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The Lion King 3D - Don Hahn interview

Don Hahn

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LEGENDARY Disney producer Don Hahn reflects back on the making of The Lion King and some of the challenges it faced, including being considered a B-movie at the time.

He also discusses the 3D conversion and some of the challenges they faced in bringing it back to cinemas.

Q. At the time The Lion King first came out, in 1984, animation was in a rough period, so what was the key to re-igniting that passion for animation?
Don Hahn: Wow, yeah animation was coming out of a rough period for a number of reasons. I think there was a new generation of animators coming up in the ‘80s and ‘90s that were trying to flex their muscle and trying to show that maybe creatively they could do something as good as what Walt Disney and his guys did. Whether we did or not is up to you to decide, but there was an ambition and I think that ambition led to movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast and Aladdin and Lion King. Also, there was an openness to outside influences. Disney had become a little insular.

We were making our films in-house in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after Walt Disney had passed away, and I think now with these movies it was not only OK, but important to bring in Howard Ashton to write songs for The Little Mermaid, or Elton John and Tim Rice for Lion King. It gave you that injection of a fresh point of view from the outside and that helped to revitalise that area. The audience fell in love with animation again and I think that goes back to [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit and being able to come to the cinema and see Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and all these characters in one movie. And so you had all those things coming together at the same time and a new generation of kids growing up wanting to make animated movies that the audience was falling in love with. So, that’s what defined that era and I think >The Lion King was probably the pinnacle of that time.

Q. When did you know you had something special with The Lion King? I’ve also read that when the first trailer was released and the excitement began to build towards it, you were actually in a bit of a mess with it…
Don Hahn: It’s true! It’s funny, we released Circle of Life maybe six months before the movie came out and everybody said: “Wow! That’s spectacular! Is the rest of the movie like that?” And it wasn’t… it was a mess. So, I think it scared us into having to raise the bar on the rest of the movie and make it good. And we had the elements to do that. We knew we had other great songs, we had really good directors [Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff] and a great collaboration, it was just a lot of work to do. But then the North Ridge Earthquake hit at the same time, so now the studio closed down and we had to ship the film home for people to work on at their kitchen tables, so it was chaotic.

I don’t think we really knew we had something until we did a test screening out in the San Fernando Valley about two or three months before the movie was done. We brought in just a general movie-going audience of 18 to 24-year-old and they loved it and they applauded it and it was so odd because it doesn’t happen. But we then thought: “Wow, maybe there’s something more here than we see…” It was always considered a B-movie… we always looked at it and said: “We’re doing all these great big fairytale musicals but then there’s also Lion King off on the side.” But it worked out though.

Q. Do you think people also responded to the fact that it was an original idea for an animated film?
Don Hahn: It was original. It’s an African based movie with music from Elton John. I mean, Africa and Elton John? What’s the deal there? There were no humans in it, all the characters… nobody has thumbs even, so you can’t pick anything up. It was a head-scratcher for a lot of people. But what happened is that the people who did work on it saw it as a huge opportunity. They were people that loved animals and animation and The Jungle Book and those kinds of films and so they really leaned into it and did great work and Elton and Tim delivered great melodies, so we got Hans Zimmer to turn those into these big anthems in the movie. And that trio of musicians, between Elton and Tim and Hans, was really crucial to the movie also. Hans also brought in that whole African element as well. So, the music is a huge part of Lion King and what makes it successful.

Q. 3D has been around for longer than people perhaps care to remember. But saying that, how much of a gift is this present revival to people like you in order to be able to revisit classics such as The Lion King?
Don Hahn: Well, it’s great because we never expected it. We never made the movie thinking there’d be a 3D version some day and we hadn’t seen it in a long time… years. So, when the directors came back and we started looking at the possibility of doing this, it was great. It was nostalgic, it was humbling, and to have people want to see the movie again is great. How many filmmakers get that opportunity? How many filmmakers can, 17 years later, take a movie and be sitting here talking about it? And 1994 was a great year for movies… there was The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump. So, it’s great to be able to have it out there and have audiences that have never seen it be able to see it for the first time, or even those who have never been able to see it on the big screen. I mean, there’s a generation of kids who grew up with it on VHS cassette, so to go into a theatre and see it on the big screen was great.

