screenwriters to understand the differences so that they can further gauge their own expectations for their screenplays that they envision as animated features.

Beyond that, screenwriters from all genres can certainly take away some key lessons from animation development.

Here we delve into the Blu-ray extras of the Zootopia release to learn a little more about the animated development and filmmaking process. We'll then elaborate on the points made within to find lessons that all screenwriters can learn from.

Sometimes the Movie That Animation Studios Start with Is Not the Movie Audiences See

We've seen many examples of this come to light in recent years. Toy Story 2 went through many iterations before it become the beloved film that followed — and perhaps bested — a classic. It started out as a Direct-to-Video feature and it eventually came to the point where Pixar decided to start from scratch with a new approach. The same thing happened with Pixar's The Good Dinosaur, costing the company a rumored $100 million to start over.

In the case of Zootopia, the original film began as a much, much darker toned story.  The character of Nick was originally the center of the film, while the story focused more on tame collars that predators were forced to wear to keep them in check. Zootopia, the city, was a more oppressive and bleak environment, rather than the optimistic and enchanting world that audiences fell in love with. After poor testing, Disney Animation took another year or so to revisit the themes with new writers. That eventually lead to the hit film audiences embraced.

The animation development process is unique because it is an ever-changing conceptual journey before, during, and after production. Here we have some footage of former character and story arcs originally developed and produced for Zootopia.

Screenwriting Lesson Learned?

Screenwriters need to pay attention to what is and isn't working as they write. Whether you work from an outline or discover the story as you write, know that it can always change and evolve into something else. Often something better. Take a cue from the animation process and don't be afraid to change gears if the characters and story aren't as great as they should be. In short, trust your gut because in this business, "good enough" isn't good enough. Do all that you can to make it the best possible representation of the story you want to tell.

Animated Movies Don't Begin with a Screenplay

Most studio animated movies don't start with a screenplay. This differs very much from the live-action development process of either finding a script to develop or hiring screenwriters to write a script based on a preconceived concept. In both cases, the screenplay is the focal point. Draft upon draft is developed and fine-tuned until it is ready to take out to producers, directors, actors, and of course, the studios.

With animation, it's different. It often starts with the concept.

In the case of Zootopia, six takes of the concept were pitched to Disney Animation leads, including the Pixar icon John Lassetter, who is also the Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation. The one common aspect of the six was that animals were running around in clothing. Disney hadn't done such an animated film in a long time. Their The Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood — which both featured animals walking and talking in human wardrobe — were key influences.

That concept led to the idea of having these clothed animals mirror the bias that humans have towards one another. This became the central focus of the film that we came to see, and it all started before the screenplay was ever written. And even then, once a draft began to come to light and went into initial animation, Disney Animation experienced one of their biggest shifts in development after some early test screenings with animators and audiences showcased the aforementioned problem areas.

They started over, left much of the original script behind, and reverted back to the conceptual development that animation begins with. New writers were then brought in to take those realized concepts — many of which had already been created visually — and write a new story.

Screenwriting Lesson Learned?

If you're writing what you feel is an animated screenplay, know that animated stories will always start with the visuals and concepts first. The screenplay is often drastically changed, more so than in live-action script development.

Beyond that, for screenwriters of all genres, you need to be sure to look at your concepts from all angles before the writing begins. With each concept you conceive, there are likely multiple directions you can take it, within multiple genres as well. Animation studios will take as much time as they need to determine which is the better route to take. Screenwriters should too.

Animation Is Not Just About the Jokes and Cute Characters

Many animated films make the mistake of assuming that some funny moments, some cute characters, and some hit song numbers are enough to engage an audience, young or old.

Zootopia proved to be such a success because it featured contemporary problems and issues that we face today in our society. The role of bias in the film mirrors the racial tensions we see in the news, neighborhoods, and the cities around us. And even better, the film doesn't judge any side of the argument. It tackles it from all sides.

This, coupled with funny moments, cute characters, and some hit music, is what really drives the story and engages an audience.

