A Virtual Roundtable Session with Don Hahn, Producer of "The Lion King"
It’s notable that the only title you can give to Disney’s Don Hahn is “employee,” because he’s done so many different things for the company in the 35 years he’s been employed there. He was the producer of such animated feature film classics as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, as well as several Disneynature documentaries; directed the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty on the 1990’s “Disney Renaissance;” and authored The Alchemy of Animation on the process of creating animation using pencils, computers, or stop-motion puppets.
On the eve of the release of The Lion King on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D, and during the film’s second smash week in theaters, Toonzone News was able to sit in on a virtual roundtable session with Don Hahn. The following is edited and re-arranged from the raw transcript of the event, and Toonzone’s questions are marked.
QUESTION: First of all, how did you get involved in animation?
DON HAHN: I was a music major in college…played cello and percussion, and if it weren’t for a temp summer job at Disney, I’d probably be playing timpani in the back of an orchestra somewhere. When I got to Disney I had the chance to work with some of the greats of animation: Woolie Reitherman, Don Bluth, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston. I got totally seduced by the animation process and what you could do with it.
QUESTION: Had you been a fan of Disney animation previously?
DON HAHN: A fan of Disney yes, but I really didn’t get into animation until after I came to the studio at 20 years old.
QUESTION: How did you originally become a part of The Lion King?
DON HAHN: I was just finishing up on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King was going through some big changes. The original director was leaving the film and the producer Tom Schumacher was moving to an executive position developing future films. I came on board in February 1992, shortly after the team returned from Africa and just as Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were made the directors. We sat in my office for two days with an amazing small and mighty team of story artists that included Chris Sanders, Brenda Champman and Beauty directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and over those two days wrote the complete outline for the film. There had been some amazing writers on the story, but those two days were an amazing time when the film came together in a big way.
QUESTION: You’ve been at Disney as long as anyone there. How has the studio and animation changed in your time there?
DON HAHN: I started at Disney 35 years ago, and yes it’s changed a lot. The one thing that I’ve seen the most is that Disney is at its best when we take creative risk and push to move the art form forward. You see it in the 1980’s when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came in and contributed songs to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. You see it again when Pixar did the original Toy Story. It was an experimental film that the studio wasn’t sure it would work but the risk paid off. I’ve been in so many discussions over the time I’ve been here about what makes “Disney.” The one constant is change. Walt himself couldn’t wait to dive into the next thing, be it technology, television, theme parks, urban planning. Disney is about change and innovation. That’s why I’ve stayed here my whole career and still love the place.
DON HAHN: It started out by wanting to do a story about growing up. We called it “Bambi in Africa,” a term that came from our development executive Charlie Fink. We looked at a lot of coming of age stories, especially bible stories like Moses or Joseph where a character is born into royalty and then is exiled and has to return to claim their kingdom. Those are ancient stories…stories of underdogs that we as an audience love to see when we go to the theater. Did I imagine that it would be this successful? Not in my wildest dreams. It’s an incredible and humbling reaction even now, seventeen years later.
QUESTION: Talk about your trip to Africa to do research for the movie. What was the single greatest thing you saw there?
DON HAHN: I was finishing Beauty and the Beast so I didn’t make the trip. But Roger Allers, Chris Sanders, Lisa Keene and the team that went were blown away by the scope and scale of Africa. They came back with a load of images and a feeling for the land and color of the land that made it into the movie in many ways. There is an epic feeling to the landscape in Africa, that made the directors want to use it almost like another character in the film. The trip was a turning point in our thoughts about the look, sounds, and music of the film.
QUESTION: What was your biggest challenge bringing The Lion King to the screen?
DON HAHN: Most people don’t know this but the Northridge, CA, earthquake struck us just six months before the film came out and the studio had to be shut down. For a few weeks we were driving drawings to animator’s homes around southern California and making the film in garages and on kitchen tables. The crew was amazing. They were dealing with the stress of a major earthquake while finishing the film.
QUESTION: At what point in the production did it hit you that The Lion King was becoming something special?
DON HAHN: I think when we heard Hans Zimmer’s arrangement of “Circle of Life” with the final animation, but knew we had something different for sure and possibly something the audience would like too. We took a risk and sent “Circle of Life” out to theaters as a trailer for the film six months before the film came out and it was a huge hit. Back at the studio we were still struggling with the story but at least we knew we had a great opening and if we could elevate the rest of the film to that level, we’d have something.
