(March 10, 2003)
With more than 25 years at Disney, Don Hahn has worked on some of the studio’s most successful films. He’s the only Disney producer to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and his Lion King remains the studio’s biggest grossing animated film. As part of the promotion for the 15th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the movie’s new DVD re-release, Colin Jacobson chatted with Mr. Hahn about his career and other animation-related issues.
CJ: Nice to talk to you! I’m a very big Disney animation fan, so it’s a pleasure to be able to speak to someone with the inside scoop.
DH: (laughs) I will do my best!
CJ: I’m curious to know about your career. Obviously we’ll talk about Roger Rabbit, since that’s what led to this interview, but I’m curious to know what got you to that point. How did you get involved in animation?
DH: I kind of got seduced by the animation process when I came to the studio for a summer job. I was a musician in school, and I came to the studio just when the old guys were still there – Frank and Ollie and Woolie Reitherman. I got to work with them, and actually one of the first movies I worked on was with Don Bluth on Pete’s Dragon , which was a live-action combination. That’s why I got the call on Roger Rabbit because nobody knew about animation combination movies, and I was like the guy. So Peter Schneider, who was the head of animation at the time, turned to me and said “I’m going for a meeting over at Amblin and you’re going with me!” We went to Amblin together and started talking about Roger.
CJ: You’re listed as the associate producer on Roger Rabbit. What did that entail?
DH: I produced the animation sequences. Steve Starkey was the other associate producer at ILM, and he produced the visual effects side of it. I was in London with Richard Williams, producing the animation side of it.
CJ: Going back to your early days, how did you get moved into animation? You said a summer job got you there, but what was your interest in it and your background in that?
DH: I was an artist and musician in school, and I found that animation was one of those places where you could use art and music together in the same craft. That was really appealing to me. To be able to get into making musicals and working on shows where the music told the story was something I really loved and got swept away with the idea that it wasn’t just about the drawings. You could control every frame – you could control the emotion and the story and the whole thing all through drawings and music. I feel like this is something I was born to do, except I didn’t know it until I came to Disney.
CJ: Had you been a fan of Disney animation previously?
DH: Like every kid, I had grown up at Disneyland and loved it there. I was a fan of Disney animated movies, but I really didn’t start out to be an animator at all. I loved the process and I loved the people and I loved the combination of the elements. I animated for a little bit but I found that producing and pulling all the other elements together was more of a challenge and more fulfilling.
CJ: So you didn’t grow up saying “I’m dying to be a producer of animated flicks," huh?
DH: No, absolutely not. Sometimes I still wonder (laughs) – no, not at all! I feel like at most, I admired Walt Disney’s movies, I admired the approach of musicals, but never in a million years did I think I’d want to be a producer of animated films.
CJ: I watched the Roger Rabbit DVD’s documentary last night. In that you referred to Roger Rabbit as the most difficult film of your entire career. Tell me more what you meant by that.
DH: At the time, it was like wading through a dark cave without a lantern. There were no computers. It wasn’t that long ago – 15 years ago – but there were no computers in the show. It was drawn by hand and painted by hand and composited on optical printers at ILM by hand, so that made for a cumbersome project.
And Zemeckis was and is a pretty brave and visionary guy. I have to point to Bob and say that it was his movie and his bravery that led us all to Roger Rabbit. He didn’t want to limit Roger Rabbit to the traditional rules of animation live-action combinations, such as you would never move the camera, and you would never want to have an animated character interact that much with a human. He just threw all those rules away, so that when you walk into the room, if a toon picks up a pencil, it should be a real pencil, and if he drives a car, it should be a real car in an extremely interactive environment. The camera should move, so you feel it. All those things made it extremely challenging to work on the movie. Nobody’d ever done that to that degree.
It was also like making two movies. There was a live-action movie and there was a whole animated feature that played on top of it. I think all those things were difficult at the time.
CJ: Clearly people tried to combine live-action and animation. You mentioned Pete’s Dragon, and had some of those elements, but neither did it to the degree of Roger Rabbit.
