Don Hahn, a staple of the Disney studio since the 80s, is responsible for producing such classic animated films as “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Lion King” and the ground breaking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Before the 2013 Academy Awards Don spoke with Moviehole about his latest project the Oscar nominated “Frankenweenie” directed by Tim Burton, suiting up for the red carpet, the future of animation and the formula for making kids cry.
Hi Don, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Firstly congratulations on the Academy Award nomination for “Frankenweenie” in the Best Animated Film category.
Thank you, thanks so much. It’s great; it’s good to be acknowledged that way.
Are you going to the ceremony?
Yes I will be cleaning myself up and going to the ceremony [laughs]. It’s good fun it’s always nice to see friends and it doesn’t happen very often so you have to really celebrate.
Oh that’s good you wonder sometimes if it’s more painful for professionals so it’s good to know that it is as fun as it looks.
Yes it is as much pain as it pleasure but, you know, the bar opens up half way through and there’s so many great friends there and people it ends up being a really wonderful night.
So when the bar opens that’s when the pleasure starts right?
Now the Best Animated Film category is quite new it only started about 12 years ago are you happy that this particular area of film is being acknowledged in this way?
Yeah it’s fantastic because before we had to compete in just the general ‘Best Picture’ category and that really didn’t get acknowledged, in modern times anyway until “Beauty and the Beast”, so for them to create one just for animation is a fantastic acknowledgement. That’s the good thing about the Academy is it keeps up with the industry and now animation is pervasive – it’s everywhere – you see movies like “The Avengers” or “Life of Pi” that are full of animation and I think that’s an indication of the health of the animation business right now.
Yeah absolutely although it does seem to mean that you have to go a lot more often.
I know I know [laughs].
Were you involved in “Frankenweenie” from the very beginning?
I was. I didn’t work on the original short although I was at the studio and I remember walking around the sets. Tim [Burton] and I started at the studio around the same time so I went to him around the middle of 2005 and just said ‘why not this, it’s a great story, it’s based on the Frankenstein myth there must be more we can do with it.’ Tim always said he wanted to do that but never had the opportunity. That was the genesis of it but it took a couple of years to pull together the script. We had an amazing writer, John August, who wrote “Big Fish” came in and helped us write the script and pull the pieces together. Then we had a good solid two years of production with puppets doing this whole elaborate marionette show which is amazing to watch.
“Frankenweenie” is obviously a different style than Disney usually goes for in their animated features. Was it considered a bit of a different risk or an experiment within the company?
Well I don’t think it’s on every film executive’s checklist to make a black and white stop motion movie about a dog that comes back to life [laughs]. But I have to say we got great support. The flip side of that is we had to do it economically and to a price point that made sense because it’s a little more art than a typical big mainstream Pixar movie. But the studio was great they were really supportive. It is the first black and white animated feature ever been made and you would think that had been done before but it hadn’t. I think they were game and they realise Walt Disney is all about experimenting and pushing the art form so we’re really lucky to have collaborated with Disney working on this.
Yeah I have to saw when Sparkie was killed quite early I couldn’t believe the film really went there.
You know he gets killed off at exactly the same spot that Bambi’s mother and Mufasa get killed off.
So there’s a formula for heartbreaking kids!
There is there is so remember that when you make your next movie [laughs].
I’ll have to go back and time it. But luckily unlike the other two he does come back so that was very nice. Now you have been at Disney for a very long time. You probably know the company better than anyone in the world. Do you kind of just walk around the halls when you’re there, and everyone knows you, and you’re just high fiving as you go by?
[laughs] No no actually not. You would think that would be the case but it’s a pretty dynamic organisation as it should be. It’s not a museum. And what I love about it is the hallways are filled with people I know and respect and have worked with for a long time but it’s also filled with a lot of kids right out of college and a lot of really interesting talent and writers that I’ve never met before. And a studio is a living breathing place. That’s what I’ve always liked about Disney I’ve never felt that I’ve been in the same place for a long time. I feel like the studio has changed a lot and I have too. In the best of studios that is what you really hope for – you hope for a really dynamic creative place. With Spielberg and his movies there and the Marvel movies and Pixar movies and now Lucasfilm. It is a really amazing home for some of the best filmmakers in the planet. It’s a great place to be.
Animation has really changed over the years, particularly with hand drawn versus CGI. Are you excited about the direction it’s taking?
I have mixed feelings to be really honest with you. I feel it is exciting and tremendously successful. I think there’s exciting things happening in live action films, if you look at the tiger in “Life of Pi” and some of that work, it’s brilliant. My only cautionary tale would be it is our job as filmmakers to push the art form forward. To say ‘what’s a different look’ and ‘what’s a different feel’ for the next movie. And looking down the line I think “Wreck It Ralph” is a good example of a fresh look with an interesting idea. It’s a very contemporary relevant look for a movie. I think those kinds of films in the future are going to be what I’m always going to be pushing for and looking for and “Frankenweenie” is very much cut from that cloth. It looks different and it feels different but it has the hallmarks of a Disney film in terms of emotion and comedy and all those things you would look for. So pushing the art form forward is the place where it’s our obligation as artists to do that and not get stuck and running a museum.
Yes absolutely. And animation seems a bit more accessible now, a bit more affordable to do it and particularly here in Australia a lot of advertising agencies and creative agencies are kind of finally realising that storytelling is a great way to reach people. We obviously have a lot of distractions in our life and we want to connect with something as opposed to just being talked down to about new products and services. We have seen a lot more of this in terms of TV spots and content for social platforms as move into branded entertainment I suppose, I’m not sure if you’ve seen or heard of Dumb Ways To Die, it was done by the train company Metro here in Melbourne, and it’s a cute little animation with a song. It was fascinating to me because I can say with authority as someone who takes Metro trains every day that they are universally hated because they’re always running late, but the response to this animated clip was so positive and it has now more than 40 million views I believe. Are you a bit cautious that brands and other companies are using this kind of method to reach people?
I think it’s great because you can do things in commercials that you can’t do in features. When you have a feature that runs 90 minutes you have to create a world and a plausible world to tell your story in. You can do some really experimental fun things in 60 seconds that you never could in a feature and I always feel like with animation a high tide floats all boats. If someone is successful in a feature or a short or TV show then it’s good for animation and good for the industry. I think there’s brilliant work being done in commercials, the Superbowl ads and that kind of thing, and that works for all of us because we see something that is imaginative and inventive whether that is used in shorts or films and we can all learn from that and push ourselves. So I love that. Seriously some of my favourite filmmakers and work is being done in commercials now.
I’m sure Disney is keeping you busy, what is coming up for you, what are you working on right now?
I’m working on “Maleficent” which is the Angelina Jolie movie. We finished shooting last October in London and it’s in post right now. We’re shooting some Disney Nature movies which are in progress now. And I’m developing things for the future which is my favourite part of the year because I can close the door and just sit down with interesting people and start with a blank piece of paper which is what I’m doing right now.
Well thanks so much for your time and I do hope you enjoy your night out at the Oscars.
Thank you I’ll wave from the red carpet, I’ll give Moviehole a little hi sign.
We’ll be looking for it!
“Frankenweenie” is available in Australia on Disney DVD 27 February.
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