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Toon Zone Interviews Don Hahn on "The Alchemy of Animation"

by on October 24, 2008

Disney producer Don HahnMost animation fans know that Disney experienced a resurrection in its animated feature films starting in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, with The Little Mermaid in the vanguard, followed closely by the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. What two of those four movies have in common is veteran producer Don Hahn, whose career stretches all the way back to working on Pete’s Dragon and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and continues forwards to Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the short film “The Little Matchgirl,” which earned him his second Oscar nomination.

He may still be the only producer of an animated film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but Hahn is more than ready to get some company. To help speed the process, Hahn has written The Alchemy of Animation, a book that summarizes the fundamentals of making an animated movie in CGI, hand-drawn animation, and stop-motion animation. In addition to its educational value, the book is also lavishly illustrated with artwork drawn from the vast archives of art from Walt Disney Feature Animation and Pixar Animation Studios.

Hahn was able to take some time out of his schedule to chat with us by phone about the new book and about the art, craft, and business of animated filmmaking.

TOON ZONE NEWS: When and why did you start writing The Alchemy of Animation?

DON HAHN: We started about 2 years ago. I had done a book almost 10 years ago called Animation Magic that was really for kids, for people who were interested in getting their kids started in animation, or fans of animation. I always wanted to do an aged-up book that was a little more detail-oriented and can still service the fanbase of people that are interested in Disney and Pixar films, but also expand beyond just hand-drawn and 3-D movies into stop-motion movies, and also about music and even a little bit of marketing thrown in. So it was a chance to put all the elements of making a movie together under one cover. It’s great if you’re in high school or college to be able to figure out what you want to do for a living, or it’s great if you’re just a fan and want to learn more about animation.

TZN: I think it’s really neat how the book explains what all those people do in the credits. “What’s a gaffer?” and all that.

HAHN: Exactly, I think that’s what the fun of it is, because you see these credits go by, and you go, “What’s a rigger?” Who are these people and what do they do? It’s just a chance to get a behind-the-scenes peek at everybody.

TZN: And you were aiming for a slightly older audience than the last book?

HAHN: Yeah, and kind of a broader audience, too. I think in the last book, we touched on 3-D animation, but this one goes into it much deeper. We also talk about stop-motion and motion-capture, which is becoming an interesting new technique. It tries to cover the industry as much as possible just to give a modern snapshot of what animation is doing now.

The Alchemy of AnimationTZN: Would you say that those are the things that have changed the most between the time when you wrote Animation Magic and when you wrote this book?

HAHN: Yeah. I mean, certainly, hand-drawn animation has fewer hand-drawn productions out there. Hayao Miyazaki is still doing amazing work and thankfully, Disney is doing amazing hand-drawn work again, but 3-D films are everywhere. There were 16 features last year that the Academy considered for Best (Animated) Picture. Then, stop-motion is always in the wings and a great technique. It’s probably the oldest technique out there, and so it’s great to talk about it and talk about the kinds of movies that are being made in stop-motion.

TZN: I noticed that you used the word “Alchemy” in the title, and I think that’s interesting because alchemy is about the blend of magic and science. Was that a deliberate choice?

HAHN: Yes, for the exact same reasons that you just said. It’s a blending of that kind of art and science that’s hard to define. It’s hard to define what talent is, or what a good idea is. On the other side of it is science, which tends to be more definable and more quantifiable. The combination is exactly what animation is. It’s this mixture of art and technology that makes the movies great. I tried to strike that balance in the book, so you could see some amazing paintings and drawings and things that are truly fine-art, mixed with things that are highly technical. It’s about that the art and craft of filmmaking under one cover.

TZN: Did you find it hard to strike the balance between the two? Did you ever find that you swung a bit too much talking about soft, fuzzy arty things or getting too technical?

HAHN: I think I probably did swing towards talking about the art a little bit more because the technical is hard to explain to a lay audience sometimes, but then I tried not to shy away from the technical side in the book. One of the most important things to me was to actually be able to talk about some of the technical aspects of a movie in a way that a complete novice can understand it, so you understand that basically a CG character is like a marionette, and someone goes in and rigs it like a puppeteer might rig a marionette with strings. I wanted to try to put it into vernacular where people who are reading the book can understand it.

TZN: The book looks beautiful, with all the art from the Disney archives. I’m assuming you had carte blanche to sort of run through the Disney archives to pick and choose what you wanted to include in the book?

