How Esri CityEngine powered Disney’s Zootopia?

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Brandon Jarratt took GIS professionals behind the scenes of animated city creation at the Esri User Conference, being held this week in San Diego. Jarratt served as general technical director for Disney’s Zootopia, which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Jarrett took the stage during the plenary session to describe how the Zootopia team used Esri CityEngine software to create the complex city that serves as the backdrop for the movie.

Jarratt said Disney animated features need three elements: compelling stories, appealing characters, and believable worlds. That’s believable worlds, not realistic worlds.

(Disney animated movie elements. (Photo: T. Cozzens))

In this case, the complex city of Zootopia had to be designed from the ground up as a complex city with various districts designed to accommodate the vast array of animal species. In the world of Zootopia, humans don’t exist. Transportation systems, houses, streets, and services need to accommodate animals as tall as giraffes and as small as a shrew. To meet these challenges, the designers turned to Esri CityEngine and its multi-scaling feature. The Zootopia world also needed to incorporate various habitats, or in this case, districts. At the centre a large complex city dominates.

CityEngine was used in the creation of the city in Big Hero 6 as well. In Big Hero 6, the base city geography used was San Francisco, upon which Japanese-style buildings were placed. In all, 80,000 buildings were incorporated into San Fransokyo.

(San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6. (Image: Disney))

Zootopia, on the other hand, was built from scratch – including the terrain. The team started with research of various landscapes to create a basemap.

(Zootopia concept map. (Photo: T. Cozzens))

At the city-building stage, CityEngine’s custom tool was used to lay down streets. Buildings were designed for each district. The building styles couldn’t be repeated too often, or the city would look unrealistic, Jarratt said. The designers used carefully calibrated mix rules to keep the cities lively.

(The desert area of Sahara Square is made of 61,000 parts, including buildings, wall segments and palm trees. (Image: Disney))

The ability in CityEngine to change the makeup of a city, adjusting the frequency of the various parts, made it easy for the illustration team to meet the art director’s requirements. When he wanted more skyscrapers or buildings of a certain design, the team was able to provide new concept images the same day.

(Zooptopia being built in Esri CityEngine. (Photo: T. Cozzens))

Esri’s CityEngine GIS technology is used by city planners to design our future smart cities. “It’s so similar to how city planners create real cities,” said Esri President Jack Dangermond. He then presented Jarratt with Esri’s first-ever Best Animated Feature Using GIS award.

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