QUESTION: Every actor brought something great to their roles and I think The Lion King was cast to perfection. But were there any actors you had in mind for the main characters who you were unable to sign on?
DON HAHN: For a short time we considered that great African actor Sean Connery to play Mufasa, but after James Earl Jones came available we abandoned that idea.
QUESTION: What’s the most emotional side in working again on The Lion King?
DON HAHN: I had a woman come up to me after a screening and she had just lost her husband. The film really helped her deal with the issues of loss and explain those issues to her children. Believe me, you never think that a film will have that type of effect, but it is very humbling and emotional when it does.
TOONZONE NEWS: How has The Lion King come up in your life in really strange or unexpected ways?
DON HAHN: I was in Beijing a few years ago doing a lecture at an art school there and everyone was bringing me their Lion King DVDs to sign. About half way thru signing them I realized that The Lion King hadn’t been released on DVD yet in China and they were all bootleg copies.
QUESTION: Development and editing aside, how many times do think you’ve seen the movie?
DON HAHN: Probably a thousand times. And I see something different every time.
DON HAHN: “The Circle of Life” is a real personal favorite. When we finished the sequence and Hans Zimmer scored the music, we watched it and were all amazed (even though it was our movie). Suddenly this little film about a lion cub became a much bigger epic.
QUESTION: The Lion King has a huge, magical philosophy of life. Which side of it do you prefer? And why?
DON HAHN: There is an underlying theme to The Lion King about that day when you are no longer a child and you have to step up and accept the responsibility of adulthood. It’s actually an age-old coming of age story not unlike so many Disney films that are all about growing up.
QUESTION: Congratulations on The Lion King taking the box office for the second week in a row! Since you probably know it best, how do you think it has aged?
DON HAHN: The happy thing about animation is that it ages very well. The actors don’t get older, and the story is universal and about some pretty timeless themes. When we did the film we deliberately left “man” out of the story, so it is a story that could have happened today or a thousand years ago. That’s the magic of animation.
QUESTION: Like other Disney masterpieces The Lion King enjoys nearly infinite longevity. How do you feel the follow up films contribute to its legacy?
DON HAHN: We’ve made over 50 animated films at the studio and in some way they are all connected. There wouldn’t be a Lion King if it hadn’t been for the great success and skill that the team brought to Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. The films that followed The Lion King reflect a dynamic growth in the ambition of the animators to tackle different stories and embrace different techniques. Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch, Mulan…proud of them all as much as I’m proud of Tangled.
QUESTION: How early on did Hans Zimmer and Elton John/Tim Rice become involved in the film, and can you tell us about working with them?
DON HAHN: Tim came on first. He was finishing lyrics for Aladdin after the death of Howard Ashman. His pick for a songwriting partner was Elton. Elton is a musical genius when it comes to melody but we always knew that we’d need a musician to score his songs and pull them into the African musical space. Chris Montan, our music executive suggested Hans and it was one of the most important decisions on the film. Tim was a dramatist and was able to put up with the endless story changes that we went through. Elton delivered melodies that in my opinion are timeless. Hans was the lightning bolt that pulled it together. Hans brought in Lebo M. the amazing African singer who brings the opening song to life. His score won an Oscar that year, as did Elton and Tim’s song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
QUESTION: Do you ever find yourself humming or singing one of the songs? What’s your favorite song?
DON HAHN: I do. All the time. I love “Circle of Life” but I usually find “Hakuna Matata” creeping its way into my brain. The only way to get it out is to sing a chorus of “It’s a Small World.”
QUESTION: Can you imagine The Lion King with another sound track?
DON HAHN: No, I really can’t. Elton John, Hans Zimmer and African singer Lebo M. are the perfect match for this story.
DON HAHN: Pumbaa. You figure it out.
QUESTION: Why did you pick The Lion King for the 3D version? Which other Disney movie would you like to see in 3D too and why?
DON HAHN: Converting a hand drawn film into a 3D experience was a risk so we wanted to start with two films that we knew had audience appeal. The Lion King was at the top of the list. Beauty and the Beast next. The Lion King 3D experiment has exceeded our wildest dreams. 3D isn’t right for every film but wouldn’t it be great to see Peter Pan fly over London in 3D… (no plans for it, just my personal favorite).
QUESTION: Did you ever think 3D technology would be used on the film?
