Zootopia,” the latest animated film from Disney, imagines a world where humans never existed and where predator and prey live together in a world of, well, creature comforts.

This unique metropolis was conceived by production designer David Goetz and his team, who created an environment where animals of all shapes, sizes and climate needs are able to co-exist.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” says Goetz. “It’s a vast and complicated world.”

Goetz and company approached the design of Zootopia and its five boroughs — Savanna Central (downtown), Tundratown, Rain Forest District, Sahara Square and Bunnyburrow — from the animals’ point of view. “That’s a real balancing act. It’s an animal city built by animals,” explains Goetz. “You definitely want to get a sense that you’re not looking at a totally human city.”

He and art director of environments Matthias Lechner referenced the animals’ natural habitats and wove them into the framework of the city.
“At the beginning, your job is to do a lot of research,” says Goetz. “We’re always trying to balance between relatability, which is being able to recognize that you’re looking at a skyscaper, and being an animal, which could be something really wild.”

The city ended up being like a real metropolis with a mix of modern and historic architecture.

“In the city center, you see a little bit of everything,” says Goetz. “You see a lot buildings that look fairly conventional by human standards and you see a lot of buildings that are pretty organic looking or something crazy modernistic. Either mostly rock shapes or a horn-shaped building. Somethings look like trees.”

And aside from the challenge of creating a city built by animals, they had to consider the size of the creatures relative to each other as well, something other films featuring anthropomorphic animals have cheated to a great extent. “In our city, an elephant needs to be able to cross the street with a mouse. So what are your systems for being able to make this happen?” says Goetz. “How do these animals of all different sizes actually live together?”

The climates the animals live in were a big concern for the design team too, and they had to figure out each specific environment. “What are desert animals? Who are they? How do they live in the desert or the Arctic or the rain forest? What are their habits? Are they awake in the day, or the night, or are they crepuscular — which I’d never heard of before. They live in the seams between day and night, late afternoon to early evening,” explains Goetz. “Do they live in a burrow, or a depression in the ground, or in a cave or a tree? We spent a lot of time looking at that.”

One interesting challenge was coming up with a way all of the animals could co-exist in the city despite their disparate climate needs. “Everything has an interior logic to it,” explains Goetz. “One thing that doesn’t come out in the movie so much is the climate wall, the separation between Sahara Square and Tundra Town.” The question they had to answer was “How does that work?” With some research, Goetz learned of a refrigerated beach that had been planned for a hotel in Dubai as well as artificial ski slopes in Germany.

They took those ideas and developed the climate wall. “Originally it was to have air conditioning on one side, then the exhaust from the air conditioning blows out onto the desert side and heats up the desert,” explains Goetz. “And if you were really going to go all the way back, you could say that’s powered by the rain forests, which are these big burners. Those trees are all made up of huge pipes and they’d have a burner in them powered with manure. That’s how I was seeing it. They boil water and turn it in to steam that comes out the top and creates a humid environment. Some of it stays water and comes back out as rain, and you take the power generated by them and power this huge climate wall,” he adds. “There is thought behind everything — how and why everything is there.”

“Zootopia” is one of the most complex projects Goetz has ever worked on, he acknowledges. “Any project you work on where the entire world is invented,” is a challenge, he says. “I also worked on ‘Atlantis,’ and that was another case where we invented that world. Anything that’s a completely imaginary world is trickier because there are no rules. You have to make rules and set boundaries so you can start to produce things,” he says.