To celebrate the upcoming release of Frankenweenie on DVD and BluRay on 25th February, we sat down with legendary Disney producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, the Lion King, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and many many more) to pick his brains on the film and the current state of animation. Read on to find out what he had to say about working with Tim Burton, and how the 2012 Olympic Games almost ruined Frankenweenie.
Hi Don, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.
No problem it’s my pleasure
You’ve worked on some fantastic films during you’re career at Disney, ranging from one of my personal favorites The Fox and the Hound right the way through to your latest stop motion Frankenweenie and the upcoming live action Maleficent, so this is definitely a bit of a tough first question, but what was your favorite feature to work on to date?
Oh wow, yeah, that’s like saying what’s your favorite battle in all of the wars, they’re all different, they’re all challenging , they’re all, you know with some distance, they’re all very special and they’re very special because of the people. You forget all of the pain, and you remember the people and I think certainly in recent future, aside from Frankenweenie which we’ll talk about, films like Beauty and the Beast and Roger Rabbit are all really special movies because of the people and the circumstances and times they represent, but I feel the same about the Lion King, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child; they’re all different they all have different needs and they have lives of their own. Movies like The Lion King have been huge and live on every night on Broadway and have been wonderful, but I love the smaller movies as much as I love that, I love the Emperors New Groove as much as I love the Lion King.
You mentioned just there your work on Roger Rabbit, have you heard anything about the proposed sequel?
Yeah, we’ve talked about a sequel for about 25 years, the academy are actually doing a 25 year celebration this year if you can believe its been that long, there’s always discussions about a sequel but there’s no news about it really, I think people have been very generous about that movie and really have loved it and it all points to Rob Zemeckis and when he’s ready to do it I think it’ll happen.
Moving on to your latest film; Frankenweenie, it has quite a different vibe to previous movies you’ve worked on, was there any difficulties with the studio over the film at any stage?
Well like Tim [Burton] has always said, its not on the top of every executives list to make a black and white stop motion 3D movie about a dog that’s been brought back to life, but the industry was really supportive. I think as with any motion picture they look and see the creative team and they look at the story and have to make some tough financial decisions as it’s the business… but we have Tim Burton and we have this wonderful Frankenstein myth and this wonderful short that Tim had previously made at the studio and when you’re banking on talent like that it makes it a lot easier and I have to say the studio was hugely supportive of it all in a a way that a lot of studios might have not been, but all the way through and even now when we see our Oscar nomination the support that we’ve had has been terrific, and rightly so, Tim’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers of our generation and I think to have a film by him is always a treat.
Was there anything at all you had to cut or leave out that you wanted to keep in?
Well no it’s interesting part of the challenge of making a film like this is that we had to make it on a really tight budget and Tim, which may surprise you, is an incredibly disciplined filmmaker, he knows what he wants, he’s willing to take input from other people but he really focuses in on what the story is and in this case he had this great heartfelt story about this boy and his dog, and a really personal story for him, he had a dog, he grew up in Burbank, the movie isn’t autobiographical but it’s very much cut out of the same cloth as his life. So with him the main challenges were to stay on the spine of that story, and he was very lean in terms of the kind of choices he made, so when we put together the DVD and Blu-ray we were saying, lets put some out of pictures sequence in, well we don’t have any out of picture sequences! So instead we actually animated a new animated short, as though Victor made it with Sparky, and put that on the disc, and of course some great bonus material which tells the story of the making of this movie, which of course is kind of a herculean task in itself.
So did working with someone with such a clear vision make it easier to work on?
Yeah, movies are hard, no matter what, they’re hard to make, a film like this has challenges as you’re working with puppets and they break, and they tear, and they rip, so we had to set up a puppet hospital during the making of the movie to patch up things. While we were making the movie the Olympic Stadium was being built next door as we were out in London, and you have physical things like dust, and dump trucks going by, and the ground shaking and you have freezing weather, and animators coming in from Eastern Europe who couldn’t speak English, and we had to put on English lessons, so there’s always challenges, so having a director like Tim, does it make our job easier? Absolutely, because y’know you have this brilliant coach, this brilliant captain at the head of the ship, this isn’t his first film and he understands how to tell a great story and because this was so personal to Tim, and because he really did feel an affinity to the story everybody wanted to get behind him and to support him and that’s what just made it really fun to work on.
You just mentioned difficulties and complications, and, stop me if I’m wrong, this was your first stop motion film, was it difficult adjusting to a new medium?
Yeah, but also kind of wonderful, one of the best choices I made on this film, which was really the only choice, was to bring in Allison Abbate, who was our producer on the film, Alison is a fantastic producer who brought us Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Corpse Bride, and had worked with Tim before, and Alison and I had known each other for 20 years and thank God she said yes as she was able to really understand this art form, and I was really able to learn a lot from her and from Tim. The truth is, unlike computer animation you can really get your hands on this and go visit the set, you can touch and feel the puppets, so there’s this really human tactile feeling to the art of stop motion animation that even though it was new for me to watch people like Tim work, and his crew, in this medium was really a treat for me, it was fantastic.
You mentioned CGI briefly, do you think it has replaced traditional animation or do you think we’re seeing a resurgence in traditional animated techniques?
It’s interesting, we’ve seen so many stop motion films this year and the Academy, and BAFTA, have voted these wonderful nominations to Frankenweenie, and I see that as a great vote of confidence for the art form, to say we all love CG films they’re beautiful, they’re marvels of modern technology, but also by getting an Oscar nomination along with Aardman and their Pirates film and others, it really is a validation that that art form is still important, artistically its important to the future of the industry, and I’m really agnostic when it comes to techniques, I don’t believe the audience pays to go and see a technique, I believe they pay their money to be entertained and to go be told a story, and I think if the story is well told then the audience really doesn’t care whether its done with a pencil or a pixel or a puppet.
Last question Don, which creature was your favorite in the film?
[laughter] in Frankenweenie? I’d have to say the turtle monster Shelley, I mean how often do you make an animated film, like never, where you can work with a 5 story tall giant fire breathing turtle? The puppet on that character was huge, and wonderful, and when the puppet came in every animator was like “I wanna do it!” “No, I wanna do it!” and so there was like a fight over who was animating those scenes. Frankenweenie is just one of those movies, it has so many great characters, not only the animals, but also the human characters that are all this homage to all the old monster movies, and I think that’s part of the fun even on the Blu-ray disc, to look at the making of and see the passion that these puppet makers put in to these characters and to have a mummy hamster, or a giant fire breathing turtle, how cool is that? How many movies do you work on where you can have that opportunity, it was just great.
Sorry I said that was the last question, but we’re dying to know, did you get to take home any keepsakes from the movie?
Being a producer on a film yes, I always try to take something, one little thing that is a keepsake, so yes I have a little Sparky puppet that I have at home, and I will cherish it forever.
Fantastic, thank you very much for your time, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Maleficent when it comes out if I can ever learn how to pronounce it properly.
[laughter] thank you, its very difficult for us too!
Frankenweenie is out on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD 25th February