HAHN: Yeah, that was part of the fun of the book, and it took the longest time, in a funny way. It took two years to put the book together, but we were the beneficiaries of having great access to the Animation Research Library at Disney and the library up at Pixar, too, and try and pull as many images as we could that told the story that I wanted to tell. The book is really a tribute to all the artists and technicians that make these movies, and it’s a great thing to be able to pull artwork that showcases their work. As an author, I don’t do any of this myself. I just was really happy to be able to plow through artwork and say, “Here’s the best example of this kind of character design or visual effect,” or “Here’s a technical example of something that’s interesting and that maybe you’ve never seen before in a book.”

TZN: With all that material available, how did you limit yourself?

HAHN: (Laughs) We pulled probably about five times as many images as we used in the book. We could have done another hundred pages, I’m sure, but we had a great team of artists and designers that put the book together and we debated it. For virtually every piece in the book, we would ask, “Is this the best example of this? The best story we can tell with this piece of artwork?” So, I think in the end, that’s why people are generally really happy with the way the book looks, because even if you don’t read the text, you’re getting these prime examples of character design or storytelling or modeling or whatever that tells the story of how these movies are made.

Waterfall Mechanics, from the pre-production art of 'The Incredibles'TZN: It’s also nice because so many people have the pre-conception that, “Oh, the computer does everything.” There’s not as much realization of how much work really goes into making an animated film.

HAHN: And if you asked Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton or anybody, they would say that the computer really doesn’t do anything. It’s the artist that drives it and the people behind it that make it all work, and it’s really true.

TZN: You said that you had started this book about two years ago. I guess the only one of the Nine Old Men who was still with us at that point was Ollie Johnston.

HAHN: Yeah, and we have a great picture of Ollie Johnston with Andreas Deja in the back of the book. It’s kind of a tip of the hat to Ollie and certainly all his colleagues. I didn’t talk to Ollie about the making of the book, but in a big way, Ollie, and Frank [Thomas] were an inspiration to me to do this book because they were able to articulate the art of animation in their book back in the 70’s when they did The Illusion of Life. This is certainly not as comprehensive as their book is, but it’s definitely inspired by their willingness to share information and inspire a new generation of people, and that’s what I hope to do. I hope be able to sit in the motion picture home someday and watch other people’s animation and know that there’s a whole new generation coming up that maybe had a chance to access this artwork because of my book.

TZN: I also really liked the anecdote in the middle of the book when Ollie Johnston went to visit Pixar to see how they made CGI animation, and he kept asking the animators there, “Yes, but what happens first?” until the animators said “we think about what the character is thinking,” and that’s what Ollie wanted to hear.

HAHN: That was a great story because it came directly from one of the animators at Pixar. I asked several animators and people to read the text, and he read the text and said, “Oh, you have to put this story in.” It was so good that I did, because it says it all. It says it all. It’s all about the character.

Nightmare Before ChristmasTZN: You’ve been in the business for a pretty long time. Did you learn anything new while you were writing the book?

HAHN: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never really worked closely with stop-motion animators. We’re starting to do it now on a new film I’m working on, but it was really interesting to look at the pictures and talk with some of the stop-motion guys who put those movies together, and whether it’s Henry Selick or Mike Belzer or whoever just to talk about their passion for stop-motion, because people who work in stop-motion are nuts about it. I really wanted that section of the book to be comprehensive and give their point of view of what it means to them to be able to work on a stop-motion movie like Nightmare Before Christmas.

TZN: I think that’s one of the things that makes this book different from a lot of other animation books. Most books talk about 2-D or 3-D animation or both, but stop-motion usually gets overlooked.

HAHN: It does, and it’s some of my favorite work. I love Nightmare, I love Corpse Bride, some of the Wallace & Gromit movies…they’re some of my favorite work. Sometimes it gets glossed over because of the sex appeal or the commercial value of CG movies, but I think it’s a terrific art form going back to Ray Harryhausen and King Kong and up to now, so it was an important thing to include in the book.

TZN: You also have a big emphasis on a very iterative creative process, where you talk about constantly refining and redoing a movie.

HAHN: Very much.

TZN: I find that interesting because there was an article by Ed Catmull about the creative process at Pixar, and he says a lot of the same things.

