Behind the creation of the bustling metropolis in “Zootopia,” the Oscar-winning animated film where thousands of anthropomorphic animals coexist, was Disney artist Brandon Jarratt, a former Texas A&M visualization student who was part of a team that used geographic information system software to craft the complex, fantastic and visually rich movie paradise.
Jarratt talked about creating the city of Zootopia as keynote speaker for Texas A&M’s expansive three-day GIS Day celebration, part of the worldwide Nov. 15 salute to geospatial technology and its power to transform and enhance lives. Addressing a standing-room-only crowd at the Memorial Student Center, he shared behind-the-scenes details on the technology and methodology of virtual city construction.
To visualize everything from skylines to lampposts in a world suited for creatures ranging from towering giraffes to tiny shrimp, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” team used ESRI CityEngine, the same 3-D GIS application that helps urban planners and architects conceptualize projects and plan their implementation.
“I was given the biggest sandbox in the world to play in,” said Jarratt, a 2013 Master of Science in Visualization graduate and 2010 Bachelor of Science in Computer Science graduate whose Disney credits include “Big Hero 6,” “Moana” and the upcoming “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck it Ralph 2.”
He joined the “Zootopia” team after a storyline change altered the visual concepts for the human-like animal world, necessitating the expedited development of a large, complex and diverse cityscape including desert, rainforest and tundra districts.
Using GIS, the virtual city planners created unified, multi-layered maps for each region, with layers for height, topography and building distribution. Then, Jarratt said, using a small library of buildings designed to suit each district, the team regenerated areas of the city that could be rapidly iterated after creative feedback.
“(CityEngine) allowed us to work very quickly,” Jarratt said. “I could get feedback from the art directors and send it back over that same afternoon.”
At home in a high-intensity environment, he attributes his success at Disney to lessons learned in the Texas A&M visualization program, which taught him how to work collaboratively under pressure with artists and other creatives, and to his undergraduate work in computer science, which honed his coding skills.
Jarratt was introduced to his future employer as a student, working with fellow Vizzers under the tutelage of Disney animators to create a 30-second animated short as part of the program’s Summer Industry Workshop.
“It was an opportunity handed to me on a silver platter,” said Jarratt, who landed an internship with Disney the following year.
Now in his fifth year at the fabled studio, Jarratt is developing innovative methods for showcasing the frenetic cyber world of “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck it Ralph 2,” which is slated for released in 2018.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” he said. “The internet brings a lot of new challenges in how we present things.”
Visualization studies at Texas A&M
The visualization program, which ranks among the top animation and video game programs in the nation, is a steady supplier of creative talent at leading animation studios including: Pixar, Blue Sky, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Industrial Light and Magic, Dreamworks Animation, Electronic Arts, Rhythm & Hues Studios, Reel FX and Sony Pictures Imageworks.