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‘Ready, fire, aim’: A talk with Disney producer Don Hahn

Courtesy of Richard Chambers

You’ve probably never heard of Don Hahn, but if you’ve watched one of many classic Disney films, you’ve probably seen his work. A Disney employee for nearly 40 years, Hahn is a film producer and director who helmed flicks including the original “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” — but Hahn is also so much more than that. Known for having a distinct creative vision and love for animation, Hahn actually started out in music as an art minor and a music major who entered animation because of its place as an amalgamation of many art forms. “Animation is something that got me excited because it used everything I liked to do — it used painting and color and art, and also used music and writing and storytelling and all those things,” Hahn says. He speaks passionately about the importance of art and storytelling, believing in a holistic approach to making films — Hahn jokes that he’s a “real maker” as well as a “painter and a musician,” which allows him to explore his creative fields of vision.

When I first began talking to Hahn, I had to ask why he is so drawn to animation. I was curious — producers seem to rarely get recognized, let alone producers in animation. Yet there must be some reason why Hahn’s work has been so universally recognized and why he continues to find it so rewarding. Hahn jumps in eagerly: “I love working in animation for a number of reasons. One of the biggest things is that you can work on a story and work on the film all the way up to opening day. You have this ability to iterate and fix things. It’s the secret weapon, really, of a lot of Disney films, and a lot of animated films in particular. You can test them with an audience. You can go out again and again and polish them until they’re really working well. That’s something you can do to an extent in live-action movies but not to the extent you can do it in animation.” It’s clear that Hahn loves the uniqueness of the format: “One of the things I love is the sense of world-building and creating worlds and characters that are probably a little bit more fantastical than what you’d see in live-action.”

As I listen to Hahn speak, I can’t help but notice his incredibly childlike enthusiasm for the medium of animation, and it’s not just for his own work. Hahn applauds the animation pursuits of many companies: “There’s many, many studios, and many are getting into animation, which is kind of exciting. It still gets down to the old ‘sit around a campfire and tell a story’ issue. Everything that’s old is new again, and some things change, and some things never change. That’s part of the fun of making an animated film.” Even his roots in music shine through when he speaks poetically about film: “A film is music. It’s a continuous, time-driven way of expressing yourself — and that’s music.”

Hahn also takes great pride in his own storytelling and recognizes his place as an influential producer in the animation and Disney circles. Still, he expresses a desire to this to make art that is both meaningful and beneficial. As the Executive Producer of Disneynature and the owner of his own production company, Stone Circle Pictures, Hahn wants to use his position to expand outwards from traditional narrative fiction films. “It’s rewarding to tell stories about oceans, or chimpanzees, or African cats and lions — and they’re seen by a large audience. Those films have been really important to me, and I really want to make more in the future,” Hahn says about his Disneynature productions. Hahn finds the challenge and process of creating nontraditional films — especially documentaries and films that aren’t just narrative fiction works — rewarding and also a way to flex his own storytelling muscles. Hahn asks, “How do you make a story and tell a story about the environment that’s not like eating your broccoli? That’s a channel changer right away. How do you make something that’s entertaining and compelling?”

With regards to Stone Circle Pictures, Hahn says, “Being able to have my own company allows me to produce and direct my own films where I can grow from nothing and tell stories that maybe a large studio doesn’t want to make — not because they’re not interesting stories, but because they address a social issue or give voice to someone who doesn’t have a voice. I’m very fortunate in that I can have a company in which I can create and write and bring together a group of people that can make films that mean something to me.”

With Stone Circle Pictures, Hahn isn’t afraid of straddling the line between producer of blockbuster films and independent filmmaker. Hahn says, “I’m at a place in my career where I want to make films that are more experimental or more cutting-edge in terms of their story or technique, and I want to tell stories about people — sometimes there’s just heroes of mine — or about social issues. It’s important to use all my chops, and all my abilities, and all my connections in the world to focus on issues that are really important to our world, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now.” Many of Hahn’s personal passion projects lie in this realm as well: “The film I’m working on right now is about Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics to ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ and he died during the AIDS crisis. It’s a story of someone who was brilliant and whose life was cut short. It’s a story that’s close to me, and a story that may be losing attention in this era, and I want to shine a light on it.”

Hearing about Hahn’s pursuits achievements brought me back to what drew me to his career in the first place, the creation of a complete cultural phenomenon known as “The Lion King.” Hahn’s tour de force is undeniably “The Lion King,” so I had to ask the inevitable question: Was “The Lion King” really just pitched as “‘Hamlet,’ but with lions”?

Hahn claims the film was in fact not initially inspired by Hamlet (although the commentary on the 1994 “The Lion King: Platinum Edition” DVD states otherwise). Hahn has a pretty solid defense for the film:  “It’s pretty original in terms of storytelling. The idea of “Hamlet” didn’t really come to the front until we were already pretty deep in the making of the movie. I think the idea of Simba’s father’s ghost showing up to him and him questioning his life and that kind of thing started to make us feel like, “Oh, this is a lot like ‘Hamlet’! But it’s also a lot like the Joseph story from the Bible. It’s a mashup of a lot of different stories. There’s a familiarity, but it’s still fresh.” Hahn also tosses in a fun tidbit: “In fact, when we started out, we used to call it ‘Bambi Africa,’ a sort of coming-of age story set with the music and visuals of Africa.” (I don’t know if I’m convinced one way or another, but for you curious folks out there, at least we’ve now got an answer from the producer himself.)