HAHN: Well, Pixar and Disney are the same company. They come from the same roots, and that’s why. Ed is brilliant at articulating that. It’s really the truth. It’s the secret weapon that animation has, and if you’re smart, you use that. Live-action films don’t have that weapon, and that’s that you can iterate and redo things again and again and again until they get better. So you can really go back into things and say, “This sequence isn’t working,” or “this character isn’t working,” “this design isn’t working,” and if you have the resources, you can redo it all the way up until opening day. I think when you look at films, even Snow White and Bambi and Dumbo, or modern miracles like WALL-E, they’re all beneficiaries of that iterative process, and it’s something that Walt certainly brought to the party. He wouldn’t settle and he wouldn’t give up, and so you find these movies being done and done again. The vaults are full of discarded sequences and story notes about discarded sequences, and that’s what makes these movies particularly special.

Rafiki and Simba from 'The Lion King'TZN: You know, I’d never even really considered that, but you’re right. It’s not like you have to build a set again or anything for a re-take.

HAHN: Right! Live-action movies are always made based on calendars. If you have a director available for three months and an actor available for three months, they get one week rehearsals, they shoot, and go away. To get everybody back together to re-shoot is virtually impossible. But in animation, you can start out with a script and storyboards and your actors are always there. Your actors are always in the trailer ready to go, the sets are always built, and you can go back in. We’ve had movies like Lion King where we’ve added entire sequences six months before the movie came out. That’s a secret weapon that animation has over other media.

TZN: There’s a flip side to that, too, isn’t there? That temptation to always be tinkering…

HAHN: Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s the good and the bad of it. You can work a movie to death, also (laughs). There’s probably some good examples of that, even from our films, where you need to know when to stop — when it is good enough, or when you’re just beating an idea into the ground. But overall, it’s a huge benefit and it’s a huge part of the creative process to be able to check your ego at the door and collaborate with a group of people. It’s a real team sport, and it’s a real chance to make something that’s better than any single person could have made.

TZN: Between this new book and Ed Catmull’s article, why are all you guys giving away all of your secrets?

HAHN: (Laughs) Well, we’re not. I think it may appear that we’re giving away all our secrets, but there’s really nothing in the book that isn’t common knowledge to someone who works in the animation trade at DreamWorks or Sony or any place else. I think it’s all contingent also on the people that you have, and our biggest secret is that we have amazingly talented people at the studio and at Pixar. Any studio can go out and buy a bunch of chairs and software licenses and any studio can go out and buy a bunch of computers, but that doesn’t make a Studio. A Studio is 100% about the people that you have, and that’s one thing that we don’t share (laughs). We have great people, we try to have great projects that entice those people to stay with the studio and be challenged by those projects, and I think that’s why I’m really willing to talk about our processes, because the one thing that other studios may or may not have is the level of talent and expertise, on the technical side and on the artistic side, that we have in our studio.

TZN: What was the hardest thing for you to do in writing the book?

HAHN: A lot of the technical stuff on the CG side. I’m a producer, so I don’t do that every day. And it was the most intimidating because I wanted to make sure it was right, and yet it was put in a way that was understandable, so I went through the most sweat in that section. Because of that, I had about 4 or 5 top, really great technical people at Disney and at Pixar read that section again and again and help be my backstop and correct me and put things in understandable language. I can talk pretty fluidly and well about hand-drawn animation because that’s where I made my career in large part, but for the CG stuff, I just wanted to make sure that it was represented well in the book if you’re really into it and want to learn the basic truths of how a CG movie is put together. So there I struggled the most and really had the most help from some of the experts at Disney and Pixar.

Tiana from 'The Princess and the Frog'TZN: In some of your earlier interviews about Nightmare Before Christmas and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you mentioned that when both of those movies were made, they were kind of under the radar. In contrast, there are a LOT of people paying a LOT of attention to The Princess and the Frog. To a large extent, any Disney movie or any Pixar movie is going to get a lot of attention from the outside world. How do you manage that weight of expectations that people have?

HAHN: It is daunting, and it’s about stress management more than anything else (laughs). There are examples of movies flying under the radar and getting done and being spectacular like Nightmare. Even Toy Story could be in that category. But then there’s the flip side of Toy Story 2 or Princess and the Frog or Beauty and the Beast or even Lion King. They were all terrifying at a certain point because everybody was looking. Like, after Mermaid and Beauty and Aladdin, what’s the next big thing from Disney? After WALL-E, what’s the next big thing from Pixar? So whether it’s self-imposed or imposed from the outside, there is that pressure to do something great, and I think that pressure has two sides to it. There’s a positive pressure, and a stress to do better work that forces you to show up and put your best ideas forward and slay your not-so-good ideas. Then you just have to manage the negative pressure, which is just trying to guide these movies on-budget and on-schedule with the expectations that they have.