Q. How big a challenge was the conversion?
Don Hahn: I think it was important that the original filmmakers were involved. Robert Neuman, who is our stereographer, developed a software and his team developed a pipeline to be able to do it in a fairly controlled way. The biggest challenge was, artistically, to decide how much 3D to put into areas of the movie, how radical to make it, how deep do you make the frame, or are you conservative at some points and then push the frame out when you need to. So, that’s ultimately what we did, we took a more conservative approach to the 3D, except when you needed it – the opening of the movie or the wildebeest stampede… places where you really want to reach out and grab the audience. So, the whole movie is contained because we want the audience to forget that they’re looking in 3D. We want them to sit down and within five minutes go: “Oh, this is a good movie.” You don’t want them to think they’re looking at drawings and paintings or 3D. You just want them to appreciate it as a movie.

Q. And you have to make it comfortable for them as there is still a certain scepticism surrounding 3D…
Don Hahn: Yeah because not all of us see 3D in the same way. Some of us see 3D over the past 50 years as being painful and headache inducing and all those things! But the technology is such today that the high frame rates, the digital cinema, the shutter glasses all make it pretty comfortable.

Q. Is the backlash that has affected some 3D tent-poles this summer a concern for you? Or do you think it’ll ride itself out? A bit like boom and bust but it’ll always now be there as people learn to use it properly and do the conversions properly?
Don Hahn: Yeah, I think there was a gold rush to do 3D when it first came back out and because of that you saw a lot of bad 3D. And that was not good for any of us. Hopefully, now it’s sorted out where you’re getting 3D movies because they belong in 3D, filmmakers want them in 3D, and the quality is good enough – or as excellent as it can be. So, I think 3D will be around possibly forever, especially as people move into the idea of 3D without glasses, both at home and in the cinema. I think that’ll be a breakthrough that somebody someday will do – higher frame rates, etc. James Cameron is always working on 60 frames a second, 48 frames a second… as is Peter Jackson. That will increase the comfort of the experience. So, I think it hasn’t arrived yet. It’s growing technology and it’s bound to have fits and starts. I think it’s had its first big boom and this correction is actually a good thing because I think people will stop and pay more attention to the quality of it.

The Lion King

Q. Do you think animation in particular lends itself to 3D?
Don Hahn: It does, yeah. The problem with 3D television is that there’s just not enough 3D content. New TVs are almost all 3D enabled but there’s just not enough content. And all of the content that does exist tends to be animation. So, you can watch all of the Pixar movies, the DreamWorks movies, the Ice Age movies and they all look and sound and feel really good in 3D. I think the only unusual thing about The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast that’s coming out in 3D is that it’s a hand-drawn movie and that’s a little unusual to take a hand-drawn, graphic flat movie and expand it out into a 3D experience. But it worked and I think Lion King looks great because of that.

Q. Talking of hand-drawn animation, it’s nice to be able to give it another day in the sun, so to speak, because The Princess & The Frog was beautiful but didn’t do as well as was hoped… Do you think it could even kick-start the hand-drawn format?
Don Hahn: It really is. And that would be great because when people see it, it’s like: “Oh, I love these movies!” And that’s because it’s personal, you can see the animator’s hand-writing and it’s like a hand-written letter home. It always means more than getting an e-mail and that’s kind of what hand-drawn animation is – it’s a human experience and we never get tired of that. If hand-drawn animation failed, or started to go away, I think it’s because our stories weren’t as good. Nobody goes to the movies to see a technique. We go to see great story-telling. There’s no question that we have a love affair with CG animation, or have had I would say for the last 15 years. But it’s funny because I think people are coming back slowly to hand-drawn animation and they’re really coming back to stop-motion animation. There are three or four features being down right now with puppets, from Aardman and from Pixar and from Tim Burton. So, there’s just a lot of openness now to different techniques and I love that; I think that’s what animation should be.

Q. What’s your favourite response you’ve ever had to The Lion King?
Don Hahn: The most unexpected responses are the most emotional ones. I’ve had – and this happened just two weeks ago – a woman come up to me in tears. She was absolutely crying, so I asked what was wrong, and her father had passed away a few months or a year after The Lion King had recently come out in 1994 and it was just very moving and helped her deal with the death of her father by watching it. Well, that’s something you don’t plan when you’re making a cartoon. But it was very moving and surprising that she came up and said: “Thank you for making this movie, it helped me understand and frame that loss in my life…” That’s an astounding thing for somebody to come up and say when you’re making animated films for a living. But these movies somehow do have that effect on people. It’s the biggest magic trick in the world, too, because there’s nothing alive on the screen. You’re looking at paint and pixels and pencils and all that stuff. In a way, the audience gets more wrapped up in that than if they would if it were a photograph of a real actor or actress on the screen – and that’s what’s so magical about it.