Even if “The Lion King” is still vivid in his memory, Hahn is always looking forward to the next iterations of animated works. He speaks fondly of director Jon Favreau’s vision for the upcoming live-action “The Lion King,” starring Donald Glover. Hahn supports the innovations in animation, saying, “The worlds are blending, and the boundaries between animation and live action are blending. The original ‘The Lion King’ was done with pencils in 1994, and it was a really successful experience with the audience. I have total confidence in Jon [Favreau] to create the same kind of experience in his movie. It will be a live-action-‘looking’ recreation but with all the tools and bells and whistles of modern technology. That’s really exciting to me — stories are meant to be told and retold. I think what’s exciting now is seeing new storytelling pop up in areas like live-action filmmaking, in gaming, in virtual reality, in augmented reality — all these places where animation is now really relevant and important to storytelling. I love that.”

Upon his expression of interest in unconventional usages of animation, I ask if Hahn has any plans to move into live-action or to be involve in more collaborations that incorporate live-action elements, such as executive producing “Maleficent” and the live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” Hahn explains some of the more fascinating combinations of live-action and animation that work its way into his own films: “You can bring the Beast alive in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and you can have that be a character — he’s an animated character that’s walking round with a live-action Beauty. There’s great tools that are starting to migrate into live-action, and that’s why it’s kind of becoming an exciting time in film because all of those tools are starting to get really good.” Nevertheless, it looks like Hahn’s heart still lies in animation, but he leaves himself open to potential options: “I think I would use anything in the future. I think that’s the truth to many filmmakers now — I think it’s foolish not to. But there’s nothing wrong with not doing that. Take ‘Dunkirk’ — those people were all real. That’s a creative choice, and same with animation. You don’t want to eliminate any of those creative choices, but you don’t have to use it.”

Hahn’s dual sense of artistic autonomy and team interdependence strikes an interesting chord. I asked about Hahn’s experience as a producer at Disney, and he is quick to clarify, saying, “I’m a creative producer.” Nevertheless, he’s still a producer: “Your job is to pull together a team of people who can tell the story. There has to be some sort of consensus around what the actors are trying to get at. You’re trying to create a safe room for people to contribute in. You’re here to help the director tell a story.”

Hahn’s grasp of his responsibilities of a leader is paired with his humbling view on collaborating with others: “When I am successful, it’s because I’ve found great people to support that story and been able to tell that story all the way from the first day on the movie all the way to its release. Even now, when ‘Beauty and the Beast’ came out as a live-action film, it was my job to support those filmmakers and be a cheerleader and a coach and a psychotherapist.” This emphasis on a cohesive team dynamic is refreshing to see in the entertainment industry, and Hahn describes the experience: “Each film is really different. Each film is like building a family, but each film has all the problems of a family. There’s a lot of love, and a lot of infighting, and a lot of good meals together,” he jokes.

To finish up our talk, I ask Hahn about his educational experiences and what advice he has for individuals attempting to break into the industry or just do art, which turns into an intriguing motivational speech-like — yet not unwelcome — tangent. Hahn believes in the power of diving headfirst into a project or venture rather than waiting around. Hahn was a percussionist who “learned how to play in the back of a symphony, but [he] didn’t learn how to make an animated film for 10 years.” He followed his own advice in saying that education and art “doesn’t have to be limited to your field of study” by jumping directly into the film industry immediately after college. Hahn, who began working smaller gigs on Disney films, is practically the definition of working one’s way up the entertainment industry, beginning as a production assistant and now working as an executive producer and head of DisneyNature, amongst other things. “I was more thrown into the deep end. But you know what? We’re never prepared. The world you’re preparing for is changing under your feet. Roll up your sleeves; jump into the world,” Hahn says.

Looking to the future, Hahn has big plans in store, and he hopes you do too. He clearly knows he’s talking to a college student, prefacing his advice with the fact that he occasionally teaches at Chapman University. Sometimes, students need a bit of goading to start, and Hahn takes no prisoners when it comes to encouraging students to pursue their art. “Instead of saying ‘ready, aim, fire,’ I say ‘ready, fire, aim.’ What are you waiting for? What are you going to do? What’s important to you? What are you going to say? What do you have to say? Steering it as it goes is really important. It’s unsettling; it’s uncomfortable to me and to a lot of people. It’s like jumping out of a plane and building your parachute on the way down,” he says. “I don’t believe in retirement. I feel like your life is art.” Whether young or old, he encourages you to relentlessly pursue what art fulfills you, even if it’s hard. “Sometimes school and culture puts us in boxes — don’t let that be the end of it. Immerse yourself in your craft.”

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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