DON HAHN: No. When we made The Lion King in 1994, 3D was still a pretty clunky technology. Now the technique has caught up with us and gives us an amazing tool kit to transform the film into a new experience.
QUESTION: What has The Lion King gained by being put in 3D?
DON HAHN: Everything and nothing. The film is well suited for 3D because of the style of direction. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, the directors, crafted the film with longer shots and a sense of Africa as an unspoken character in the film. 3D brings this to life even more and lets the audience step into the film in a unique way. When I say that nothing is gained, I’m referring to the story. We worked hard to make the 3D reflect and support the story and not detract from it. There’s a paradox to all this, which is the paradox of animation itself; you work for four years and spend millions of hours on a film with the goal of making the audience forget that they are looking at drawings. That’s the magic of it all.
QUESTION: What scene in The Lion King is really blew you away once it was in 3D?
DON HAHN: That would have to be “Circle of Life.” It was like all of Africa came alive on the screen right in front of us!
TOONZONE NEWS: Were there any scenes that you specifically wanted to see in 3D for this movie, and did they turn out the way you hoped they would?
DON HAHN: The wildebeest stampede…couldn’t wait to see it in 3D and it didn’t disappoint!!
QUESTION: Which is your favorite character in The Lion King 3D? How it is changed from the 2D version?
DON HAHN: I love Pumbaa! And he’s even bigger and rounder in 3D!
QUESTION: You’ve been involved in the 3D conversion of both The Lion King and The Nightmare Before Christmas. How did converting 2D animation compare to converting stop-motion animation?
DON HAHN: Nightmare was a nightmare to do in 3D. There was no separation on the characters and the stereographers had to literally build a complete 3D version of the puppets and sets, then “project” the original film onto that geometry. The Lion King had its challenges but the original film was stored in separate levels which gave us a great advantage to start the 3D process.
DON HAHN: Story, Story, Story! Nobody goes to the theater just to see a technique. The Lion King is a great story and that’s why it’s come back with such a roar!
QUESTION: Number one at the box office for two weeks in a row with a movie 17 years old. How does that make you feel?
DON HAHN: Insanely great, humbled, happy for the artists, musicians and actors that made it all happen and happy to have been there to see it all. It’s been beyond exciting. It’s so humbling to sit in the back of a theater and watch a new generation of kids enjoy the film.
QUESTION: In your opinion which 3D movie was the best in the animation, until now? And why?
DON HAHN: I have two favorites: Toy Story 3 and Avatar. Toy Story 3 was just a brilliant movie all around and the 3D was exquisite. Many people don’t think of Avatar as animation but Jim Cameron did an amazing job building a world and bringing his characters to life in 3D. He’s a real pioneer in every sense of the word.
QUESTION: Is there anything you wish you could change about how The Lion King came out? Something that was cut out of the movie you wish had been left in?
DON HAHN: There is really nothing we would have done differently. Yes, there were songs written that were cut out and sequences like a scene of Pumbaa and Timon playing “bug football” that never made it to the screen, but these were all good choices. The film works as is and really doesn’t need anything else.
QUESTION: How has The Lion King changed your life?
DON HAHN: The Lion King is a once in a lifetime experience for a filmmaker. We were able to do something together as a team that moved the audience and eventually contributed to popular culture. Of course I’m proud, but it’s not my film alone, it really cemented in my mind the power of great artistry, and collaboration.
QUESTION: What is your favorite memory of making The Lion King?
DON HAHN: So many: there was the day we brought live adult lions into the studio to study and draw, and the day we first saw Chris Sanders’ amazing storyboards for the Mufasa’s Ghost sequence. But probably the most memorable moment was when we went to Hans Zimmer’s studio in Santa Monica and heard his arrangement of “Circle of Life” for the first time. It changed our perception of what the movie could be.
QUESTION: Were you asked at all to help develop The Lion King musical? Have you seen it on Broadway? If so what did you think?
DON HAHN: Aside from giving some notes in the early rehearsals, no. Theater is a different animal and when Tom Schumacher came up with the idea of using Julie Taymor to direct the show, the rest was history. I have seen the musical many times, and it is a magical thing.
QUESTION: As someone who has produced some of Disney’s all-time biggest animated hits, what is the secret of your success?
DON HAHN: People. I find the best possible people that I can find, then I hire them and do exactly what they tell me to do. It’s like baseball…a team sport where the team is more important than the individual.