It goes back to a team effort, though, because there’s no one person who has to bear the brunt of all that. It’s a real team. There’s great brain-trusts at Disney — the directors and the great story people at Disney who can look at ideas and share their thoughts and, as a team, come up with what’s working and what’s not working. So, in that way, the stress and the successes and failures get shared by the team. I think that was true in Walt’s day. Even though Walt’s name was on the film, his biggest and his best talent was understanding people’s talents and assembling great teams. Walt didn’t draw on the job much, and he was a great actor and a great rallier of people, but he was able to put together great teams — the Nine Old Men and the Mary Blairs of the world — and put them together and cast them properly in those teams and make those successes. It’s very much the same in the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s very much the same today. There’s great teams of people at the studio, and they can share the successes and failures.

But it’s a really good question, because the stress is very real and the pressure to outdo and outperform is there. The one thing I’ve always said, though, is the best thing you can do is try to keep reaching out in new directions. I think WALL-E is a good example. It’s a film with no dialogue for a half-hour. Up is a film that that stars a man in his 70’s. They’re very unexpected. In its day, I think Lion King was probably unexpected. It was, you know, the Joseph story meets Hamlet in Africa with music by Elton John. It was a nutty concept in its time, but those risks, I think, are the kinds of movies that end up paying the biggest dividends.

TZN: How much does that pressure or that kind of stress affect the kinds of projects that you decide to pick?

HAHN: I think it probably doesn’t early on. Early on, I don’t know that you’re thinking about that down the line. You want a project with great potential. The other thing that Ed Catmull says, and I really agree, is that great people make a project great. Ratatouille is a perfect example. If I were to tell you we’re doing a movie about rats in a kitchen, you would say, “You’re out of your mind. That’s the most unappealing, uncommercial idea you could possibly come up with.” But you put a guy like Brad Bird on it, who’s one of the best damn animation directors working today, and he comes up with something that’s clever and fun and interesting and was a huge hit. So, yes, it’s partially the idea, but you can take a great idea and give it to a lesser director or a lesser team of people and they can kill it pretty easily (laughs), or you can take a strong idea, a good idea, even a fair idea and give it to a great crew and they will make something out of it.

TZN: What kinds of things do you look for when you’re trying to put together that team?

HAHN: It’s all a casting problem. There’s a lot of sports metaphors I could use, but it’s very much about putting together different strengths. Some people you want in for a couple of months to give you great pieces of artwork to inspire, and then they go away. You want other people who are marathon racers who can stay with you for three or four years and execute that vision. So it’s a cross-section of people who are sprinters and marathon racers. Collaboration is important. That’s not to mean it has to be fun and fuzzy every day. I think there’s a lot of controversy and butting of heads in any creative environment, but it’s a group of people who are at least willing to put their ego aside long enough to evaluate other people’s ideas and make the best idea rise to the top, whether it’s their idea or not. You’re looking for that kind of team and that kind of chemistry between the team.

TZN: There are some things you touch on in the book that I wanted to talk with you a bit more about. You mention international markets briefly in the book when you talk about dubbing and international marketing, and when we spoke about 2 years ago, you mentioned that Nightmare Before Christmas is really huge in Japan. How much do the international markets affect the creative process in making a movie?

The Jungle Book -- big in GermanyHAHN: Well, I can only give you my opinion, which is that they don’t and they shouldn’t really affect it all that much. In the end, you make movies for yourself, and the group of people making the movie is making it for themselves. We’re certainly aware that the movies have a much bigger international component than they ever have, but you don’t necessarily say, “Let’s put in a guy from Brazil and a guy from Spain,” just to appeal to the international audience. We haven’t had to do that. I think a lot of the themes and the emotions of a great movie are universal. The Jungle Book was the most popular film in Germany for years and years and years. It beat out Star Wars, even, and I don’t know why. It’s Rudyard Kipling, who was an Englishman, and it’s got Louis Prima and Phil Harris…(laughs) but they have a great appreciation for the story and the emotion of the story. It’s always interesting to me why movies excel in some markets, like why Hunchback of Notre Dame was absolutely huge in France. It’s a French story, but we were surprised because we thought they would hate it because we were messing with a French story, and it set these huge records. Or why is Nightmare so huge in Japan. Cars has become a really huge international movie. It was successful here, but internationally, it just ran and ran and ran. So, I don’t think you think about that when you’re making the movie. I think you’d go crazy if you did (laughs). It’s hard enough to talk about characters and story and plot and emotion than it is to talk about what’s going to play in Brazil.