DH: Yeah, and that was something that was very important to Bob – that interaction, so you had Bob Hoskins and Roger handcuffed together, or you’d have a scene where Roger hit his head on the light, and the light would swing back and forth. That’s a painstaking part of the movie, because that meant you had to draw all those shadows in every frame. Ken Ralston and the guys at ILM had to adjust for that in every frame.
Again, it goes back to Bob and his vision for the movie that challenged us all and really took it to a new place. Ultimately, I think the movie helped us remember how much we love animation.
CJ: If Roger Rabbit were to be made today, how do you think it would differ from the 1988 version?
DH: The technique would probably be easier in some sense because with computer graphics and compositing the way it is now, there’s a lot more latitude to put things together and control them than there was back then. It’s funny, because the movie has a very “hand-done” feeling to it, not only in the animation, but in the cinematography and other areas. It looks very “1940s” and warm and hand-done. That’s something that computer graphics may never purely have. I’m not sure you’d do a CG version of Roger Rabbit, as part of the charm of it is that it looks like it just popped off the pencil of a Tex Avery or a Richard Williams. It feels very hand-done, so I think that even though computers could help us a huge deal to photograph and composite, I’m not sure that technique-wise you’d ever want to go to that side of Roger. I think part of the charm of it is that they’re toons.
CJ: I’m curious to get some general impressions of the films on which you’ve worked. What general thoughts do you have about Beauty and the Beast?
DH: Howard Ashman – the whole musical side of it. The fact that Howard came in and originally taught us with Beauty and Little Mermaid how to tell a story with music. It was a wonderful and special time to be able to work with him. Also, it’s a movie that was done under very tight budgetary restraints in a very short amount of time by a very young crew, and the audience never cared. Nor should they – it’s not about the money you throw at a movie. It’s about a certain unspoken energy and life that the drawings have. It certainly was one of those times when all the elements came together.
CJ: As you obviously know, Beauty was the only animated film to get the Best Picture nomination. What do you think converged for that film that hadn’t happened in 50 years previously?
DH: I may be too close to it to answer that question, but I think it’s a little bit of Roger Rabbit, actually, which reminded people that there’s this great art form. A little bit the resurgence of the musical on-screen in a way that people really appreciated. The animated fairy tale had not been done really since Cinderella in the Fifties, and I think there was a rediscovery of that. So the craft of the musical side, much as Chicago is on everyone’s radar screen now because making a film musical is hard – the craft, the musical side of it, the animation side of it, the rebirth of animation, it all kind of came together at the right time to have people recognize it.
CJ: Do you think Beauty and the Beast would have happened like it did if Little Mermaid hadn’t already gotten people back into Disney animation?
DH: I think clearly we stand on the shoulders of Little Mermaid. I think as we look back at the progression of films in the early Nineties, from Little Mermaid to Beauty to Aladdin to Lion King, there’s a progression of style and bravery and a kind of audience acceptance of the movies. I feel that without a Roger Rabbit and a Little Mermaid there would not have been a Beauty and the Beast. I really feel like the collaboration between all the artists on all those movies really was an additive kind of thing.
CJ: But even with the success of Mermaid the budget was still pretty tight on Beauty?
DH: Oh yeah!
CJ: Expanded for Lion King, I assume?
DH: Well, yeah, Lion King was different. Lion King was a movie no one wanted to work on. Everyone wanted to work on Pocahontas or other movies coming out because the early development was like a nature documentary. It seemed sort of dry - Bambi in Africa everybody used to call it. We used to wander around trying to find people who wanted to work on it.
That was a combination of trying to step out in a new direction musically with Elton and Tim, and also a new director. I feel like Rob Minkoff - who I’m now doing Haunted Mansion with Rob, and he’s done Stuart Little - he’s a very strong director, as is Roger Allers, and I feel like again, their approach to that movie plus the topic of Africa plus the story that was very mythological, very “Hero’s Journey”, very Moses and Joseph – we used to call it “Moses Meets Joseph and Elton John in Africa”. All those things put together made for something the audience responded to.
CJ: Why do you think that movie took off so strongly? It’s far and away the biggest hit Disney’s had.
