Film Spotlight: Zootopia

Ernie Petti, the technical supervisor on the latest Disney animated movie Zootopia, which opens areawide on Friday, took a circuitous route to the world of digital animation. Petti, who went to Saint Ignatius High School and attended John Carroll University, initially started working in aerospace.

"I majored in physics," he says during a recent phone interview. "I knew I wanted to do something related to computers but didn't know what. My first job in aerospace helped me to figure out what I liked, and what I didn't like. Having that visual quality [to digital animation] interested me."

He initially started at Disney in the software side of things and then got more directly involved in the creative part when he started working on 2005's Chicken Little.

"My first job was generating furry characters and populating the world with lots of little things," he says.

Given that Zootopia centers on a bunny police officer (Ginnifer Goodwin) and a fox con artist (Jason Bateman) who live in a modern world where they drive cars and live in apartments, Petti proved to be well-suited to the project. The film's two characters become friends as they seek to find out what's turning so many seemingly peaceful animals into feral beasts.

"I think it's the first movie where we have lots of furry characters with pants," he says. "They're all wearing clothing. There are thousands of creatures and lots of different species. You have to make it convincing, that it's really a modern world. We didn't want them to feel like stuffed animals. It's about finding that balance between the animal side and the modern world."

Some crew members went to Kenya to do research; others went to the Natural History Museum.

"We wanted to get a closer look, sometimes even under a microscope," says Petti.

It would all be for naught, if the actors doing the voices weren't up to the task, but Goodwin and Bateman give strong performances in the lead roles.

"They bring a lot of warmth and heat to the characters," says Petti. "They exemplify the different viewpoints of the characters in that world. It's 'you can be whatever you want to be' versus 'we are what we are.' Their personality brings that into the characters."

As Petti implies, the movie has a message to it as it addresses stereotyping; the creatures must learn to accept their differences, whether they're naturally prone to be prey or predator.

"I think just starting out when we're making movies, the primary goal here is entertaining — it's for a broad range of audience," he says. "We want to make sure there are a lot of layers so it can entertain on many different levels. It looks at predators and prey and the overwhelming number of predators. Hopefully at the end, it's high comedy and entertainment with all those extra layers to really reach out to the audience."

Petti says it's always a thrill to see the final product.

"When you start out early on, you have to take a leap of faith that it'll come together," he says. "As someone once said, it's like jumping out of an airplane with all the pieces for the parachute and you build it on the way down. To see it all turn out is really thrilling."