Thai animator Fawn Veerasunthorn is among the many real-life figures behind Disney's "Zootopia"
ANIMATION MOVES AWAY from fantasy to mirror real life in the new Disney animated feature “Zootopia”, which tells the story of Judy Hopps, a cute bunny who leaves her rural hometown of Bunnyburrow for Zootopia, the modern mammal metropolis, to pursue her dream of working as a police officer.
But despite the town’s slogan that promises its residents that they can be anything they want to be, Hopps quickly realises that it’s not easy to be a bunny cop among such heavyweight colleagues as elephants, rhinos and the cape buffalo Chief Bogo.
Ignoring the chief’s blunt statement, “it’s not about how badly you want something, it’s about what you are capable of,” Hopps confronts the prejudice by working hard to be accepted and prove that she can indeed be anything she wants to be.
Thai animator Fawn Veerasunthorn, a story artist for the project, knows what it’s like to fight for the career you love.
“I kind of understand what she’s going through,” she says in a phone interview with The Nation.
Fawn dropped out of Mahidol Uinversity’s Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodhi Hospital in her first year to pursue her dreams of working as an animator. She graduated in animation from Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio then started working for animation companies. She joined Disney four years ago and worked as a story artist on “Frozen”, for which her team won an Oscar.
For “Zootopia”, nine story artists worked together to visualise the script in a storyboard format, a task that involved more than drawing pictures but also working closely with the scriptwriter team and the directors.
It also meant trips to the zoo to observe each animal and learn their distinctive characteristics. Specialists were invited to the studio to advise the team.
Fawn was assigned by her boss Josie Trinidad to develop the early part of the story, which centres on Hopps’ life as a child when she dreams of being a cop. She also created the scene when Hopps is preparing to leave Bunnyburrows and is saying good bye to her parents and her 275 siblings.
“Josie told me to think of my feelings when I said goodbye with my parents at the airport on my way to study animation,” she says.
In developing “Zootopia”, Disney set itself the mission of showing today’s society through the animal characters.
“That meant plenty of discussion about the gags and also possible holes in the story,” Fawn says.
But despite efforts to plug these, audiences have discovered some minor details that have been left out. For example, in a world where mammals – both predators and preys live in peace – what exactly do the predators eat?
Fawn says that the topic was discussed in her team and scenes touching on the subject were developed. They were later deleted to make room for more important details in the main storyline.
“They eat bugs,” she says. “We came up with scenes where the predators were feasting on bugs hamburger and pearl milk tea where the jelly was in fact worms. But we had to cut it out,” she says.
And despite mimicking real life, the film has plenty of amusing scenes. Thai viewers might not be familiar with the sloth, but they will still find it amusing to see this slow animal running a government office.
“We didn’t want the movie to preach to the audience, so we kept it softer and light so that it can both entertain both kids and adults,” she says.
Though Disney has three other Thais on its staff – technical director Natt Mintrasak, modeller Punn Wiantrakoon and visual artist Rattanin Sirinaruemarn – Fawn is the first Thai woman to shine in the industry.
“When I started, there were few women working in this field but that’s changed now, and more and more women are coming into the industry.
Indeed, her own unit is headed by a woman and three of her colleagues are female – Filipinas who grew up in the States. “So I am still the only foreign staff member in the team,” she says.
But that, she insists, is not an obstacle. Animation is also about teamwork and Disney is a melting pot where talent is gathered from around the world.
Fawn loves the working environment. “People here are very talented and they let us learn something new all the time. We need to learn far more than just animation techniques. We also need knowledge about all sorts of different things to be able to create a good story. For ‘Zootopia’ we had to learn about animals, for ‘Frozen’ we had to study the science of ice and now we’re looking at the culture and life of the South Pacific islands for the upcoming project “Moana”,” she says.
She adds that working in this field also means being open to criticism.
“We can’t create work that satisfies everyone so obviously we get both love and hate comments. I personally believe that there are people out there who love the same thing we love. Animation is about working as a team, I respect my colleges and we are always checking with each other so that we can create new ideas and not stay in our comfort zone.”