Thursday, June 09, 2005

Interview with Don Hahn

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

From: SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES? -- Interviews and Articles By and About Key Men and Women in the Entertainment Industry

By Dr. Ted Baehr, Publisher of MOVIEGUIDE®

HOLLYWOOD, CA (ANS) -- EDITOR’S NOTE: This insightful article complements Dr. Ted Baehr’s new book SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES? It is available in a special section of to everyone who buys the book. SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES? is a comprehensive book on movies that every Christian interested in becoming involved in the entertainment industry and every Christian who wants to redeem the entertainment industry (and the culture!) will want to read. It shows Christians how to use their faith to change the culture of Hollywood and how to develop their screenwriting, acting, directing, producing, and behind-the-scenes interests. Some of the best and the brightest people of faith and values in the entertainment industry share their secrets of how to make a great blockbuster movie!

Over the last fifteen years, worldwide audiences have been thrilled by the stunning, memorable family movies entitled, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT,HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. These movies boasted several “firsts” in the areas of animation technology advances, digital enhancements, and colorization.

The producer of these movies, as well as other beloved classics such as LION KING, EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE and ATLANTIS, is the talented Don Hahn, of the Walt Disney Company.

Don attended Cal State Northridge as a music major and art minor. “I never studied film. I studied opera, musical theatre, and orchestras, and I was always interested in storytelling, drawing, painting, and color theory. I saw the art side of movies as more of an inspiration than the story side. I think movies can be too self-referential sometimes… too insular. I get inspiration from life, nature, other characters and people. I think there are more interesting ways to make films… films inspired by reality.”

Producers are Coaches

Don feels that his job most closely resembles that of a coach on a football team. “I’m not calling plays or passing the ball, but in every way I’m responsible for pulling a team together, creating the project, creating the idea, encouraging the gifts and talents that help the team work together. I’m coaching them to get the best work out of them. I get to work with amazing people. They’re the best musicians, artists, and technical people in the world. We all work much better together than separately; no one could make a movie alone. Joint collaboration makes a movie great. I especially appreciate my core team – the storyteller and songwriter of each project. If we understand each other, it’s powerful. I feel lucky to have them in my life.”

Favorites Project vs. Best Experience

When asked what his favorite project has been, Don responds with, “Oh, that’s hard. That’s like asking ‘Who’s your favorite child?’ I guess if I were pushed I’d have to say BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I had a great team, the response was so great, it won Best Picture nomination, and it had fantastic direction and lots of innovations. It was an interesting time back in ’91.”

Don feels that it’s less about favorites, though, and more about quality of experience. “With ROGER RABBIT, LION KING and THE HAUNTED MANSION, I learned so much. I worked with different teams and very different stories. Each project had different stories that surrounded it, and each gave me great life experiences that I drew from on subsequent projects. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to produce films that involve both live action and animation, and I know it’s rare that I’ve gotten to work with both. MARY POPPINS was both, and that always inspired me. I produced ROGER RABBIT, and PETE'S DRAGON, which were both the combination deal. It was a lot of fun.”

It’s all About Talent

When asked about the potential for people of faith to get involved in Hollywood, Don responded with, “There’s an open door for people of talent. There are no barriers beyond that, honestly. There are many people of many varieties of faith – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, who are all very successful, but it has little or nothing to do with their faith. Hollywood’s all about talent. A person who has an interesting idea or perspective, has done his homework, and learned the craft of filmmaking, that’s what it’s about. It’s all about the talent and ability to deliver something fresh and entertaining.”

Find a Like-Minded Environment, If Possible

According to Don, Disney is naturally a family medium, in keeping with his faith and values. “It’s not often that moral dilemmas come up in my environment. It’s the reason I work at Disney. I could have worked and still can work anywhere else, but there’s a great spirit in this company, and the kinds of movies they promote make it a great place for people with strong values to function well.”

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, FINDING NEMO and MIRACLE are all examples of fun, cool-to-watch, incredibly successful films financially. They’re also spiritually connected, positive family movies about overcoming obstacles. Our movies are always obstacle-related, not faith-related or religion-related. Though like any other company, there’s plenty of great water-cooler talk about politics and religion, that’s not what our work is about. Sure we’re humans that read the paper, watch TV, and like to gossip. But if you want to know the truth, most of us who work here are stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. We’re kids, so we tell stories and make movies about pigs and lions and little lost fish. We dream in ‘cartoon’ at night.”

Excellence Rules

Don Hahn believes that producing animation and live action movies takes a combination of talent, skill, and luck. “Luck is being in the right place and right time. You have to understand the industry enough so that you’re not stunned. It’s a business, and it depends on excellence and quality to make money. Make yourself excellent. Hire the job candidate who is most excellent – the one with the best qualities, instincts, and knowledge. Don’t skip the knowledge part just because it’s not fun. Don’t be like the piano player that doesn’t want to practice his scales. Spend time learning, drawing, understanding the craft, seeking out mentors, and immersing yourself in the industry.”

Never Give Up!