TZN: Another aspect about internationalization and globalization is about animation outsourcing. It seems like a lot of the material in the book talks about animators that are close to each other, so how does outsourcing change the way you make a movie in your opinion?

HAHN: There’s levels of outsourcing. Almost every movie that we’ve made has been outsourced on some level. We’ve always had a studio in Florida or Paris or Australia. Even going back to movies like Little Mermaid and Black Cauldron, we did effects work in Japan. There’s always been some level of that, so a lot of it depends on what’s happening. On Tarzan, for example, Glen Keane did all of his work on Tarzan in Paris, but we had video teleconferencing and telephones and very few language problems because everybody spoke English or we could speak our own version of French. The translations in the movie didn’t suffer, and actually benefitted because we were able to pull in some people from the European market that were fantastic animators. The same thing with Hunchback of Notre Dame: we did a lot of it in Paris, and because of that the movie benefitted from it.

So, from my point of view it’s about casting. You can’t just say, “Here’s a sequence of the movie, let’s send it away to X studio somewhere on the planet” and hope that it comes back. You have to treat those people as though they’re sitting next to you. You have to talk to them every day, you have to send them drawings, you have to communicate, and the global economy and communications allow us to do that now. You can sit down at a screen, you can sit down at Skype, you can make drawings for people and communicate as though they were sitting next to you., The first and ideal choice is to have everybody under one roof. My opinion is the best movies get made that way, and if you have to send something out, try to send something out down the line to some of the more technical places, maybe where the artistic process isn’t affected that much, or make sure you have spectacular communications back and forth with your crew. That was the case with Tarzan. We had Glen over there and he was leading. He could talk to the directors every day, and that made the difference.

TZN: My last globalization question has to do with the co-productions Disney is doing with foreign animation studios. The Secret of the Magic Gourd was made for the Chinese market, and Roadside Romeo from India is beginning to get some attention among the animation press. How are those going, and are you planning to bring those projects to America?

HAHN: I don’t know specifically at how those projects are doing, but I think it’s a great thing because there’s a lot of talent in other markets that we never get a chance to see here, and to be able to do a film in India for India makes a lot of sense. It makes sense financially, it makes sense culturally to have local talent create a movie for that market, because otherwise you’re always hoping that a group of guys and gals in Los Angeles can serve all the entertainment needs of the entire planet, and I think that’s just not realistic today. I think that it’s completely appropriate to say we can go to South America or to India or to China and have local artists and filmmakers make movies for those markets that may never travel beyond those markets. You’ll have the exceptions, like Hayao Miyazaki, whose movies we release on video. We will always love that relationship and be able to bring those movies to the States and dub them and make them available for audiences here, and I think every once in a while that may happen with one of these international films as well.

TZN: But that’s not something you plan ahead of time.

HAHN: I don’t think so, no. I think they’re really made for local markets, with local cultural sensibilities and local storytelling. The Magic Gourd is a very well known local story in China, and to do it in Hong Kong for the Chinese market in that part of the world makes a lot of sense. It may or may not translate into something that will play here, and that’s OK. I think that they’re really made and budgeted and projected to be terrific entertainment to the level of Disney entertainment, but for that market.

Don HahnTZN: I think Magic Gourd is coming to the US on DVD, though, so you’re not ruling it out, of course.

HAHN: Yeah, sometimes they will come over. If the movie’s good enough and it hits a nerve, it can come here, if not theatrically then as a DVD release. It makes it an interesting time. There’s no rules, and I think it is a real global economy and, assuming there is an economy tomorrow (laughs), that the stock market doesn’t keep falling, I think it’s a really, really great time to be working in animation.

TZN: To wrap it up, what’s are you working on next? I know you’re working on Frankenweenie, and I believe there’s another book you’re working on as well.

HAHN: Yeah, I’m doing a book called Drawn to Life on Walt Stanchfield, who was one of the great trainers at Disney during the 80’s and 90’s. He left behind 10 years worth of notes, and it’s kind of a master-class in animation. I’m publishing those with Focal Press next year in April. I’m also executive producing a movie called Earth that’s actually a nature movie that’s coming out on Earth Day next year through the Disney Nature label, and then working with Tim Burton on Frankenweenie, which we’re writing and building puppets for right now.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Don Hahn for speaking with us, and Fumi Kitahara for making the arrangements for us. The Alchemy of Animation is on sale now at bookstores everywhere. All film stills are © Disney. All Rights Reserved.
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