Interview with Disney Animator Lance Summers and “Zootopia”

I had a one-on-one interview with Lance Summers, the Environment Look Supervisor for Disney’s animated feature “Zootopia.” We chatted about his work before he surprised Professor Sam Shpigelman’s film class at San Diego State University Monday afternoon.


The Full Sail University graduate has worked at Disney Animation Studios in Burbank since 2009. Summers was in San Diego while touring colleges across the country to share his experiences working on “Zootopia” and at the Mouse House.

Summers’ credits include “Tangled,” “Big Hero 6,” “Wreck-it-Ralph” and “Frozen.” The last two films are in my recent publication, “101 Movies To See Before You Grow Up.” As the author of a children’s movie guide, I was eager to talk to an insider about the artistry and technology that went into creating “Zootopia,” a movie about a modern mammal metropolis like no other.

Lance Summers, Zootopia's Environment Look Supervisor, in San Diego with "101Movies" author Suzette Valle

Lance Summers, Zootopia’s Environment Look Supervisor, in San Diego with “101Movies” author Suzette Valle

Unsuspecting students walked by as we sat at a small table at the Starbucks in the west commons on campus. First we tackled the fun part of  working on the look for “Zootopia.” Animators went on field trips to places like Las Vegas and Kenya, and gathered ideas to create the vibrant and colorful environments where the all-animal society would live.

This may not seem like hard work, but capturing the smallest details from these surroundings could mean the difference between keeping you in the movie and pulling you out of it.

Incorporating details into these landscapes gives animators like Summers a chance to showcase their talents. “Movement of leaves and palm fronds are what we call live moments. These small things tell your brain that things look normal,” he said.

Unlike their 2D cartoon predecessors, when buildings and landscapes deliberately looked off scale, technology has evolved to a point that animators can now render realistic environments.

I asked Summers if he was proud of a particular scene he created in “Zootopia.”

“The train sequence is very special,” he said. He recommends that we look closely at the details – even the smudges on the train’s windows!

Summers shared some of the Easter Eggs that artists and animators hid in this movie. These are typically tributes to past films, the artists’ initials, or even someone’s birthday – as is the case on a license plate in “Zootopia.”

I’m going to let you in on a couple of those hidden gems. When you watch “Zootopia,” try to spot the “Frozen” characters Elsa and Anna as baby elephants and a hidden Mickey on a stroller.

Summers oversees a team of 16 people, and his enthusiasm for his work is palpable. I asked him if this was his dream job and he answered with a solid “yes!”

Something Summers really enjoys about his job in animation, are the close friendships that develop as a result of working together on a project for months or sometimes years. The time it took to develop “Zootopia” varied a great deal; the director, Howard Byron, spent six years developing this concept, while the Environment Look Supervisor worked on this film for two years.

“We only work on one project at a time. It’s actually jarring to try to go back and forth between projects because the looks are so different,” Summers illustrated.

During our interview, I learned that computer animation is a painstaking job that requires patience, attention to detail, and most importantly an uncompromising level of passion.

When I asked Summers about the most challenging aspect about his job, he replied with this anecdote.

“I worked on the ice castle for ‘Frozen’ for a long time. I took it to John Lasseter for approval and he said, ‘It’s beautiful! But it has nothing to do with ice.’”

Summers told me that it’s very hard to discard months of work and start over. “You just have to let it go,” he quipped.

Chatting casually with a Disney animator about his work is as rare as getting a time slot with John Lasseter. But it happens, and I’m glad it happened to me!

“Zootopia” opens in theaters March 4.





  1. Morgan says:

    Fun! Can’t wait to see!

  2. I never thought about all those miniscuel details. It is fascinating to hear how they make such magical films. I can’t wait to tell my kids about the hidden Anna, Elsa and Mickey.

  3. Ashley says:

    What a great interview and such a fun opportunity! I can’t wait to see Zootopia!

    xo Ashley

  4. Sarah Harris says:

    So fun that you got behind the scenes access! My daughter and my teen son actually can’t wait to see this! I love searching for the Easter eggs!


  1. […] few months ago, I interviewed Lance Summers (it was exciting to see his name in the credits!), one of the environment animators at Disney […]

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