interview by John Grafman
UPDATE: We wish J Mays and the entire crew and cast on Zootopia congratulations for winning Best Animated Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards and at the Golden Globe Awards! In his honor, AutoDesignO is reposting our exclusive interview originally posted on February 15, 2016.
AutoDesignO is once again poking five, fast questions at one of the industry’s legendary designers.
J Mays is well known to those within the automotive world. J has held the reigns as Group Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer of Ford Motor Company from 1997-2013. But, his latest project is far more animated than ever before.
Zootopia is the upcoming release from Disney. When the need arose for automotive designs for the animals in the movie, J Mays was the natural choice.
Mr. May’s roots stem from Art Center College of Design. Prior to his position at Ford, Mays’ left his impact at VW/Audi on projects with the Golf III, Polo, Audi Avus Quattro Concept, and the Volkswagen Concept 1 (the Beetle).
Ford, which included PAG brands, allowed for Mays to unleash his talents on cars that ranged from the sensual Aston Martin DB9 to the simmering Ford GT, and a vast assortment of other projects from sedans to SUVs.
The bottom line, when it comes to car styling, J Mays is the man!
But, Zootopia characters have special needs that aren’t considerations in a VW Beetle or Ford Mustang. For instance, how often does someone have to accommodate moose antlers in the car? Or, how does one package for a giraffe? And, what styling fits the character of a mouse or a pig? These challenges aren’t very typical. In fact, J spent up to 9 days on each vehicle (generally, 4-5 days each), with design influences that span from the 1930s to the 1990s.
This is what J Mays has to say about this unique foray onto the big screen.
AutoDesignO: How did you get involved with Disney and Zootopia?
J Mays: I first met John Lasseter back in 2005 when he came to Detroit as part of the research Pixar was doing on Cars 1. Of course in the meantime John became CCO for both Disney and Pixar. John and I share a similar point of view on design and quickly formed a great friendship that has resulted in him contacting me for various films both for Disney and Pixar over the years. I had been working briefly on Big Hero 6 and it was at that point I was asked to get involved in a more detailed way on Zootopia.
ADO: What were the deliverables for this movie (did you work solo or as part of a team)?
Mays: The creative team at Disney is fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a more collaborative organization and that alone was great learning experience for me in terms of how to improve the creative process. Hilariously, I was given what I referred to as a police line up of every animal in the movie along with a broad-brush stroke story line. Keep in mind that all of the characters in Zootopia walk upright and that they range in size from a two-inch tall field mouse at one end of the line up to a giraffe at the other. And they all need transportation that meets the needs of their scale, where they live and what they do for a living. The mind boggles, but then…
ADO: The crossover: There have been a few other designers that have made that jump already. Is the transition from automotive design to entertainment design an easy, natural progression for you (the good, the bad and the ugly)?
Mays: Automotive design in so many ways ‘is’ entertainment design so the crossover was seamless. In both cases, either you have a story to tell or you don’t.
ADO: What was the most challenging aspect of the Zootopia project?
Mays: Timing is probably the most difficult. There can be long pauses as a story is rewritten or characters are changed. Then, suddenly you need to quickly deliver a car or design based on the new direction and that can mean quite a few long hours to keep everything on schedule. Sounds a lot like the auto industry, right?
ADO: What can a designer learn from a project like this?
Mays: There are lots of lessons you get from working on anything connected with Disney. Easily the biggest is that design comes to life when you can inject it with empathy and compassion. Make an emotional connection to the characters in the film. At the end of the day a designer’s job should always be the same, to frame and intensify ordinary things in a way that makes them more special.