Toon Zone Interviews Don Hahn on a "Nightmare" Project
Examine the credits of some of the most acclaimed animated films and you’ll find Don Hahn listed as the producer for many of them. He began his career as an assistant animator for Pete’s Dragon, and moved up to associate producer for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His first credit as producer for a feature length film was for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which remains the only animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy).
Mr. Hahn credits afterwards read like a list of Disney’s greatest hits, including films like The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Emperor’s New Groove. Hahn was named the interim head of Walt Disney Feature Animation in February during the Pixar merger, and is currently Executive Vice President – Creative Development. He is currently producing Disney’s 3-D re-release of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Toon Zone News caught up with him for a phone interview to talk about the re-release and a few other high points of his career.
DON HAHN: I think it was probably was a perfect storm of ideas in movie and filmmakers. The movie itself has been around for 13 years. It’s become this kind of cult classic. Along with that, the technology to take an existing film and turn it into a stereo 3-D experience has been cooking in parallel to that. About a year ago, we started doing some tests and showing them to Tim Burton to see if there was something we could work on for this movie. Being stop-motion animation, it seemed like something that was a natural fit for this. He liked the tests and ILM had a pretty spectacular approach to turning it into a 3-D movie, and that’s how it all came together.
TZN: How do you turn an existing film into a 3-D movie? I’m assuming you didn’t re-shoot the whole thing with the models.
DH: No, no. That’s important to point out – it’s really just the original film, but it’s a pretty amazing process. When you go to see the film, when it’s in 3-D, you need a right eye and a left-eye version, so the original film was scanned in the original movie that was shot 13 years ago, and that became the left-eye version for the stereo version. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created a kind of complete proxy version of the movie for the right eye and they do it in a way that’s not dissimilar to that “Madame Leota” effect in The Haunted Mansion. They create a featureless character, like a placeholder character, for, say, Jack Skellington or some other character in the movie, and they project the original movie onto that character, and then move the digital camera over three inches to the right and re-photograph that character. That obviously reveals a lot of gaps and spaces that have to get filled in and painted out, but that creates a true 3-D version of the movie that is completely like the original version that was photographed. So, it’s kind of a technical breakthrough and kind of an industry first to do something like this.
TZN: So did you guys have a chance to do any restoration to the film?
DH: Yeah, we did a little bit. I think were really conscious that this is a hand-made movie and that’s part of the respect we had for what the original filmmakers did. It’s a stop-motion movie, so you can see the fabric and the mistakes – occasionally you can see a wire or a light flash when someone went to lunch or something. We didn’t want to “fix” those things, since that’s part of the charm of the original movie. We did go in and clean up the dust and the film scratches and restore the color back to what it was, and to do that we put together a group of filmmakers that worked on the original project. Again, I guess as a producer of this 3-D version, I wanted to make sure we had as much involvement by the original filmmakers as possible – from Tim and (director) Henry (Selick) on down, so those original filmmakers helped us restore it to the level they would like to see for this film.
TZN: How much involvement did Tim Burton and Henry Selick have in the making of the 3-D version?
DH: A fair amount, and we probably would not have done it without their knowledge or consent. Going as far back as almost a year ago…maybe nine months ago…we started talking to them about it and showing them some early tests from ILM that were promising. I think Henry, at first, was skeptical and Tim was a little more game to try it. Once we saw the first tests come out, I think they were very happy with it because it’s a pretty interesting technique.
TZN: How long did it take to get the movie ready? You mentioned nine months to a year earlier.
DH: Yeah, it was about that long. I think the biggest crunch was the last six months, but about nine months to a year because essentially all the characters in the movie had to be re-created digitally so you would have that proxy version of the movie to project the original film onto. The guys at ILM came down and we formed a team at Disney to go through the old materials and blueprints for the sets. We had the original camera logs for what lenses were used for each shot. We even had the original models to be able to go back and photograph those and get a sense of what the original puppets looked like. That all became their baseline of information to be able to do this 3-D version.