DH: I have no idea! (laughs) Here are all the arguments, and you can decide what the answer is. On one hand, the craft was great – the music was great, the animation was great. But also it was in a summer when it was the only animated movie that whole summer. Now you look at a typical summer and there may be four or five animated movies plus live-action movies like Harry Potter that vie for a family audience. That summer was Forrest Gump and Lion King, so the movie could run and run and run and run.
And it was a good movie. I feel like the story, the idea of a person who’s lost their father and tries to live on with his spirit without taking responsibility for all those things strikes a chord in people that’s very emotional.
CJ: Have you had any involvement with the upcoming Lion King DVD?
DH: I have, actually. We're working on it very hard. At this point
we're pulling together interviews and going through our closets and getting
our video field trips. We found this great video of Lebo M recording music
in South Africa for the movie, and interviews with Hans Zimmer and Elton.
CJ: The Lion King laserdisc was one of the greatest ever made. I would guess that the commentary will come over from that, right?
DH: Yes, we’ll use that literally. What was great about that commentary is that it was done back in 1994 or 1995, so the movie was very fresh. I think a lot of the elements from the laserdisc were fantastic. We want to pull those over, but we also want to pull in elements like Julie Taymor’s take on The Lion King and talk about it with some perspective of the years gone by now.
CJ: Moving on to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I very much liked Hunchback, and I always thought it was a very daring film. Except for “A Guy Like You”. I’m going to put you on the spot here and get you to defend putting “A Guy Like You” smack dab in the middle of the dramatic action scene.
DH: It goes back to – rightly or wrongly – the inspiration from Victor Hugo, the idea that Quasimodo in his mind’s eye saw the gargoyles as his companions. The audience knew that they were stone and not alive at all, but we felt like in the middle of the movie we needed to somehow go into Quasimodo’s fantasy of what he was going to get if he ever got his freedom. That’s why it’s art directed the way it is, so it’s very theatrical, and it doesn’t take place in a realistic Notre Dame. It’s meant to go into his mind, how he feels that day when he thinks Esmerelda might see something in him. Of course, he gets the cold water of reality splashed in his face.
CJ: My problem with that scene is that it always breaks the tension. Was that part of the purpose of that, since of course the movie will appeal to little kids and you don’t want them to be overwhelmed by all that?
DH: Yeah, it felt like we needed a balance to moments that were really intense not only physical action but also a lot of psycho-sexual tension, like “Hellfire” and Frollo’s character. We wanted a balance of sacred and profane. You wanted a balance between Frollo and his motivation and Quasimodo and his child-like approach to life. “A Guy Like You” was an attempt to do that, to show what’s going on in his head, like “Hellfire” was an attempt to show Frollos’ head.
CJ: You were executive producer on The Emperor’s New Groove. How does executive producing an animated film differ from producing?
DH: On Emperor’s New Groove, Randy Fullmer was the producer, meaning day in and day out, he was on the show managing the process. I was more of an umbrella over the show. It was Randy’s first movie as a producer, and it gave Randy and director Mark Dindal more of a chance to shine, and I acted more as a procedural overseer. I wasn’t involved day to day with that.
CJ: That movie had a fairly difficult gestational period, as it went from being Kingdom of the Sun. What happened with all that – why was the project so radically changed?
DH: As many movies go through these steps of evolution. In that case, Kingdom of the Sun began as a fairly serious romantic look at the Incan culture. It didn’t quite fire off as a movie. It was a little dry, a little measured. The parts that were cutting through were the comic parts. It was David Spade, and anytime he was on the screen, it came alive. Also with Eartha Kitt, it was the comic elements that seemed to fire off. That’s why the movie turned more and more toward the comedy and it became more of a farce, and more of a comic book kind of emperor who laid low and got a chance to spend a day with the peasants
CJ: That movie kind of snuck out, as it really didn’t get much promotion. It ended up doing okay because it had legs.
DH: It really did. It became a huge kind of college date night campus thing. There were huge audiences over the long haul. In a very crowded movie schedule, it did very well over the long haul.
CJ: I was disappointed it didn’t get more of a push as I think it could have done better if it hadn’t snuck under the radar.
