Interview with Don Hahn, producer of animation „Frankenweenie”, the latest film directed by Tim Burton

What does the animation mean for you?

I love the art of animation and the way that it can transport you to anywhere and create fantasy that isn’t always possible with live actors.

How did you start in animation film industry?

Originally i studied art at university but got a summer job working at Disney. I was just a messenger and at the bottom of the ladder but i got to work with some of the great animators who worked with Walt Disney…Eric Larson, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Ollie, etc.

From whom did you learn animation?

Mostly Eric Larson, and Don Bluth. I was Don’s assistant on Pete’s Dragon and i learned a lot by watching how he worked. I was also a big fan of Walt Stanchfield who was our coach and trainer at the studio in the 70;s and 80;s

What it means to be an animation movie producer?

There are many different kinds of producer. Some raise money, some are executives, some are involved creatively. I’d say that i’m a creative producer. I pull the project together from the very beginning and then work with the artists and musicians to tell a great story.Part of what is important for me is to hire the best A list people because they are the ones that will make your movie special.

You are known as Oscar-nominated producer, known for animated films, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and in 2006 nominated film, The Little Match Girl. What memories do you have of that period as a producer of animated films?

It was a time of struggle. Animation was almost shut down in the 1980’s and we worked hard to prove that this generation could tell stories that were timeless and well crafted in the tradition of Disney. We had wonderful people then (as we do now) and we were a young studio who didn’t know that we couldn’t do something. We were very motivated to try things and push the limits of animation and some very good films came out of that era. I even made a documentary about that time called „Waking Sleeping Beauty.”

Are you a fun of Disney? You’ve been acting intermediary head of Disney animation division, during the merger with Pixar Animation Studios. What did the Disney win from this acquisition? But what did it lose?

I don’t think we really lost anything.Pixar has always been a close cousin to Disney and of course we have always admired their work and still do. What we gained was their culture. They have a great mix of art and technology that push the limits of film making to its best quality. Now of course it has been many years ago that Disney bought Pixar and the movies are beginning to show the results. I think Brave and Wreck it Ralph that is coming up this holiday season in America are two great examples of the future.

What would it be your first decision if you were in charge at Disney – Pixar Studios?

Put the artist in charge. With good people, the artists and story people are the ones who need to be empowered to tell the storyies. As a producer it’s my job to provide a safe culture for them to express themselves and make great movies.

What do you enjoy the most doing documentaries, live action or animation?

Documentaries have their own challenges of putting together complex stories without knowing how they will end. The Disneynature docs are particularly interesting because you can’t script them. You have to rely on animals to tell the story and that can be very intense. Animation will always be in my heart but i do enjoy the variety of working in all these different mediums

According to U.S. media reports, animated films are the most profitable investment in the film industry. What do you think?

Yes you are correct. They are usually for a large general audience and movie goers are very cautious about where they spend their money. They always know that they will get good value at a Disney or Pixar movie, value for the entire family.

If we have a look at who won the Oscar last year and other awards, we can observe that Disney – Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have no longer the supremacy in this field. I mean, the animated “Rango” produced by Industrial Light & Magic, Oscar winner for best animated film. Could we say that this is the period of relatively new studios, such as and Illumination and others?

I like the fact that Rango won. it was a good film and no one wins if the industry is always monopolized by one or two studios. Having competition from other film makers keeps us on our toes and keeps us pushing to do our best work and not get lazy. Would i like to win every year? Yes, but the animation industry is booming right now and it’s exciting to see what other film makers are doing.

What about European „industry” animation film? We can say that for some time, animated Spanish and British films conquered the American public, I mean Chico & Rita.

I really liked Chico and Rita and thought that it was a fresh approach to animation and music. The animation business including special effects is growing in Europe and there is some truly wonderful work coming out of Spain, France, England and Germany.

Let’s talk about your documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty.

It was an amazing story that had to be told and since i lived thru it, i felt like i was in a unique position to tell it. My colleague Peter Schneider came up with the concept and working together we were able to get the cooperation of all of the artists and key players of that time like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, and Michael Eisner. It also shows how close Disney came to shutting down animation and what a roller coaster ride it can be to run a creative studio in Hollywood.

