Mouse Clubhouse exclusive interview
from 2008
DON HAHN
talks about "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

by Scott Wolf

Don Hahn

Don is a two-time Academy Award nominee who has a fascinating background and endless talents. He was at Disney when there was still a great presence of the great original Disney animators and he continues to thrive at Disney. Part of the fun of interviewing Don is his passion for his work and Disney animation, past and present. It's an extreme pleasure to be able to bring you my interviews with Don Hahn.

Scott Wolf: How did you get started with "Roger Rabbit"?

Don Hahn: I was production managing on "Great Mouse Detective" and the movie was over in '86. By that time Peter Schneider had come to the company, and Jeffrey (Katzenberg), Michael (Eisner), and Frank (Wells). It was a pretty thrilling time, but scary, meaning there was tremendous pressure to do better work and to do it for a lower cost.

I honestly don't think animation was ever in danger of being axed at the company which is another kind of myth of that time. I think they took a strong look at it. We downsized a lot and really changed our way of doing business, but "Mouse Detective" was greenlit pretty much by Eisner and Katzenberg.

SW: And that did fairly well, didn't it?

DH: It did really well. It was a good stepping stone because Burny Mattinson produced it. Ron (Clements) and John (Musker) got a chance to direct and really showed an early look at the potential of the whole place with everybody's animation. Everybody was working on the same movie. Now when you walk into animation there's seventeen movies going on. Then, everybody was working on it, similar to the "Snow White" days. Everyone had a vested interested interest in it so it was a very exciting time.

SW:I remember seeing some partial computer animation being done on that. Was that one of the first of the feature length animated films to use at least partial computer animation?

DH: Actually, "Black Cauldron" was. There are some scenes where Taran is getting into a boat to escape from underneath the castle. The castle is falling in. The boats were all CG boats. They were animated in a computer, in a vector graphic, a real simple system. We didn't have hidden line removal so you would see thru the birdcage boat to the far side of the boat, so we actually had to go back with a clean piece of paper and trace over the top of the boat, but the animation was all done on computer.

It was really very much like "Sleeping Beauty" which used the first Xerox scenes, or CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) was first used on "Mermaid." But, yes, the first was "Cauldron" and then to a greater extent on "Mouse Detective."

There's a guy named Mike Perazza who was one of our layout guys, a student of Ken O'Connor and he came up with a lot of the clock gears in Big Ben, he built a big model of it, and that whole climax of "Great Mouse Detective" was all computer generated. But, Xeroxed on a cel and painted by hand. The tools weren't there in a quick way to render it all like we did a few years later on "Beauty and the Beast." It was still that you can animate it in the computer and get these complex shifts of perspective but you still have to paint it by hand. It was a real transitional time.

SW: What did you do after "Mouse Detective"?

DH: Well, at the end of it... Peter Schneider was new and one of the first meetings he had was to go over to Amblin and meet with (Steven) Spielberg and (Robert) Zemeckis on "Roger Rabbit" because they needed to pull together an animation crew for it. Peter was brand new and he took me along because I had worked on "Pete's Dragon" so I knew about animation/live action combination.

SW: In "Pete's Dragon" it was a pretty simple combination, wasn't it?

DH: It was. It was one character, Ellliott, and the mechanics were very rudimentary. We never moved the camera, like when the animation was on the screen with Elliott we would put sandbags in the camera and lock it down, because it was easier to draw. Well, Zemeckis was saying, "We've got to move the camera. We've got to do everything on ones. We have to make a modern movie that happens to have animation. If a character touches a tabletop, he has to leave fingerprints in the dust." So there has to be this amazing interaction. It was pretty undoable and it was pre-computers. There were no computers on that movie. So it was all done the old-fashioned way.

We animated it and shot it in London and then the filmstrips from the animation over a period of a year and a half we would box up and send to ILM and then they would sit there on optical printers and line up everything, do tests, just the old-fashioned way.

Don Hahn - Who Framed Roger Rabbit?SW: You actually produced the animation, right?

DH: Yes, I was the Associate Producer and I produced the animation on it so I lived in London for two years. I sat next to Richard Williams the whole time. Talk about scary. Bob (Zemeckis) didn't want to do the animation at the studio. The studio was busy with "Oliver and Company" and "Little Mermaid" and so there wasn't a big capacity to work there. Although later we started a Los Angeles unit with Dale Baer that worked on "Roger Rabbit."

SW: Were you intimated by anyone like Spielberg or Zemeckis?

DH: Yeah, who wouldn't be? I love their films. At this point I can look back and say we're friends and I talk to Bob in particular fairly often, but they are amazing guys, really smart and fearless filmmakers.

When you look at what they did, not only on "Roger Rabbit" but later on "Jurassic Park" and starting down the road with building stop motion stuff and later just saying, "Let's do this with the computer." It had never been done before, and same thing with "Roger," it had never been done before. So it pretty much killed everybody on the movie but it came away with something really unique.

SW: Did you ever think they're nuts? Like you said, an animated character will touch a table and the fingerprints will remain in the dust.