In order to make it in the industry, believes Don, one must find his natural talents and gain knowledge of his craft. It takes persistence and patience, he says, so most don’t stick it out. “They give up. But that’s part of the talent, is persisting. I’ve had to persist through a lot of seemingly closed doors in my day, and there’s always a level of frustration in every endeavor, but I’m fortunate to have known the people I’ve known and that I’ve made it long enough to have done the things I’ve done. Persistence is definitely the key.”

Be Relevant

The common thread in great movies, says Don, is relevance. “So often movies and stories are told that are unrelateable to mainstream audiences. They’re distant and abstract. The audience has to relate to the characters on the screen, whether it’s an animated elephant or a live pirate character. In good movies audiences have some feelings about the protagonist’s dilemma. If they can’t understand the characters, or they’re unredeemable jerks, audiences will feel squeamish, frustrated, even let down. If they’re not real enough, they’re not relateable, and you’ve got a bad movie.”

Transcend Targeting

When asked what the major target audience is for his films, Don says, “I never try to have a conversation about target audience. A good movie, or a satisfying movie, transcends the idea of a target audience. For instance no one liked Lizzy McGuire more than me. Good movies don’t punish parents; they’re as entertaining for the parents as the kids. Yes, we do have generalities of targets, but the most successful movies are relateable to audiences from 6 to 85. For example, in LORD OF THE RINGS one can’t point to the film and say, ‘This was our target audience.’ It was for all of us. Just like the majority of the movies Disney produces.”

No Bad Dreams

The goal of a good Disney film is to excite and entertain, but not truly scare, it would seem to at least one of its producers. “Intense movies really bother me,” admits Don. “It’s a personal thing. For instance, BRAVEHEART was a work of powerful filmmaking, but the graphic images stayed with me for a long time. I just don’t think people need that gratuitous violence in their gray matter.”

It’s Not Called “Show Friends!”

Producer Hahn reminds us Hollywood wannabes that the entertainment industry is, indeed, a business. “Movies have to, for most part, be profitable. That’s the goal. Sure, there are some rare exceptions, like the movies made simply for the art, but the entertainment industry has to have profitability at its heart. Financiers want to know, ‘Is this movie relevant? Excellent in quality?’ People don’t want to pay $10 and feel ripped off. They want to come away saying, ‘I loved those characters.’ Where quality and entertainment meet in a movie, the money will follow.”

Most animated movies are made from between $15 and $100 million dollars, says Don. “One of lowest, most restricted budgets I had was with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. We had to do so much corner cutting, put in overtime… It was a pressured financial situation. We had to make something fantastic for a low price. As the producer, I had to be responsible to that, to understand the business of it all.”

It’s Big Bucks, Folks

When asked about the expenses on an animated film, Don tells us “Big money goes to the labor pool of animators, and the voice cast would be a more minimal cost. We’re paying people to sit at a drawing board and painstakingly draw out each scene. For instance, there were close to 600 animators per major movie about years ago, but now the movies require less due to the impact and efficiency of computerized animation advances. Other crew needed for an animated picture include musicians, sound effects guys, or “Foley artists.” In THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, we used thirty animators and one hundred clean up people, or the folks who draw in the details after the initial rough drawings.”

In-House Development Works

Don and his team don’t get many scripts sent to them, they say, mainly because they don’t solicit from outside sources. Don develops projects himself with writers, and mostly does movies based on favorite kids’ books. ATLANTIS was an original, but HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, LION KING and ROGER RABBIT were novels. LION KING was also adapted from a novel. “You never know where the stories are coming from. We rarely read anything from the outside. We’re more likely to find good ideas and hire writers to carry them through. Actually, the writer on HUNCHBACK was a first time screenwriter. He had been an intern and Disney, then a staff writer. Then, we just trusted him with a big one. Obviously, he did a great job.”

And just as obviously, Don Hahn does a great job as he continues to entertain the world with his colorful, well-produced Disney animated classics. More, more, more!

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EDITOR’S NOTE: If you appreciated this article and want to know more about how you can redeem the mass media of entertainment and/or become involved in the entertainment industry, please read SO YOU WANT TO BE IN PICTURES? Dr. Baehr’s book is available in bookstores and at When you buy a copy you get access to many informative articles from top Hollywood talent and executives.

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(c) baehr, 2005
NOTE from Dr. Ted Baehr: For more information from a Christian perspective, order the latest MOVIEGUIDE® magazine by calling 1-800-899-6684(MOVI) or visit our website at MOVIEGUIDE® is dedicated to redeeming the values of Hollywood by informing parents about today's movies and entertainment and by showing media executives and artists that family-friendly and even Christian-friendly movies do best at the box office year in and year out. MOVIEGUIDE® now offers an online subscription to its magazine version, at The magazine, which comes out 25 times a year, contains many informative articles and reviews that help parents train their children to be media-wise consumers. MOVIEGUIDE® also regularly broadcasts several international TV and radio programs hosted by Dr. Baehr. Also, if you want to train your family to be media-wise, call 1-800-899-6684 in North America to order the book, video or audio version of THE MEDIA-WISE! FAMILY, Dr. Ted Baehr's latest book. © baehr, 2001

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