TZN: Are you going to be able to use any of this digitized data for anything else, then? Was there any thought to repurposing it for some other medium at all?
DH: No, I don’t think that was ever our intent. In fact, for me personally, I would hope that we would never do that (laughs). I think Nightmare is a one-of-a-kind movie, and I feel like unless it’s additional material that Tim Burton or Henry would want to do themselves, it really was all produced and created just to turn the original movie into a 3-D movie. It’s really just a one-off for us.
TZN: On the DVD, there are some deleted scenes that Henry Selick says that he wishes he could have included, but didn’t for any number of reasons. I think there’s even one scene where he says something like, “Yeah, I don’t know why we had to cut this.” Did you take the opportunity to work some of that material back in, especially since you had Henry working with you on the film?
DH: You know, we didn’t, and part of the reason was because it was enough of a process to do 3-D to begin with. The movie has been around for long enough and has enough of a fan following that we didn’t want to mess with it too much. We didn’t want to say, “Let’s put in added material or added scenes or animate some new stuff.” We really felt like, in some ways, this movie is like a really honored piece of filmmaking, and we just thought, “Let’s just leave it that way, create our 3-D version and really just celebrate what the original filmmakers did.”
TZN: As far as getting the film in theatres, do you need special projection equipment, or can any theatre project it?
DH: No, it does need special projection equipment. It’s a digital cinema projector, so it’s projecting at a really high frame rate. It also is a silver screen so that the 3-D effect has integrity by the time it’s projected on the screen and comes back to your eyeball. You wear lightweight 3-D glasses to decode what comes back to your eye. That process does require a special installation in all the theatres that are showing it.
Part of what makes this Disney digital 3-D thing work is it’s an incredibly stable image. A lot of the older 3-D, especially if you go back to the 50’s and the Dial M for Murder era, it’s really terrific and it’s great to watch but it was usually 2 projectors and you had to wear the red-blue anaglyph glasses, and it was a headache-inducing experience. I think what’s great about this technique is it is a stable image. The glasses are not red and blue, they’re just the standard neutral polarizing glasses and because of the high frame rate and because there’s no shudder (or) gate weave. It’s a really pristine experience. You can sit there and watch a feature-length film without getting the usual kind of residual headache you might have gotten 50 years ago when you watched original 3-D.
TZN: About how many theatres are going to be showing it then?
DH: We have a little over 200 theatres around the world. It’s the first time we’ve done an exclusive 3-D release, so everyplace you go see it, it will be in 3-D. Maybe about 180 screens in the States and the rest would be around the world. Different places from Europe to Japan, where this movie is almost like a religion (laughter), and other places around the world.
TZN: Is it really that popular in Japan?
DH: It’s hugely popular there. I don’t know why, but it’s hugely popular and, in fact, we’re doing a press junket over there – Tim’s traveling to Los Angeles for the premiere and then going on to Tokyo because it’s such a huge, huge hit. It has a big fanbase volume over there. I’m not sure why, but it really has over the years.
TZN: You’re best known as a producer of traditional, hand-drawn animated films. What was the difference being the producer for this project as opposed to something where you were starting from scratch?
DH: This was more of an homage to the original filmmakers. Obviously, it’s not anything to do with my ideas or pulling a team together to do create something new. If anything, you’re trying to go back to the source and go back to the guys and girls who created it. It’s just a different process, and as a producer, you’re trying to put together something terrific on the screen and then trying to pull together your collaborators to do that. In this case, it was much more about going back to Henry and Tim and then our little brain trust of 3-D artists that were either animators like Mike Belzer who worked on the original movie, was part of our team, and people who were cinematographers on the original movie like Pete Kozachik, who was the original director of photography, helped us balance the color of the reels so that it looked like the original film. A lot of this was like pulling together an all-star team of filmmakers and staying out of their way so that they could get the movie back. When you talk to movie who worked on Nightmare Before Christmas, they have an almost paternal feeling about the movie, so it was no problem at all when you called them up and said, “Hey, we’re doing this, would you be willing to come back and work on it?” Thankfully, they jumped at it.
