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Interview: Don Hahn, Producer of The Lion King

Don Hahn speaks in front of artwork depicting the climax of "The Lion King" in a Blu-ray bonus feature.

Don Hahn was at the center of Disney's animation renaissance of the early 1990s, a period that saw the medium at its most popular and productive since the days of Walt Disney. Over the course of a decade, Hahn produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In recent years, Hahn has looked back to that exciting era, producing the 3D conversion of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and directing the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty on the studio's activity from 1984 to 1994, a small stretch of the 35 years he's spent at Disney.

Hahn's latest producing efforts include all of Disneynature's theatrical documentaries (Earth, Oceans, African Cats, and next spring's Chimpanzee) and Tim Burton's upcoming stop motion feature film Frankenweenie (adapted from Burton's 1980s live-action short). In addition, Hahn has made another return to that animation boom by producing and supervising the new 3D versions of Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. The former made its Blu-ray debut this week, on the heels of an unexpectedly potent theatrical engagement. The latter also turned up on Blu-ray 3D this week and will hit theaters on January 13th.

To celebrate The Lion King's chart-topping theatrical return and its much-anticipated new retail edition, Hahn recently spoke with DVDizzy.com and other press outlets in a virtual roundtable chat. I've arranged the questions by subject for a more logical read.

Watch a clip of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King:

On The Third Dimension...

Why did you pick The Lion King for a 3D version? Which other Disney movie would you like to see in 3D too and why?

Don Hahn: Converting a hand-drawn film into a 3D experience was a risk, so we wanted to start with two films that we knew had audience appeal. The Lion King was at the top of the list. Beauty and the Beast, next. The Lion King 3D experiment has exceeded our wildest dreams. 3D isn't right for every film but wouldn't it be great to see Peter Pan fly over London in 3D... (no plans for it, just my personal favorite).

What has The Lion King gained by being put in 3D?

Don Hahn: Everything and nothing. The film is well suited for 3D because of the style of direction. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, the directors, crafted the film with longer shots and a sense of Africa as an unspoken character in the film. 3D brings this to life even more and lets the audience step into the film in a unique way. When I say that nothing is gained, I'm referring to the story. We worked hard to make the 3D reflect and support the story and not detract from it. There's a paradox to all this, which is the paradox of animation itself; you work for four years and spend millions of hours on a film with the goal of making the audience forget that they are looking at drawings. That's the magic of it all.

You've been involved in the 3D conversion of both The Lion King and The Nightmare Before Christmas. How did converting 2D animation compare to converting stop motion animation?

Nightmare was a nightmare to do in 3D. There was no separation on the characters and the stereographers had to literally build a complete 3D version of the puppets and sets,
then "project" the original film onto that geometry. The Lion King had its challenges but the original film was stored in separate levels which gave us a great advantage to start the 3D process.

Did you ever think 3D technology would be used on the film?

No. When we made The Lion King in 1994, 3D was still a pretty clunky technology. Now the technique has caught up with us and gives us an amazing tool kit to transform the film into a new experience.

In your opinion which animated 3D movie was the best, until now? And why?

I have two favorites: Toy Story 3 and Avatar. Toy Story 3 was just a brilliant movie all around and the 3D was exquisite. Many people don't think of Avatar as animation, but Jim Cameron did an amazing job building a world and bringing his characters to life in 3D. He's a real pioneer in every sense of the word.

What scene in The Lion King is really blew you away in 3D?

That would have to be "Circle of Life." It was like all of Africa came alive on the screen right in front of us!

Were there any scenes that you specifically wanted to see in 3-D for this movie, and did they turn out the way you hoped they would?

The wildebeest stampede... couldn't wait to see it in 3D and it didn't disappoint!!

Who is your favorite character in The Lion King 3D? How has it changed from the 2D version?

I love Pumbaa! And he's even bigger and rounder in 3D!

Is the success of The Lion King 3D a vindication of traditional animation techniques in the digital age? What do you see as the future of hand-drawn animation?