DH: It remains one of my favorite movies. It’s very funny, and the casting’s brilliant, with Eartha Kitt, David Spade, and Patrick Warburton and their caricatures.
CJ: A few months after that we had Atlantis, which did get a promotional push but it didn’t reach the kind of audience you would have wanted. That seemed like an attempt ala Titan AE to reach a teen audience. Traditional animation just doesn’t seem to be getting there – what do you think you need to do to get teen boys to come and see traditionally animated films?
DH: Surprisingly enough, we didn’t start out to make a movie for teen boys. We didn’t sit there and say “Let’s make a Titan AE" - as you’ll remember, Titan AE didn’t do all that well. We wanted to make a movie that was in the genre of adventure movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We felt like that’s a great kind of Disney movie to make, and a great kind of brand of movie that we haven’t done. We’d done musical comedies – what about a big adventure movie? I think that was the ambition.
CJ: I didn’t mean it to sound like I felt you sat with evil genius hats and planned how to get all the teen boys to get to theaters, but it is an audience that has been traditionally reluctant to go to animated films. I guess you’re still trying to figure out how to lure them in, though CG, on the other hand, seems to go across all sorts of different groups of people. Cel animation seems to have taken a back seat. What do you think the future is for cel animation vs. CG?
DH: I think it’s actually pretty bright. If you look at movies like Lion King, they were very successful across the board in all age groups. Even a movie like Lilo & Stitch went across all age groups, and did very well at the box office. And there’s a huge following, though more of a cult following, for movies like Spirited Away and other Miyazaki films. I honestly believe, and I think if you ask this question of John Lasseter or people involved in the CG world, that’s not about the technique as much as it is about the story, that the audience will watch and be swept away by a story no matter how it’s told. I think you see that in Lilo & Stitch and you see that in Monsters Inc. and you see that in Shrek and Spirited Away and all these movies that are very different in technique, but they all have appeal because their stories have a relationship with the audience. They strike a relationship with the audience, and I feel that’s a more important factor than the technique.
CJ: My concern comes up because it seems like almost anyone can slap out a CG film and make $200 million these days. I didn’t think much of Ice Age, and that made a ton of money. I honestly didn’t like Shrek that much, and that made a ton of money. I thought Treasure Planet was actually a very good film, but obviously it didn’t live up to expectations. That’s what I was getting at there – for whatever reason, it seems like CG films are hot, and you can basically just show someone scratching themselves for two hours and it’ll make $200 million, whereas even good traditionally animated films don’t seem to live up to that level. Lilo & Stitch did well, but even it wasn’t quite up to that level.
DH: I think you’re right, that the energy did go over to the point where the audience had a huge love affair with computer graphics – a huge love affair. In a time when people were in love with computers in general, such as with the dot-com boom and all that kind of stuff, I feel there was a real interesting and productive draw to computer graphics. These were stories that people wanted to see more of.
I think the great leveler over time will be to see if the stories retain the pull and people get ultimately the effect of computer graphics will not be productive in itself. When Toy Story came out back in 1995, it was shockingly great because it all seemed so realistic and it was mind-blowing, the technique. I feel like now we’re so saturated with that through TV and the web and everything else, I feel like the technique is not as important as what’s in the movie itself. That will bear itself out.
CJ: I’m curious to know more about your current project, The Haunted Mansion. What’s that going to be like? Will it be another combination of live-action and animation, or how will it work?
DH: It is, actually – it draws on all those techniques. It is a live-action movie at its heart. Rob Minkoff is directing it. Rob did Lion King with me. And it has Eddie Murphy and Terence Stamp and Wally Shawn. It’ll be a big special effects extravaganza. We’re just in the middle of it now – we have about two more months of shooting.
CJ: Final question – the most important one of the day. Who’s sexier: Jessica Rabbit or Esmerelda?
DH: (laughs) No comment!
CJ: No comment?!
DH: Yeah – oh man! Well, Jessica – I mean, my God – she’s Jessica! Who could possibly have a waist like that? I don’t know – I’ll leave that to you.
CJ: Well, thank you very much for your time – I look forward to Haunted Mansion and that Lion King DVD.
DH: Thank you – hope you enjoy it!