Q. What attracted you to animation in the first place?
Don Hahn: Because you can do anything in it. You know, I was a musician and an artist at school and I found that music and art fit together really well in animation and I got completely seduced by the process. The lines between live action and animation have blurred a lot since. You used to be able to say: “Well, it’s a story about flying elephants so that has to be animation.” But it doesn’t anymore! So, that leaves animation as it always has with the responsibility to tell great stories and not make movies just for children; make them for the child in all of us, as Walt Disney used to say. So, really focus on story and let the technique be itself and do what it does best – transport the audience to a fantasy world.

Q. So, which films in particular captured your imagination? And what was your earliest experience of watching an animated film?
Don Hahn: 101 Dalmatians was my earliest memory of watching one and I thought it was beautiful. I still think it’s beautifully designed. It’s a real mid-Century, modernist approach to animation. Peter Pan was an early memory and I really love that movie. So, those are the ones that stick in my head. The Jungle Book probably. But it’s funny, I never started out by wanting to work in animation because I didn’t want to work at Warner Bros or Hanna Barbera or anywhere else because I just loved Disney movies and what they could do. So, I’ve been really fortunate to have been able to do it as a career.

Q. How do you go about choosing which hat to wear, as you direct sometimes as well as produce…
Don Hahn: I generally produce more than I direct because I love the idea of pulling together teams of amazing people. I love creative alchemy because my role models, my heroes when I was growing up were people like Walt Disney and Jim Henson – you know, I just thought they were brilliant at what they did. And they were producers. Yes, they worked on the movies but they were also the ones pulling together these teams of people to create movies and try to create the perfect chemistry between artists and music. And that’s what I love to do. So, I direct more documentaries than I do animated films and I love doing that too.

Q. Are there any Disney classics you’d like to see converted in the same way as The Lion King?
Don Hahn: We truly haven’t thought about what to do next. If this works, if Lion King works, I think it would be great to go back and do some of the more recent movies like Aladdin or The Little Mermaid. We haven’t talked about this, just to be clear, but I always think Peter Pan would be great in 3D – to be able to fly over the rooftops of London and go to Neverland in 3D. Oh my God, that would be fantastic!

Q. Could you go back even further and revisit something like Snow White?
Don Hahn: Or Pinocchio? Walt Disney was always trying to make his movies dimensional because he was trying to break away from this flat drawing, so he was building multiplying cameras and dong anything he could to create this dimensionality. Now, we can do that with the technology we have just in the last two years, so why wouldn’t you do all your movies in 3D going forward? And maybe selectively go back and look at a few titles that might look great in 3D. So, again, no plans and we haven’t specifically talked about titles, but if Lion King and Beauty & The Beast work, it would be fun.

Q. From your point of view, which was more challenging to convert – Lion King or Beauty & The Beast?
Don Hahn: The Lion King works better in 3D and I say that honestly not just to plug the movie. When the movie was made, the shots are longer and we and the directors looked at a lot of David Lean movies where he brings the landscape into the film… Lawrence of Arabia or whatever, so it was originally conceived to be that kind of movie – more scope and scale, wider shots, broader vistas, big scale, and that’s all the things that work really well in 3D. So, even though Beauty & The Beast works fine, it’s not as mature of a film in terms of its cinematic approach.

The Lion King

Q. This seems to be another golden era for animation. There are now so many rival studios that are as good, not necessarily better, but does that breed a healthy competitiveness?
Don Hahn: Yes. It is healthy. Even back in the era of Lion King, we competed against ourselves a lot. There were two units – one unit made The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the unit I was involved in was producing The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast. So, there was this kind of leapfrog of units and that competition was great. We all get along and we all really respect what each other does but you really want to try to push the artistry and the competition just helps that. So, it is another golden age. There are a lot of kids coming out of school saying: “Oh man, I wish I could work in the early ‘80s and ‘90s…” And I keep saying to them: “No, you don’t!” It’s great right now. It’s a boom time, plus you have guys like Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg doing motion capture movies. There’s Rango and these films being done… the technology is great and it’s a really great time to be working in animation.