I think it's a vindication of good storytelling. The audience doesn't go to the theater to see a technique. They go to be told a story and Lion King delivers that story. Techniques come into and go out of fashion but the truth is a good story is what is lasting be it told with pencils, puppets or pixels.

Can you give us three good reasons to our readers to come back to the theaters?

Story, Story, Story! Nobody goes to the theater just to see a technique. The Lion King is a great story and that's why it's come back with such a roar!

Number one at the box office two weeks in a row for a movie 17 years old. How does that make you feel?

Insanely great, humbled, happy for the artists, musicians and actors that made it all happen and happy to have been there to see it all.

How exciting is it to see a re-release beat all of the competition?

Beyond exciting. It's so humbling to sit in the back of a theater and watch a new generation of kids enjoy the film.

A father-son Mufasa-Simba moment is depicted in this piece of concept art from The Lion King's Diamond Edition Blu-ray gallery.

Making The Lion King

What made you want to tell this story? And once it became a hit, did you ever imagine it being this well received?

It started out by wanting to do a story about growing up. We called it Bambi in Africa, a term that came from our development executive Charlie Fink. We looked at a lot of coming of age stories, especially bible stories like Moses or Joseph where a character is born into royalty and then is exiled and has to return to claim their kingdom. Those are ancient stories...stories of underdogs that we as an audience love to see when we go to the theater. Did I imagine that it would be this successful? Not in my wildest dreams. It's an incredible and humbling reaction even now, seventeen years later.

Talk about your trip to Africa to do research for the movie. What was the single greatest thing you saw there?

I was finishing Beauty and the Beast so I didn't make the trip. But Roger Allers, Chris Sanders, Lisa Keene and the team that went were blown away by the scope and scale of Africa. They came back with a load of images and a feeling for the land and color of the land that made it into the movie in many ways. There is an epic feeling to the landscape in Africa, that made the directors want to use it almost like another character in the film. The trip was a turning point in our thoughts about the look, sounds, and music of the film.

How did you originally become a part of The Lion King?

I was just finishing up on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King was going through some big changes. The original director was leaving the film and the producer Tom Schumacher was moving to an executive position developing future films. I came on board in February of 1992 shortly after the team returned from Africa and just as Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were made the directors. We sat in my office for two days with an amazing small and mighty team of story artists that included Chris Sanders, Brenda Chapman and Beauty directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and over those two days wrote the complete outline for the film. There had been some amazing writers on the story, but those two days were an amazing time when the film came together in a big way.

How early on did Hans Zimmer, Elton John, and Tim Rice become involved in the film and can you tell us about working with them?

Tim came on first. He was finishing lyrics for Aladdin after the death of Howard Ashman. His pick for a songwriting partner was Elton. Elton is a musical genius when it comes to melody, but we always knew that we'd need a musician to score his songs and pull them into the African musical space. Chris Montan, our music executive suggested Hans and it was one of the most important decisions on the film. Tim was a dramatist and was able to put up with the endless story changes that we went through. Elton delivered melodies that in my opinion are timeless. Hans was the lightning bolt that pulled it together. Hans brought in Lebo M, the amazing African singer who brings the opening song to life. His score won an Oscar that year as did Elton and Tim's song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Elton John and Tim Rice provide the music and lyrics for "The Lion King."

Can you imagine The Lion King with another soundtrack?

No, I really can't. Elton John, Hans Zimmer and African singer Lebo M are the perfect match for this story.

Every actor brought something great to their roles and I think The Lion King was cast to perfection. But were there any actors you had in mind for the main characters who you were unable to sign on?

For a short time we considered that great African actor Sean Connery to play Mufasa, but after James Earl Jones came available we abandoned that idea.

At what point in the production did it hit you that The Lion King was becoming something special?

I think when we heard Hans Zimmer's arrangement of "Circle of Life" with the final animation, but knew we had something different for sure and possibly something the audience would like too. We took a risk and sent "Circle of Life" out to theaters as a trailer for the film six months before the film came out and it was a huge hit.
Back at the studio we were still struggling with the story but at least we knew we had a great opening and if we could elevate the rest of the film to that level, we'd have something.

What is your favorite memory of making The Lion King?

