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Interview: Don Hahn, Producer of The Lion King - Page 2 of 2

A younger Don Hahn is interviewed in 1994, a clip featuring in "The Lion King: A Memoir - Don Hahn" of the new Blu-ray and DVD.

A Visit to DonHahnland

How did you get involved in animation?

I was a music major in college...played cello and percussion, and if it weren't for a temp summer job at Disney, I'd probably be playing timpani in the back of an orchestra somewhere. When I got to Disney I had the chance to work with some of the greats of animation: Woolie Reitherman, Don Bluth, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston.
I got totally seduced by the animation process and what you could do with it.

Had you been a fan of Disney animation previously?

A fan of Disney yes, but I really didn't get into animation until after I came to the studio at 20 years old.

The Lion King has a huge, magical philosophy of life. Which side of it do you prefer? And why?

There is an underlying theme to Lion King about that day when you are no longer a child and you have to step up and accept the responsibility of adulthood. It's actually an age old coming of age story not unlike so many Disney films that are all about growing up.

Besides the projects you have worked on, what is your favorite classic Disney animated film?

Peter Pan! Flying kids in pajamas fight pirates? How great is that!?

You've been at Disney as long as anyone there. How has the studio and animation changed in your time there?

I started at Disney 35 years ago and yes it's changed a lot. The one thing that I've seen the most is that Disney is at its best when we take creative risks and push to move the art form forward. You see it in the 1980s when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came in and contributed songs to Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty. You see it again when Pixar did the original Toy Story. It was an experimental film that the studio wasn't sure it would work but the risk paid off. I've been in so many discussions over the time I've been here about what makes "Disney." The one constant is change. Walt himself couldn't wait to dive into the next thing, be it technology, television, theme parks, urban planning. Disney is about change and innovation. That's why I've stayed here my whole career and still love the place.

As someone who has produced some of Disney's all-time biggest animated hits, what is the secret of your success?

People. I find the best possible people that I can find, then I hire them and do exactly what they tell me to do. It's like baseball...a team sport where the team is more important than the individual.

What does it mean for a producer of a movie to win an Oscar?

It's the World Series and Super Bowl of the movie business so of course getting an Oscar nomination much less winning is a huge honor. Having said that, it's a rare thing and you have to be satisfied with the creative accomplishment itself. We don't make films to win awards, we make them to entertain. When an audience responds, that's the biggest reward!

In recent years, you've become a documentarian. Is this something you'd like to further pursue?

I love the immediacy of the documentary medium. It takes four or five years to make an animated film. Good documentaries take time - we've been shooting Chimpanzee, the next Disneynature film for three years now. But the ability to shoot and edit a story together quickly is a different experience. I think I was probably inspired by Walt Disney who turned to nature documentaries later in his career.

Did your experiences making The Lion King affect how you approached your later films for Disneynature?

Disneynature films are similar in that you are trying to tell stories with animals, but the comparison stops there. In nature films, the animals tell you the story and you follow them around for three years hoping that something dramatic happens. In animation, you start with a pencil and create it all from scratch. Love them both, just two very different path ways to arriving at a story.

Waking Sleeping Beauty was a very honest and inspiring film. You did a remarkable job getting candid contributions from all the major players of that era. Did you get any resistance early on about telling your story "warts and all"?

Thank you!! I think the "warts and all" approach was the only way to go. It created a level playing field. Once the artists and execs saw that I was really trying to get at the truth, they were all cooperative and in the end supportive. I'm a lucky man.

Do you have any plans to produce another Disney animated film?

I have animation in my blood and if the right story comes along, yes I would love to do another film. For the last several years I've been working with Tim Burton on a stop motion animated film Frankenweenie. It's an amazing technique and Tim is a brilliant director and visual artist. Couldn't hope for more.

Can you tell us something about your next project, Frankenweenie?

It's an amazing film, directed by Tim Burton, and done completely in stop motion with puppets much like Tim's Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim is one of the most iconic directors and artists of our time and Frankenweenie will be a treat when it comes out in October of next year!

What's the main difference between a classical animation movie like The Lion King and something like Frankenweenie?

All animation techniques are about bringing inanimate objects to life to tell a story. The main difference between The Lion King and Frankenweenie is that The Lion King is a hand-drawn movie, 24 drawings per second. A stop motion puppet film like Frankenweenie is done with articulated puppets that are moved by an animator 24 times a second. They are both great techniques!

Can you talk about the next hand-drawn film from Disney, or the general future of hand-drawn animation at the studio?

Too early to talk about anything specific except to say that there are amazing artists at Disney and Pixar who have lots in store for the audience be it with a pencil, a puppet or a pixel.

You've produced and directed all manner of films: animation, live-action and documentaries. You're written a number of books. Is there any other artistic endeavor you'd like to try or devote more time to?

People like Walt Disney and Jim Henson were my role models growing up. They were into a million things, all based around entertaining the audience. So who knows, maybe we'll see DonHahnland coming soon.

Don, any final thoughts on The Lion King 3D in its theatrical and soon after Blu-ray release?

First of all, a big hug to the cast and crew of The Lion King. You have no idea how many hands and hearts have touched this film all with respect for the story and the audience. Hats off to them. Seeing the film on the big screen and watching the audience reaction is about the biggest treat a filmmaker could hope for. We've all worked equally as hard on the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D release in the hopes that audiences can enjoy the film at home for years to come.

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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!

More on Don Hahn: 2006 Interview on The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D Waking Sleeping Beauty DVD Review

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Hahn on The Lion King's Production, Return, and 3D Conversion

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