DH: I was pretty excited about the possibility about it because it was so different and the chance to work with those guys was like going to film school. I owe them a lot. I learned a lot early in my career from the Woolie Reitherman's of the world and then immediately after that the Zemecikis' of the world, so I was a really lucky boy. That was a great time. It was challenging. We brought four people over from America, Andreas Deja and Phil Nibbelink...

SW: Did they all live there?

DH: They came over and lived in London, I got them all apartments. We set up in Camden Town in north London. We filmed two weeks in Los Angeles and the rest of the time in London at Elstree Studios which isn't there anymore but that's where all the "Star Wars" movies were filmed.

SW: So all the animation and live action was done in London?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Acme FactoryDH: Yeah, the Acme Factory was an old British transport warehouse. We would take palm trees and stick them outside to make it look like it was Los Angeles, but it was thirty degrees outside so we had to put ice cubes in Bob Hoskins' mouth so you didn't see his breath because it was meant to be Los Angeles, on a (sunny) day like today, but if you walked outside you would see his breath and it would seem really cold. So you'd roll ice cubes around in your mouth and spit them out right before you say, "Action!"

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - Hoeke StreetThe exteriors of Los Angeles with the street cars going was all shot on Hoeke Street down in Los Angeles, so we did do two weeks here. The Hyperion Bridge and the Maroon Studios is the Desilu Studios down on Caheunga down here so it's based here, but then three or four months based in London and then a year and a half doing the animation after that.

SW: Even though you were producing the animation, were you involved in the live action to make sure everything would work for you?

DH: I was all about the animation really. The only reason I was really on the sets was to support Richard Williams and to be the eyes and the ears of the animation setup. I was really a sponge. It's not like I was running out there shooting anything or doing anything, I would just hang out with Dick Williams all day long and tell jokes, drink coffee, and make sure Dick was there to be available for the setups, because every time you shot something you had to ask him if there was enough space for the toons. So yeah, we ended up being on the set a lot. Then late in production we started animating the Maroon Cartoon at the beginning of the film so we started going away from the set and actually setting up the studio and animating some more.

SW: How did you animate over live action? Did you get like frame by frame print outs of the live action film?

DH: Yeah, that's exactly how.

SW: And do you just put those frames on your drawing board and draw over it?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?DH: It's exactly that. Bob would cut an elaborate "invisible man" movie so the actors were talking to the rabbit in the chair. If the rabbit picks something up you'd have it on a rod with a puppeteer under the table and it would fly up in the air and then you take out the rod, we'd have to animate over it, so that's why you'd see that Roger's hand would be in a really stiff position sometimes because we were drawing over the top of the rod. If a weasel walked in with a gun, the gun would be on wires and there would be a catwalk above. All the sets were built six feet off the ground so you can get puppeteers underneath the set and cut a slit in the carpet to be able to put props up there.

The "invisible man" movie was cut and we did a turnover where we talked about what was in the scene and then for each scene you'd get a stack of photostats made frame by frame of the material in that scene, and they're all punched on the bottom and you put those on your pegs and then you draw into the scene.

It was very inventive. I don't think you'd ever do it the same way now, but in it's day it was pretty great. The audience reaction was really amazing. People really were blown away by it all.

SW: Did you have a feeling it would be a big success?

DH: I think when you're working on it you're never really thinking too much about it except hoping it's not a bomb. The credit really goes to Bob Zemeckis. He's an amazingly gifted guy, both creatively and technically and so if you really had to point to one person on that movie, it would be Bob. He's just an amazing genius of a guy, and very relaxed even though it was a huge undertaking and just able to pull the whole thing together. I owe a lot to him because he taught me a lot.

SW: Did you work on the shorts that followed, "Tummy Trouble" and "Roller Coaster Rabbit"...

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" "The Little Injun That Could"DH: Yeah, they were a little bit different, we were doing them to keep the franchise alive because we were getting ready to do a sequel, and the sequel never happened. It got close, very close, but we decided to make two or three. We pitched maybe five or six ideas, some of which never got made and some of which were based on posters in Maroon's office, you know for the movie. Joe Ranft, the story guy, drew a bunch of posters for Maroon's office with silly titles, like "The Little Injun That Could" and Roger's dressed up like an Indian, suggesting stupid cartoons that R.K. Maroon might have made, so some of the ones we did like "Tummy Trouble" were based on some of the posters that Joe drew as set dressing.

SW: So if we look back at the original film, we may see the poster in Maroon's office?

DH: Yeah, it might be somewhere in the background, I'd have to look, but it was very much inspired by the original cartoon posters in the movie, but it was made to keep the characters alive and it was really good. I think it came out with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," and it was Rob Minkoff (Director) who later did "Lion King" and "Stuart Little" and all those movies.

(Roger Rabbit is available on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

More from Don:
His start with Disney and those who inspired him
Producing "Beauty and the Beast"
Creating "Nightmare Before Christmas" for 3D

See other interviews





 
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