Arts & Humanities

15 VizLab Alums Helped Bring Oscar Winner ‘Zootopia’ To Life

March 6, 2017

"Zootopia" (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)
“Zootopia” (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)
By Richard Nira, Texas A&M University College of Architecture

From lifelike fur covering the anthropomorphic animal denizens of Disney Animation Studio’s feature, “Zootopia,” to realistic feathers that fluff dry and droop wet on “Piper,” the beachcombing namesake of Pixar Animation Studio’s wordless short, naturalistic textures animated by highly specialized digital artists helped garner 2017 Oscar awards for both studios. Among the creative experts contributing to the films’ success were 15 graduates of Texas A&M University’s visualization programs, and another “Vizzer,” as they are known, who is still pursuing a visualization degree.

“Seeing their work recognized through an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is incredibly gratifying, but also, in many ways, an expected result based upon how successful these former students have been,” said Tim McLaughlin, head of the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M.

“What we’re seeing now,” he continued, “is the influence Aggies have had on digital filmmaking —computer animated films, and computer graphics for visual effects — hitting stride since the boom began in late-90’s. There are so many Aggies in the industry now and many of them are reaching the points in their careers where they often have major influences on how films are made,”

The $1 billion blockbuster “Zootopia,” winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, tells the tale of Judy Hopps, an idealistic, rookie cop determined to prove herself in the big leagues despite being the first bunny to join the police force of that modern mammalian metropolis. After teaming with Nick Wilde, a scam-artist fox, she solves a mystery that threatens to unravel the city, surviving a number of close calls along the way.

With all those mammals moving about, animating “Zootopia” proved to be a hair-raising adventure, explained Michelle Robinson ’91, a visualization former student who served as the film’s look development supervisor. Robinson was responsible for orchestrating a team of artists that created the distinctive, stylistic appearance of the film’s characters and their environment, and for determining the visual behavior of the component surfaces in various lighting situations, be they wood, metal, skin, scales, feathers or fur.

“For my team, fur was by far the biggest challenge,” said Robinson, who is also a Texas A&M College of Architecture Outstanding Alumna. “Since ‘Bolt,’ a 2008 Disney film, we had only created one or two fur-covered animals per film, but for ‘Zootopia’ we created 70 species and they all had to walk upright, wear clothing, and move through a crowded city.”

To make the animals as realistic as possible, Robinson said her team embarked on a nine-month research and development mission to “really understand fur.” That adventure included time spent observing animals at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom as well as a two-week safari in Kenya to study animals in the savanna.

“I believe all that research paid off, in all the fine details of how Zootopia’s dwellers look and behave, from the way the giraffes run, to the way Nick Wilde’s fur moves in the wind,” said Robinson, who also worked as a look development supervisor in “Frozen,” winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2014.

“The film was beautiful to look at and tempting to get lost in,” said Minneapolis Star-Tribune critic Colin Covert, who echoed scores of critics praising the movie for the quality of its characters’ animation and its layered storyline.

Other Texas A&M Vizzers who worked with Robinson, on “Zootopia” were:

  • Darrin Butts ’90, layout artist;
  • Michael Catalano ’09, effects apprentice;
  • Jorge Cereijo-Perez ’10, technical animation artist;
  • Jay Jackson ’16, look development artist;
  • Brandon Lee Jarratt ’10, technical director;
  • Avneet Kaur ’03, character simulation artist;
  • Kelly Kin ’15, lighting apprentice and a current viz student;
  • Kendall Litaker ’13, assistant technical director,
  • and Jacob Zimmer ’11, technical animation apprentice.

Animals again, particularly hermit crabs and a foraging sandpiper hatchling, are the focus of the Oscar-winning animated short film, “Piper,” created in part by six former visualization students at Pixar Animation Studios.

The tiny tale that preceded Pixar’s 2016 animated feature “Finding Dory” is shot like a nature documentary. Set on a meticulously realized beach, Piper, a baby sandpiper, develops a fear of the water after getting pummeled by waves while searching for food. With the help of friendly hermit crabs, Piper finds food and overcomes her fear of the water.

Vizzers who helped create the film are: Sarah Beth Eisenger ’13, Donald Fong ’08, Patrick James ’96, Jean-Claude Kalache ’93, an Outstanding Alumnus of the College of Architecture, Robert Moyer ’03 and Bill Sheffler ’95.

They joined more than 30 fellow animators to create nearly seven million bird feathers for Piper and her bird community and billions of beach pebbles for the under five-minute film.

“At some point you just realize numbers haven’t been created to count how many we did,” said the film’s director, Alan Barillaro, of the sand pebbles.

Awards of this caliber contribute to the growing stature of digital animation education at Texas A&M, ranked third among U.S. public institutions and second in the Southwest in 2017 lists created by Animation Career Review, an online career resource for aspiring animators, game designers and digital artists.

Other than hiring Vizzers, animation and special effects studios like Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, ReelFx and Industrial Light and Magic play an active role in educating them. Every year these internationally acclaimed companies staff the Department of Visualization’s Summer Industry Studio with industry professionals who collaborate with students to create short films in an environment emulating a real-world studio production pipeline.

The films produced in these intense summer workshops, as well as student projects from the entire academic year are screened every spring in the department’s annual Viz-a-GoGo showcase. This year’s Viz-a-GoGo screening is scheduled May 6 at the Palace Theater in historic downtown Bryan, Texas.


This story by Richard Nira was originally posted on ArchOne.

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