So many: there was the day we brought live adult lions into the studio to study and draw, and the day we first saw Chris Sanders amazing storyboards for the Mufasa's Ghost sequence. But probably the most memorable moment was when we went to Hans Zimmer's studio in Santa Monica and heard his arrangement of "Circle of Life" for the first time. It changed our perception of what the movie could be.

What was your biggest challenge bringing The Lion King to the screen?

Most people don't know this but the Northridge, CA earthquake struck us just six months before the film came out and the studio had to be shut down. For a few weeks we were driving drawings to animator's homes around southern California and making the film in garages and on kitchen tables. The crew was amazing. They were dealing with the stress of a major earthquake while finishing the film.

Is there anything you wish you could change about how The Lion King came out? Something that was cut out of the movie you wish had been left in?

There is really nothing we would have done differently. Yes there were songs written that were cut out and sequences like a scene of Pumbaa and Timon playing "bug football" that never made it to the screen, but these were all good choices. The film works as is and really doesn't need anything else.

If not the entire movie itself, what sequence or portion of the movie are you most proud of?

The "Circle of Life" is a real personal favorite. When we finished the sequence and Hans Zimmer scored the music, we watched it and were all amazed (even though it was our movie). Suddenly this little film about a lion cub became a much bigger epic.

Conceptual designs for Simba appear in the Blu-ray's art gallery. An early design for Pumbaa, the character Don Hahn most identifies with.

Development and editing aside, how many times do think you've seen the movie?

Probably a thousand times. And I see something different every time.

How has The Lion King changed your life?

The Lion King is a once in a lifetime experience for a filmmaker. We were able to do something together as a team that moved the audience and eventually contributed to popular culture. Of course I'm proud, but it's not my film alone, it really cemented in my mind the power of great artistry, and collaboration.

Since you probably know it best, how do you think The Lion King has aged?

The happy thing about animation is that it ages very well. The actors don't get older, and the story is universal and about some pretty timeless themes. When we did the film we deliberately left man out of the story so it is a story that could have happened today or a thousand years ago. That's the magic of animation.

Do you ever find yourself humming or singing one of the songs? What's your favorite song?

I do. All the time. I love "Circle of Life" but I usually find "Hakuna Matata" creeping its way into my brain. The only way to get it out is to sing a chorus of "It's a Small World."

Which character reminds you most of yourself?

Pumbaa. You figure it out.

Like other Disney masterpieces, The Lion King enjoys nearly infinite longevity. How do you feel the follow-up films contribute to its legacy?

We've made over 50 animated films at the studio and in some way they are all connected. There wouldn't be a Lion King if it hadn't been for the great success and skill that the team brought to Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, and Aladdin.
The films that followed The Lion King reflect a dynamic growth in the ambition of the animators to tackle different stories and embrace different techniques. Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch, Mulan... proud of them all as much as I'm proud of Tangled (Rapunzel).

What's the most emotional side in working again on the project of The Lion King?

I had a woman come up to me after a screening and she had just lost her husband. The film really helped her deal with the issues of loss and explain those issues to her children. Believe me, you never think that a film will have that type of effect, but it is very humbling and emotional when it does.

How has The Lion King come up in your life in really strange or unexpected ways?

I was in Beijing a few years ago doing a lecture at an art school there and everyone was bringing me their Lion King DVDs to sign. About halfway thru signing them I realized that The Lion King hadn't been released on DVD yet in China and they were all bootleg copies.

Were you asked at all to help develop The Lion King musical? Have you seen it on Broadway? If so what did you think?

Aside from giving some notes in the early rehearsals, no. Theater is a different animal and when Tom Schumacher came up with the idea of using Julie Taymor to direct the show, the rest was history. I have seen the musical many times, and it is a magical thing.

Continue to Page 2 >>
Learn more about Don Hahn and his 35 years at Disney

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More on The Lion King:
Interviews: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff (directors) Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa's supervising animator)
Blu-ray + DVD Review | Related Giveaway: Win The Lion King: Blu-ray + DVD!

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Published October 6, 2011. Interview conducted September 27, 2011.