talks about his start with Disney and those who inspired
by Scott Wolf
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: Were you a Disney fan growing up?
Don Hahn: Yes. Absolutely. I grew up in Bellflower which is down by Orange County, so I grew up at the park (Disneyland) in a big way. I was born in 1955 when the park opened and I just loved everything about it.
I'd go down as much as I could afford and when I got older, like in middle school, I would go with friends and I was the kind of kid that memorized every spiel on every ride, and can still recite a lot of them, like the Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction. Yeah, it made a big impression.
I think the other thing that made a big impression on many, many people of my generation was the TV show (i.e. Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color”), especially the Imagineering and behind the scenes shows, "The Plausible Impossible," and I especially remember the ones where they were putting the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion together and ripping the sales and walking thru and seeing everybody working on it. I don't think I thought, "That's what I want to do," because that was unobtainable and I could never work for Disney. That was like unobtainable but it was like, "Wow! Somebody actually does this."
So it was pretty amazing and I was as much an Imagineering geek as I was an animation geek, probably more so. This is embarrassing to say, but I wasn't just an animation guy and felt like, "Oh, I have to work at animation."
My background is in music so as a musician I went to music school and college. I was an art minor so I painted and I drew. But, I never really thought of getting into animation. I thought of getting into Disney, but to me Disney meant something really different... it meant movies, it meant theme parks and all that stuff.
When I was fifteen or sixteen we moved up to Burbank and were close to the studio. My dad is a Lutheran minister so he got a church in Burbank. We moved up there, I was in my senior year of high school and I think that was my biggest break. He has nothing to do with Disney but we just moved closer, so all of a sudden people that went to our church worked at the studio and people that were in the neighborhood worked at the studio.
There was this guy that worked at the studio who said, "I have a summer job open," so I went and applied for that and I got it. I was twenty.
The job was working in the morgue which was in the basement of the ink & paint building for a guy named Leroy Anderson. (The morgue is where all the original artwork from Disney's films were stored. The actual pencil animation, color backgrounds, etc.)
SW: Leroy gave me my first tour of the morgue back in '88.
DH: So you know he worked in the morgue for a long, long time. He was from Fargo, North Dakota and was a really great guy. Well, Leroy went to my church so Leroy is the one who first said, "Why don't you come in and interview?"
I worked there for like three or four months and when it was time to go back to school and keep going I had three years of college done and thought, "This is ridiculous. Why would I ever go back to school? I'm walking the hallways and delivering scenes to Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl and Ken Anderson.” They were all still there.
It was 1976, ten years after Walt died. Walt was very much in the air in terms of what people talked about. A lot of times people say that everything was frozen and saying, "What would Walt do?" That wasn't my experience. It really wasn't. I was kind of there in the middle of it. Yes, there was hesitation probably in the early years, but one of my earliest jobs was working for Woolie Reitherman and I would get him coffee. I would clean his Moviola screen and I was there in his office as an Assistant Director really early on. It was the tail of "Rescuers," beginning of "Fox and the Hound" and those guys weren't sitting around.
I'd sit in and take notes and it would be Woolie and Larry Clemmons, who was the writer, and Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) who would do story before they got into the animation, a guy named Don Griffith who was the layout guy, sometimes Ken Anderson. They'd just sit in there all morning long and just shoot the breeze and I would move storyboards in an out and pin up stuff. Lorraine Davis, Woolie's secretary, would be in there and that was kind of our work life. We just did that all day long and I never heard anybody say, "What would Walt do?" in that context.
I feel like I was so lucky to be in the middle of that and I think it sells those people short to say that they were frozen in their tracks because they weren't. You might argue that some people think their movies were repetitive or they were kind of stuck, and that maybe a valid criticism but they were working artists, and they were working as hard as they had ever worked. At least that's what I saw.
At the same time, Don Bluth and a lot of the next generation of animators were coming up so when "Fox and the Hound" was done I rolled over and worked on "Pete's Dragon" with Don and I was his Assistant Director.
Those early days were really valuable, especially with people like Ken Anderson who many people don't know about. We learn a lot about the nine old men... I think the label "the nine old men" sells short people like Joe Grant or Don Griffith or Ken Anderson and so many people that equally contributed to the shows. Frankly, if Marc Davis were sitting here or Frank or Ollie, they would say the same thing, that so many people contributed as much as the "nine old men," Ken O'Connor or Bill Tytla or Freddy Moore. So as much as the "nine old men" deserve their due, I'm also a big fan and love the contributions of people like Mary Blair, Joe Grant and Ken Anderson… brilliant. And I was really lucky because I really got to hang out with those people.
SW: When you first got your job, were you aspiring to be an artist?
DH: I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was twenty years old, I hung out in the music department a lot because that's what I did. I was a percussionist and played cello but I got really seduced by the animation process and the idea that you can do music and art together. Eric Larsen used to say, "This will flex all the muscles you know and more," because with animation you have to know all that and the more balanced you are as an artist. He was an architect and a lot of these guys were brilliant architects, draftsmen, fly fishermen, whatever. The more balanced you are as a human being the better you'll be in terms of your craft and animation. So those guys were really inspiring, that's why I stayed and that's why I got involved in animation.
I did a little bit of animation, very little, on "Mickey's Christmas Carol," working cleanup for awhile and it was just too intense for me to sit at a drawing board forty hours a day, and I got really inspired by my heroes in life, as corny as it sounds, Walt Disney, Jim Henson, creative producers, that's what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not an animator, I wanted to be a creative producer... and Woolie was that way.
SW: Before "Mickey's Christmas Carol," had you ever taken animation classes or did you learn about it at Disney?
DH: I learned it at home with Don Bluth because Don was making a garage film at home called "Banjo the Woodpile Cat," and so on weekends I would go to Don's house and since it was just a garage movie, we had to do everything. I would do cleanup, I had to paint cels, I would shoot camera, so you just learned everything. Things you couldn't do at the studio because maybe it was unionized or whatever, but it was a real learning environment at Don's house on the weekend. I was really close to that group and learned a tremendous amount from Don and John Pomeroy and Gary (Goldman).
By "Fox and the Hound" you were not animating, right?
DH: With "Fox and the Hound" I was more of the Assistant Director.
SW: What does that entail?
DH: In those days it was very much the style that Walt Disney used. The Director's never went to editing. They never really walked the halls that much. It was very much a factory mentality. When Walt worked he was the Producer and you'd have three Directors or four Directors and they'd do "sweatbox sessions" and dictate notes and the notes went out to everybody. Then the Assistant Director's job was to sweep up and I'd be the legs and the eyes and the ears of the Director so I'd run down to Editorial with a bunch of notes from Woolie and work with the editors to cut sound effects and dialogue and make that work. I would deliver tests around to all the animators, got film looped up and sent it around and I would keep charts and graphs and kind of track the movie through its production just as a Production Manager would, and later I became a Production Manager.
It's a very different environment that we have now. I don't know how to describe it other than it was a little bit of a factory assembly line mentality… on purpose. I don't want to say that as a criticism, it's just that it's a holdover from the late '30s, early '40s, and that hadn't changed really. The paperwork hadn't changed. The paperwork I was filling out and the test slips and the bar sheets and all that stuff were exactly the same as they used on "Snow White" and this was the
late '70s, so there was no change at all.
Since that time, of course, there's been dynamic change everywhere but I'm so lucky that I had those experiences and was able to actually be there and learn the old way. In fact, it's something that's really important to me now is preserving an oral history of that time. That's part of the reason that I was excited that we could talk today.
More from Don:
Producing "Beauty and the Beast"
animation in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
Creating "Nightmare Before Christmas" for 3D
See other interviews