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Renato Dos Anjos Talks Ani(mal)ation

Photograph by Disney

From the iconic Mickey Mouse, to Bambi to Simba, Disney has a long history of giving life to animals of all kinds. In 2016, we can add the characters Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Gazelle (Shakira) and more from the upcoming animated feature, "Zootopia," to the long line of animal personalities that have cemented their place in pop culture, animation history and our hearts.

"Zootopia" is unlike any other talking animal film we've seen yet, both by characters and scenery. For one, all the animals walk on two legs but maintain their own unique movements. Also, the story it tells deals with modern issues like diversity and stereotyping, but in a manner that is understandable to people of all ages. At a recent early press day, we got a chance to sit down with Disney's head of animation for "Zootopia," Brazilian animator Renato dos Anjos, about the new film. Dos Anjos, dad to one son, has worked on some of Disney's other popular films such as "Frozen," Wreck-It Ralph," and "Tangled" in recent years as well.

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What was the hardest part of the animation process for "Zootopia"?

Renato dos Anjos: As far as animation goes, the hardest part was really trying to make our characters unique. It's very natural for us to make them look very human because that's what we have to reference — you know, when you act out your scene, you're using yourself as a reference. It's always a little bit of a trap having these characters look too human, and the biggest challenge on the show is making sure that every character felt very unique to their species not like, people with a rabbit costume, or a fox costume. Throughout the film we were having to remind everybody, no it's an elephant you're working with... it doesn't move that fast, because it's a tall animal with lots of mass; it can't move that way. Or if it's a mouse, it has to move a certain way and because our animators had to bounce from one character to another it was difficult to keep track of those characters. It was a big challenge to keep track of that throughout the film.

Who was your favorite character to animate or design?

Renato dos Anjos: One of my favorite designs was Chief Bogo. He's such a cool looking design and I love the voice. He has such a big presence in his voice, I didn't get to animate any scene with him but I love the character, I think he's amazing.

You went to Kenya to do research on some of the animals for the film — what were some of the most interesting discoveries you found about wild animals?

Renato dos Anjos: There were a lot of things, especially the interaction with each other was interesting because you don't see the animals close together like that in zoos. There was this very funny scene that we saw, there were a bunch of buffalo in this watering hole, and then these elephants came in and they pushed them out, because they wanted it that way. So they interact that way — they push and they push, and they shove each other when they need to. The wildebeest often ended up on the menu for "smarter" animals. The funny thing is our tour guide said that the zebras tend to hang out with the wildebeests because they're faster; in case something happens, they can take off and the wildebeest will be left behind. They do that and we saw a lot of crossings with zebras hanging out with wildebeests. Another funny thing we learned, that we didn't know and we used in the film, is that [it takes] baby elephants a long time to really master the movement of their trunks. So when they're young, the movement is very random; they do all sorts of stupid things because they're not coordinated. It's a very complicated muscle system. It's kind of cute.

So now that you've done the research and are deep into the filming, what kind of new appreciation have you gained for wild animals?

Renato dos Anjos: It literally changed my life. I felt that going into this, I was a different person, now coming out, I am a totally different person. The way you appreciate how fragile life is, and how amazing these animals are; how beautiful they are. When you see them up close, just going about their business, it really feels like everybody is just trying to take care of their families, like we are. I was so moved when we went on that trip. As soon as I landed, I just told myself, I have to go back one day, I have to go back.

"Zootopia" opens March 4, 2016.

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Photograph by Disney

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