Arts interview

Behind the scenes of Zootopia

The Tech talks to Disney’s Nick Orsi

Nick Orsi is a Visual Development Artist from Disney who spent a year working on developing Nick Wilde, the con artist fox protagonist of Zootopia. After a special animation presentation to the MIT community, I sat with him for a quick conversation.

The Tech: Earlier you mentioned you were very involved with developing Nick during the early stages of the movie. What was your favorite part of being involved with Nick?

Orsi: I think the first thing that really drew me to the story was the idea that this guy who, you know, came to the big city. All odds are against him and he has a lot of stereotypes against him but he has no opportunities for himself, so he’s out there trying to make opportunities and he’s kind of an entrepreneur. He also doesn’t have anything. So I thought it was really interesting to have a character with that kind of lone wolf mentality.

The Tech: There’s also a scene in the movie showing Nick’s backstory. The one where he’s a young fox and he gets bullied for being a fox. I thought that was really nice and helped make him a real character. How much of that was thought out at the beginning?

Orsi: There was always a scene in every version that kind of showed you what made him have that outlook and what kind of made him who he is. That was the last version of it. It had come up in one of the earlier versions and it just stuck. There was always a scene that we wanted to show the audience where he came from, and what gave him his mentality.

The Tech: Aside from working on Nick, which other characters did you work on?

Orsi: I worked on Nick, Judy, Gazelle and the dancers with the body glitter, Bogo, some crowd characters.

The Tech: On Bogo, the voice [of Idris Elba] really fit the animal. I’m not sure how that usually goes, but was that planned?

Orsi: Byron [Howard, the director] did have ideas of who was going to play what. A lot of the time what we will do is throw a couple of actors up on the board to be like, “Hey, this is the feeling we’re going for.” Jared, the writer, and I really liked The Wire. We always liked Idris. The main thing was they wanted to try and pair up actors that kind of represented where the animals were from. The cape buffalo is pretty iconic in Africa. Of course we didn’t always follow that formula because Shakira is a gazelle.

The Tech: During your presentation you mentioned being around from really early in the process. Aside from working on developing the characters, what else was really cool about the movie as it was being made?

Orsi: The message. That was the main thing. All Disney films are fun to work on and all Disney films look great. And I love drawing for them. I grew up in a small town near San Francisco. And then I’ve lived in two cities, I’ve lived in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. So I know how it is when everyone’s trying to live in a city together. Cities put a lot of stresses on people and everyone’s very close — sometimes uncomfortably close — and there’s a lot of people existing together. It takes a lot of understanding of one another, and I think the main thing that drew me to it was the message of the story and how important it was to tell. I didn’t think that it would be as topical as it is.

The Tech: That it came out to be so relevant now? Disney started working on this movie five years ago and you joined three years ago. And now it’s really relevant.

Orsi: Yeah. That was the really exciting thing for me. I was really excited about how relevant it is, how it important it is and how large of an audience I think it will reach.

This interview has been edited for clarity.