TZN: Is this a harbinger for more 3-D movies or re-releases of movies in 3-D?
DH: Well, it’s certainly a first of taking an existing movie and putting it out in 3-D. We’re going to be doing more 3-D movies. Our next animated film, Meet the Robinsons, that comes out in March of next year will be in 3-D as well. For older movies, I think we’ll have to wait and see. If the right movie comes along…I think Nightmare was a very special case and everybody recognized it. If the right classic movie came along that was right for conversion into 3-D, I think it’s really fun for the audience to see.
TZN: Meet the Robinsons is CGI, isn’t it?
TZN: Is it the same process, then, or can you leverage the computer to get the 3-D effects for you?
DH: It’s exactly that. It’s a lot easier, in a sense, because you have these digital assets that you’ve already built to create a 3-D CGI movie, and those are by nature a three-dimensional object in the computer, so it’s tedious, but you have those assets in terms of characters and backgrounds and props that you’ve already created. In the case of Nightmare, we had nothing – we just had the flat movie, so you had to go in and re-create all these assets to be able to generate a stereo version of the movie out of it.
TZN: If you could pick any movie out of the Disney stable to give it the 3-D treatment, which one would you pick?
DH: I’m afraid to say, because you’ll print it and everybody will want to do it (laughs), but I actually would pick Tron. I think it’s so cool.
TZN: Weren’t there plans for a remake of that? Or did I misunderstand an announcement?
DH: You know, at various times throughout the decades, people have talked about it. It’s been on and off, and I don’t know what the status is right now. Talk about a cult film – it’s a great movie, and I think as a 3-D movie, it would be kind of fun.
TZN: Normally, I’ll ask what was the funniest thing that happened in making the movie, but since it was The Nightmare Before Christmas, I’ll ask what was the strangest or most bizarre thing that happened while you were making the movie?
DH: Wow…um…I don’t have a clue (laughs). It was such a storm, and went through so fast. I think a lot of it was just raw energy trying to get it to the screen. A lot of the fun for me, I think, and for the guys that worked on it was seeing things we hadn’t seen before. When you create a cleaned up version of the movie and then turn it to 3-D, you start to see stuff in the backgrounds that you haven’t seen before. It’s almost like seeing ghosts in the movie that weren’t there before (laughs). You see little bits of animation and like shadows and things that maybe weren’t there in the original film, so a lot of it was sitting in dark rooms for hours on end with 3-D glasses on, trying to make sure we were seeing everything and cleaning up everything and getting everything on the screen that the audience could like. It was kind of like living in a haunted house for six months trying to get this thing to the screen, which for me was terrific.
TZN: Did you ever have moments when you forgot you were wearing the 3-D glasses and walk around in public with them?
DH: Yeah, all the time. You feel kind of like an idiot, because you’re carrying these things around with you all the time, and just wearing them to work and bringing them home and forgetting them and everything else, it’s like having 40 pairs of sunglasses everywhere (laughs). But you get used to it and they’re pretty lightweight, so it’s just a tool of the trade.
TZN: It seems that there have been a lot more mainstream animated films recently that are breaking the rated “G” barrier. One of the earliest ones was The Nightmare Before Christmas and more recently, there was Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Incredibles and Shrek. How do you feel about pushing the boundaries of what American audiences expect out of an animated film in that regard?
DH: Well, I think a couple of things. A lot of our movies are…they’re Disney movies, so they’re appropriate for a general audience of adults and kids, so there’s some lines we don’t cross and will never cross in terms of language or sexual content or those kinds of things. On the other hand, there’s some great things you can do in a movie like Nightmare or Incredibles that are just either intense in terms of the action or creepy in terms of Nightmare, and it’s character design and its subject matter that are, I think, really entertaining for the audience. Animation is completely for kids and completely for the general audience, too. I think that’s what’s great about the best movies we’ve ever made is that they’re for that 6-year old and they’re also for the 86-year old. You can go see a movie like Nightmare, and yeah you’ll get scared once in a while if you’re a little kid and yeah, maybe it’s not right to take your 3- or 4-year old to it, but I think audiences love to be scared, they love to be challenged, and it just makes for great family entertainment.