Q. Talking of great directors, you’ve worked with Tim Burton on Frankenweenie. What can we expect from that?
Don Hahn: Oh, uniquely Tim. It’s very personal to Tim. It’s a very heart-warming story based on his short he made back in the early ‘80s when he was at Disney. I took it to him about five years ago and said there was so much more story to tell here because it’s the Frankenstein myth. He agreed and so over the last five years we’ve been developing it and we’ve been shooting it now for almost exactly a year. We still have two or three months to go here in London, at Three Mill Studio, near the Millennium Stadium. It’s crazy out there right now. The whole town of what was Stratford has gone and it’s just like stadiums and apartment buildings going up everywhere. And then down in the warehouses we’re making the movie. But I think it’s breathtaking. It’s uniquely Tim, he’s one of the most interesting visual artists of our time – not just a filmmaker. He has a museum show at the Museum of Modern Art, which is now in Los Angeles. As a visual artist, he has sold as many tickets as Picasso and Matisse! So, to be working with him… we’ve been friends for 30 years or so, is fantastic. As an animator, using stop motion, he’s the best. He’s at the top of his game.

Q. Are you always very hands on and collaborative as a producer?
Don Hahn: I try to be as much as I can. With Lion King, I was very hands on, literally the whole time I was the first guy on and the last guy off. It’s funny. It’s not important to take credit for it or be anything other than collaborative. If you look at Lion King, it’s really the people that made it happen and there are so many faceless people who you will never know the names of who killed themselves and worked seven days a week to try and make that movie come to life. So, as a producer, the most gratifying thing to me – and if I have a talent – it’s that I can recognise really creative people and put them together into a team and make that team of brilliant people work. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. There’s an old saying that goes a producer hires the best people he can possibly find and then he does exactly what they tell him to do. And that says it all to me. I try to find the best possible people to make a movie and then you’re supporting, you’re cheerleading, you’re coaching and you can be a psycho-therapist sometimes and you’re making sure that all the creative talents are playing well together. That doesn’t mean there’s no arguments and there’s no passion… there are all those things. But it’s about everyone rallying around the same story and making the movie a jewel. It’s certainly what we tried to do with Lion King.

Q. How many lessons do you feel you learned from that time?
Don Hahn: Lots [laughs]! You know, I learned how important music was in these movies. It wouldn’t be the same movie without Hans Zimmer and that score, or Elton’s songs. I learned how raw and emotional you can get with animation. You can deal with scenes on the screen of Mufasa’s body lying there after the wildebeest stampede and Simba coming up… it’s a very graphic scene. Bambi doesn’t even deal with that! But we wanted to. We wanted to deal with that moment, so we animated that scene probably three or four times to try and get the right balance. So, I learned you can be fairly brave with what you show the audience on-screen and they’ll take it as long as it’s rooted in the story. And I suppose the biggest thing I learned was that even though it was the B-movie and nobody wanted to work on it and it was seen as the step-child to never count a project out until it’s done because you never know. I’ve worked on other movies that were meant to be the star, or the best movie ever made, and they fell short. And so, creating a movie is an odd thing.

Q. Some people say they learn more from their failures than their successes. Is that true of your experiences?
Don Hahn: I think I have a lot more failures than successes and so I do learn a lot more from the failures. I don’t mind the failures. I don’t look at them even as a negative. I feel like the creative process is such that you have to go through 10 failures or 100 failures to get to an idea that works and sticks. So, there’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of luck in any creative endeavour and especially in making a movie. So, if anything I learned that the failures are something you want to welcome and, if anything, you want to fail faster because if you believe that you don’t get to the good stuff unless you fail 100 times then you want to get on with it. But that’s the story of my career. The movies I’m making right now, for instance, are at various stages of repair. But you go back to them, you revisit and refine them, you turn them inside out and you re-write them… but I love that polishing and puzzle that you’re trying to put together. When it works, it’s just the best.

Q. How closely do you work with John Lasseter at the moment?
Don Hahn: I honestly don’t see him all that much because he’s dealing more with the Pixar movies than the Disney movies. But he’s a pretty remarkable guy. He’s been a great influence. Having him come into Disney and having Disney purchase Pixar is a really great thing because in a funny way we were buying our culture back. In many ways, the culture of everything we’ve just talked about had migrated in the ‘90s, around the time of Lion King… Toy Story came out the next year. And a lot of that ethic slowly migrated up to Pixar, so to have John back in the fold and to have guys like Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird around is great. He’s a good guy. And what’s cool about John is that he loves animation – he doesn’t love computer animation; he loves animation. So, the biggest fan of doing a stop-motion animation movie with Tim Burton is John Lasseter; the biggest fan of doing a hand-drawn movie again, if we do one, is John Lasseter. He loves the techniques and the story-telling possibilities of the techniques. And that’s why he’s a great collaborator.

The Lion King 3D is released in cinemas on Friday, October 7 and on Blu-ray and DVD on November 7, 2011.