Creating 'Zootopia' and a career

March 7, 2016

Disney artist shares clips from latest movie and advice on breaking into animation

Disney artist Matthias Lechner offered Johnson County Community College students a sneak peek at his latest movie, “Zootopia,” and answered questions about getting started in an animation career.

Lechner is art director of environments for the film, so he was tasked with creating a metropolis the animals themselves might have created.

“We wanted the city to be ‘character’ in the film, the same way New York City is a character in Woody Allen movies,” Lechner explained.

The result is a conglomeration of distinct neighborhoods based on climate and species preferences, like Bunnyburrow, Tundratown and Little Rodentia.

Where Zootopia came from

Lechner drew inspiration from his own life as he designed Zootopia. Take, for example, the train station that serves Zootopia. It has “many, many similarities” to a train station he knew well in Berlin, Germany, Lechner said.

Lechner grew up in Germany and spent his childhood watching Disney movies. After taking jobs in animation throughout Europe and Asia, he landed at Disney’s animation studios in Burbank, California.

“It’s amazing to work there,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s so fun to work there,’ but it is fun to work there.”

He wants that fun to reflect in his work. “I always try to make my sets fun. There’s always something happening in the background…It makes it lots more interesting if you have many repeated viewings, if, like many parents will have to do, as their children ask to watch it over and over,” he said.

How Zootopia was made

Lechner was also in charge of quality control of the environments. In Little Rodentia, a doughnut shop isn’t much bigger than a toaster, but Lechner had to make sure the sprinkles on the pink paint were “just the right way.”

After showing a few clips from the movie, Lechner took questions from the students. Not surprisingly, many of them were about how to become an animator and how to work for Disney.

“Mostly, you have to preserve the child within,” he said. “And work hard.”

JCCC student Marshall Mason said he enjoyed Lechner’s presentation. Mason said he wants to be a video-game developer and found Lechner’s tips about building environments to be invaluable.

“Game design has been described as creating ‘the art of the experience,’ and his comments about creating environments that are believable – that’s exactly what we’re doing to create that experience,” Mason said.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mason said. “I was so glad I had a chance to attend.”

For more information

The Computing Sciences and Information Technology (CSIT) program sponsored Lechner’s visit, and it was scheduled by the animation department. Find out more about JCCC’s animation, game development or other CSIT programs online or by contacting Deb Elder, interim assistant dean of CSIT, at 913-469-8500 ext. 4270.