Walt Disney was one of the guys who really pushed the boundaries of that. In his era, movies like Snow White and Bambi were pretty terrifying movies to young kids in the audience. I think he was, in many ways, with Fantasia and a lot of his earlier films, really pushing what animation could do.
TZN: I think some of those movies are still scary to kids these days. I remember being pretty terrified during some scenes of Fantasia when I saw it as a kid.
DH: Yeah, they were intense, but they had a tremendous heart to them, and they had a tremendous sense of fantasy. When you look at Nightmare Before Christmas, it is the most “fantastic” – in the terms of the word “fantasy”—movie I have ever seen, in the sense of design and wonder and invention is amazing in the movie. It’s pretty cool. I think it’s very much in the tradition of great animated movies.
TZN: One of the other things I always liked about it is that it’s really playful, while it’s also kind of macabre at the same time. You sit there and you think about it and you ask, “Should I really be laughing at that?”
DH: Yeah. Tim’s story and Henry’s direction have made it this almost operatic love story that’s about this mismatched couple where one of them is sewn together and one of them is the Pumpkin King with a skeleton head, and it’s this operatic love story set against Halloween and Christmas. If you pitch that, I’m not sure anybody would buy that idea, but the execution of it and the charm of it and the heart that’s in it, along with the macabre and the kind of twisted side of it is so interesting. I think that’s probably why it’s become the classic that it has.
TZN: Stepping a bit away from Nightmare and towards your career in general, you were also the producer for Haunted Mansion. How did your experience as an animation producer help or hinder working on a live-action film?
DH: It was a great experience because I got to work with Rob Minkoff, who did the Stuart Little movies, and I did The Lion King with Rob. We both came from an animated background. It was a great stretch, I think, for both of us to be able to try and tell a story around the Haunted Mansion. We both loved that venue and we both loved the possibility of telling stories around it. In the end, when you’re a filmmaker, whether you’re picking up a pencil or a mouse or a camera, you’re still looking for interesting characters and transporting the audience to an interesting place, and creating a story that they can really latch in to. It almost doesn’t matter what tools you have – and I don’t want to pretend I’m na√Įve about that, of course it matters – but if you don’t have a great story and if you can’t transport them to these places, then the movie won’t connect completely. I think part of the challenge of any of these movies, including Haunted Mansion, was to try to do those things. Those essential kind of filmmaker things to make it work, and it was a great challenge. To be able to work on that movie with people like Rick Baker and John Meyer, the great Academy Award-winning set designer, and so many others. It was a real treat.
TZN: While we’re talking about your other work, “The Little Matchgirl” is finally widely available to the public with the release of The Little Mermaid DVD. That was originally supposed to be released with Fantasia/2000, right?
DH: It was. First of all, thanks for asking about it, because it was four years in the making and we were genuinely contemplating a third Fantasia that would be celebrating world music and stories from around the world, and this one really was a labor of love. It was Roger Allers, who co-directed Lion King, and we both thought, in the last few years, when hand-drawn animation was tremendously out of style, that there were still great stories to tell and they could be done with a pencil really effectively. I love 3-D digital animation and I adore the Pixar movies. I think those guys are brilliant and I’m lucky to be able to work with them now after our merger. But “Matchgirl” was a chance to tell a really simple story without dialogue, just with music, in a way that I think shows the kind of power and the emotional stomach punch of animation when it works right.
TZN: It’s a beautiful film…
DH: Oh, thank you.
TZN: …and you mentioned it was possibly part of a “third” Fantasia movie? Are those plans still at work?