You are producer on Tim Burton’s remake, Frankenweenie. Does this stop-motion feature mean your return in animation industry? Are you anxious, nervous, giving that It will be a kind of debut , it will be your first film in IMAX 3D format? Have you worked with Tim Burton?

I’ve known time for all my professional life and he’s a friend and brilliant director. We just opened the film tonight at Fantastic Fest in Austin and the early reviews have been amazing. Tim has created something very special here and i hope the audience feels the same when it opens in October. Animation gets in your blood and this has been a thrill to bring this movie to the screen with Tim and our producer Allison Abbate and a great crew of European artists and animators at our studio in London.

What is the „story” of your nomination as a producer on Tim Burton’s film?

I was the one who came up with the idea of doing Frankenweenie as a feature. I pitched the idea to Disney back in 2005 and to Tim that year as well. Tim was excited about the possibility and we moved forward from there. He’s always had a positive relationship with Disney and i really think he’s created a very special movie here.

What can you tell me about this production?

Well, there are many sources of information out there right now. We began scripting seven years ago and spent the last three years working on the film in London. It is done in stop motion and all shot in Black and White 3D and yes it will be the first animated feature to be in B&W and in IMAX.

I saw on imdb that you’ll be also the producer of “Maleficent” film, with Angelina Jolie? It is a live-action with visual effects, a modern screening of the Sleeping Beauty story? What it will bring new this adaptation of the story?

We have been shooting this film for the last two months in london. Angelina is a spectacular actress who was born to play this part and of course the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is one of the great stories of all time.

Do you miss classical 2D animation?


What do you know about Romania?

I have visited a few times and traveled extensively in Transylvania as well as Bucharest and to the south. To me Romania is a hidden treasure. Yes there are problems and yes there are economic hardships but your culture and art are amazing and I find the people of Romania to be warm, clever and welcoming. I filmed a documentary called Hand Held there a few years ago and that process gave me an even greater insight into the challenges of the Romanian people including the Roma, and also gave me an opportunity to spend time there taking in the culture and enjoying the food!

Did you have the opportunity to talk to people in animation field when you were here, in Romania?

No i did not.

When you were in Romania, did you have the opportunity to talk to people of Romanian cinema? Did you see Romanian films?

Yes, i’m particularly drawn to Cristian Mungiu’s „Four Months, Three weeks”. „The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” by Cristi Puiu, is also an amazing, crazy, visionary work of film making. It’s nice to see the international community begin to recognize the film makers like Mungiu. To win at Cannes was a wonderful re introduction of the Romanian film makers to a world audience and must be a source of great national pride to you all.

Unfortunately, Romania doesn’t have animation studios, because, several years ago, the roamanian-franch Dacodac studio went bankrupt – the only animation studio that produces films and TV series for the West. In the last 22 years, Romania has produced only one animated feature – “Crulic” documentary. What do think it would be the solution for recovery, revival of animation industry in Romania? I would like to mention that we don’t have schools of animation, nor tradition in animation (except for Ion Gopo Popescu , who won Palme d’Or Grand Prize at Cannes in 1957, with brief history), but there are young, self-taught Romanian animators working in animation studios in Western Europe.

A strong industry starts with universities and schools that teach film making and animation. Animation studios come and go here in Los Angeles as much as there in Bucharest. Money is always an issue, but now that film markets all around the world are hungry for product, it might be the perfect time to grow the Romanian industry again. It all comes down to good storytelling and making films for the audience to enjoy. Commercial films will bring in the money and there is no doubt in my mind that you have the talent there in Romania to be able to grow an animation industry if given the opportunity.

What advice do you have for those who want to boost production of animation in Romania?

Tell great stories, and make them your stories. Don’t try to copy Pixar or Disney. You have a very rich culture of music and art and wouldn’t it be amazing to see a story that came from your own local traditions and culture.

What would you like to do in life that you couldn’t do it because of lack of time, resources, etc..?

I love to paint. I’m a landscape painter and there is never enough time to do that. To me it is relaxing and there is never more joy in my life than when i can sit and study nature and the way light plays accross a landscape.

What is Don Hahn doing when he doesn’t work? Is he writing books, painting?

Yes both. And sometimes trying to find good stories for the future in animation, live action and documentaries.