QUESTION: You’ve produced and directed all manner of films: animation, live-action and documentaries. You’re written a number of books. Is there any other artistic endeavor you’d like to try or devote more time to?
DON HAHN: People like Walt Disney and Jim Henson were my role models growing up. They were into a million things, all based around entertaining the audience. So who knows, maybe we’ll see DonHahnland coming soon.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did your experiences making The Lion King affect how you approached your later films for Disneynature?
DON HAHN: Disneynature films are similar in that you are trying to tell stories with animals, but the comparison stops there. In nature films, the animals tell you the story and you follow them around for three years hoping that something dramatic happens. In animation, you start with a pencil and create it all from scratch. Love them both, just two very different path ways to arriving at a story.
QUESTION: In recent years, you’ve become a documentarian. Is this something you’d like to further pursue?
DON HAHN: I love the immediacy of the documentary medium. It takes four or five years to make an animated film. Good documentaries take time – we’ve been shooting Chimpanzee, the next Disneynature film for three years now. But the ability to shoot and edit a story together quickly is a different experience. I think I was probably inspired by Walt Disney who turned to nature documentaries later in his career.
QUESTION: Waking Sleeping Beauty was a very honest and inspiring film. You did a remarkable job getting candid contributions from all the major players of that era. Did you get any resistance early on about telling your story “warts and all”?
DON HAHN: Thank you!! I think the “warts and all” approach was the only way to go. It created a level playing field. Once the artists and execs saw that I was really trying to get at the truth, they were all cooperative and in the end supportive. I’m a lucky man.
QUESTION: Do you have any plans to produce another Disney animated film?
DON HAHN: I have animation in my blood and if the right story comes along, yes I would love to do another film. For the last several years I’ve been working with Tim Burton on a stop motion animated film Frankenweenie. It’s an amazing technique and Tim is a brilliant director and visual artist. Couldn’t hope for more.
QUESTION: Can you tell us more about Frankenweenie?
DON HAHN: It’s an amazing film, directed by Tim Burton, and done completely in stop-motion with puppets much like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim is one of the most iconic directors and artists of our time and Frankenweenie will be a treat when it comes out in October of next year!
QUESTION: What’s the main difference between a classical animation movie like The Lion King and something like Frankenweenie?
DON HAHN: All animation techniques are about bringing inanimate objects to life to tell a story. The main difference between The Lion King and Frankenweenie is that The Lion King is a hand drawn movie, 24 drawings per second. A stop motion puppet film like Frankenweenie is done with articulated puppets that are moved by an animator 24 times a second. They are both great techniques!
TOONZONE NEWS: Can you talk about the next hand-drawn film from Disney, or the general future of hand-drawn animation at the studio?
DON HAHN: Too early to talk about anything specific except to say that there are amazing artists at Disney and Pixar who have lots in store for the audience be it with a pencil, a puppet or a pixel.
DON HAHN: I think it’s a vindication of good storytelling. The audience doesn’t go to the theater to see a technique. They go to be told a story and The Lion King delivers that story. Techniques come into and go out of fashion but the truth is a good story is what is lasting be it told with pencils, puppets or pixels.
QUESTION: Besides the projects you have worked on, what is your favorite classic Disney animated film?
DON HAHN: Peter Pan! Flying kids in pajamas fight pirates? How great is that!?
QUESTION: What does it mean for a producer of a movie win an Oscar, is perhaps a goal?
DON HAHN: It’s the World Series and Super Bowl of the movie business so of course getting an Oscar nomination much less winning is a huge honor. Having said that, it’s a rare thing and you have to be satisfied with the creative accomplishment itself. We don’t make films to win awards, we make them to entertain. When an audience responds – that’s the biggest reward!
QUESTION: Don, any final thoughts on The Lion King 3D in its theatrical and soon after Blu-ray release?
DON HAHN: First of all a big hug to the cast and crew of The Lion King. You have no idea how many hands and hearts have touched this film all with respect for the story and the audience. Hats off to them. Seeing the film on the big screen and watching the audience reaction is about the biggest treat a filmmaker could hope for. We’ve all worked equally as hard on the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D release in the hopes that audiences can enjoy the film at home for years to come.
Toonzone News would like to thank Don Hahn for taking the time to speak with us, along with the Disney PR team and the fine folks at Click Communications for setting us up to participate in this virtual roundtable session, and don’t forget to check out our virtual roundtable interview session with Lion King co-directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers. The Lion King is available now on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.