Screenwriting Lesson Learned?

Don't be afraid to tackle some heavy topics. Find creative and entertaining ways to do so, but never shy away from anything that audiences struggle with on a day-to-day basis. If anything, they'll be more invested in the story as long as an excellent message is present.

The true art of showcasing contemporary social issues within a piece of entertainment like a film or television show is to use them as themes within the otherwise entertaining story and characters without pushing such issues to the forefront. If you, the screenwriter, try to bombard the audience with your own personal stances on issues, you'll alienate more than half of the general audience. You can't be too in-your-face with any issues for that reason. Not only will you alienate people, you'll also make the "room" — or the read of your script — feel a little uncomfortable.

Use your writing talents to pepper the story and characters with points on whatever social issue you'd like to use as a theme.

Disney's Zooptopia is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. The film is a perfect blend of entertainment and thought provoking moments. Check out the other special features to learn so much more about animation filmmaking.

Bonus features include:
  • Zoology: The Roundtables – Ginnifer Goodwin hosts an in-depth look at the movie’s characters, animation, environments and more. The artists at Disney Animation give a rare and in-depth look at the complexities of bringing an all-animal world to life from the ground-breaking technology behind the characters’ fur and clothing to the varied and vast environments of Tundratown, Sahara Square and the Rainforest District as well as the deep thought and research given to bringing 64 unique animal species to life through animation.
  • The Origin of an Animal Tale – Follow the story’s development from its origins to a big story shift that turned the film upside down. In this feature-length documentary, filmmakers give a candid look into the difficulties of creating the story of Zootopia and the bold decision to switch the main character late in the production process, putting one resolute rabbit center stage.
  • Research: A True-Life Adventure – The filmmakers traveled the globe to find inspiration for the diverse characters and amazing city of Zootopia. They reflect on the importance of research and how a deep dive into animal behavior at Disney Animal Kingdom theme park and a deep immersion into animal society on the African savanna shaped and inspired the characters of Zootopia and changed the filmmakers’ lives forever.
  • Z.P.D. Forensic Files – Find the movie’s hidden Easter Eggs. Every city has its hidden gems, especially when it has been created by the filmmakers of Disney Animation who love nothing more than sprinkling hidden references to some of Disney’s greatest animated features throughout the story.
  • Scoretopia – Academy Award®-winning composer, Michael Giacchino spotlights five of cinema’s greatest percussionists and how they brought an organic, animalistic sound to his powerful and emotional music score.
  • Deleted Characters – Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore introduce citizens of Zootopia who did not make the final cut.
  • Deleted Scenes:
    • Alternate Opening – Young Judy Hopps rescues a fellow classmate and realizes she can reach beyond a life in carrot farming to a future in law enforcement.
    • Wild Times! Pitch – Nick desperately pitches the bankers of Zootopia on funding Wild Times!, an amusement park made exclusively for the predators of Zootopia and a sure-fire, money-making scheme for Nick and his friends.
    • Alternate Homesick Hopps – After a frustrating first day on the force, Judy has a conversation with her parents.  See how this scene changed from a heartfelt conversation with her parents to tough love when her parents discover their daughter is only a meter maid and not a “real cop.”
    • Detective Work – Judy borrows a fellow police officer’s computer to conduct research, which turns out to be no small task.
    • Alternate Jumbo Pop – In this early version of the story where Nick was the main character, the filmmakers and Jason Bateman were able to take hustling to a new level.
    • Hopps’ Apartment – When Judy’s entire family pays her a surprise visit they are shocked to discover the company she’s keeping.
    • The Taming Party – In this emotional clip from an early version of “Zootopia,” Judy attends her first “taming party” and gains a deeper understanding of the plight of the predator.
  • ·       “Try Everything” Music Video by Shakira
  • Scoretopia
  • “Try Everything” Music Video by Shakira
  • International Character Reel - See the variances in news reporters in Zootopia around the world!






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