DH: We had done 3 shorts, actually, that were contemplated. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a 3rd Fantasia, but shorts are a spectacular way for our filmmakers to try new techniques and maybe tell stories that wouldn’t sustain for an hour and a half, but are still very worthwhile stories to tell. I think “Matchgirl” was one of those. “Lorenzo” was another short that Mike Gabriel directed a couple of years ago that was meant to be part of that movie as well, and we also did a short called “One by One” that was a little African fairy-tale story. So “Matchgirl “was very much a part of that, and I think it’s a powerful little piece.
TZN: You just mentioned the Disney/Pixar merger. This may be a slightly loaded question, but how would you say the company has changed since you started working for them?
DH: Great question. I think, in essence…it’s a very good time now. It’s a very good time. In working with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull and a lot of our colleagues at Pixar…the truth is, for whatever falling out or issues that the corporations may have had, maybe artists always stay reasonably close. I’ve known people like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton and John for many, many years and have always been a fan of their movies. The truth is that John helped me out on a lot of movies that I worked on early on. We sent storyboard artists up to work on Toy Story and they would come down to give us notes on some of the movies we were working on, so it was a very collegial relationship. The cool thing now is that there is no curtain between us. There’s a great exchange of ideas and support between the two studios. The two studios will always have their own style and their own techniques and their own spirit about them, but it’s a real pleasure to work with those guys again. Certainly John is as close as you can get to a modern-day Walt Disney in terms of his passion, and he just loves it. He lives and breathes animation. He loves the idea of it and he loves the art and the craft of it, and whether it’s hand-drawn animation or stop-motion or digital animation, he just believes in it – as we all do – as an art form, and a great art form at that.
TZN: Speaking about animation as an art form, you and the rest of the crew got nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. Currently, there’s a separate category for “Best Animated Film.” How do you feel about that?
DH: You know, I have to say I feel mixed about that, to be really really honest. It is spectacular to have our own category, but I never want to think that it precludes animation from being nominated as purely a Best Picture again. I often think of foreign language movies. Sometimes, by having a foreign language film…you might say, “Well, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or something like that is going to win it’s Oscar, let’s nominate it not for Best Picture, but for something else.” I feel like a great animated film – and there have been many, many of them – should be completely eligible (and it is) to be nominated for Best Picture and stand side-by-side, with any movie, any technique out there. The mixed feeling I’m expressing is that it’s a huge honor to have a category for animation. It’s great, the amount of focus the Academy has given to animation, in animated shorts and all those things. And yet, I hope – and I know – Academy voters and the organization still looks at animation as, if there’s a truly brilliant film out there that can, it should, again, qualify as a Best Picture just as Beauty and the Beast did when it started it all those years ago.
TZN: I think there are a lot of animation fans that have those same mixed feelings. It’s nice to be recognized, but is it a recognition, or is this just a way to shunt us off in a corner so there will never be another animated film to get nominated for Best Picture?
DH: Right. Well, I take it at face value and give it the benefit of the doubt that a truly great movie will get recognized. There have been times, if I were honest…like a movie like Incredibles has got to be one of my favorite movies, regardless of the fact that it’s animated. I just think Brad Bird in that movie is a tour de force in terms of filmmaking. And that’s the kind of movie that one would hope, in future years, people could look at and say, “That’s a great movie, who cares whether it’s animated? It’s a great movie.”
TZN: Last question: what’s next?
DH: Wow. (Laughs) Lots of stuff. We’re developing, working on a lot of movies. What’s immediately next is Meet the Robinsons for us, which we have literally 3 weeks of animation left, and then a lot of lighting and rendering and music. Danny Elfman, coincidentally, is doing the music on the Robinsons, so he’s going to be walking the black carpet on Monday night and then going back to work on Robinsons. That’s what we’re working on immediately, and then a lot more is coming up in the future.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Mr. Hahn for his time and the staff at Disney’s Publicity department for arranging the interview.