Animated Shorts: Don Hahn and The Alchemy of Animation

Animated Shorts: Talking to Don Hahn

Every time one turns around, a new animation technique or style appears on the screen, big or small. For those who can’t tell the difference between limited traditional from CG-enhanced mo-cap, super producer Don Hahn has just written a book explaining the basics.

Entitled The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age (published by Disney), the book reviews the three basic styles (stop motion, traditional, 3D CGI). It covers not only the production process, but what each member of the crew does, a bit of what goes into the marketing of a movie and other points of interest. Hahn discourses on all of this in a language that can be easily understood by laymen and with tons of graphics to boot.

So who is Don Hahn? Born in 1955, he started working for Disney as an errand boy for the legendary Old Man Wolfgang Reitherman. Over time, he worked his way up to producer, helping kick start the animation renaissance. His credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, Atlantis and he’s currently working with Tim Burton on Frankenweenie. He’s in a unique position to have worked on films that employ all manner of animation techniques, and can now tell the tale.

Here’s what he had to say:

Newsarama: I know there’s the introduction and such, but it’s always better in a person’s own words. You’ve done a number of books, why do Alchemy?

Don Hahn: It was a chance to share the behind-the-scenes workings with our audience. Fans of animation are always curious about how animation is made. So this is a look, in real laymen’s terms, about how these four-year long projects come to the screen.

You know, the paradox of animation is you work so long and so hard and so much money to make the film look like it’s totally spontaneous and with ease. To me that’s what makes it a great art form and I really wanted to share it with the audience.

NRAMA: Chuck Jones always used to make a major point about how the difference of one beat meant when it came to the Coyote falling off a cliff.

DH: Yes. That’s it. The thing about animation is you have complete control. In the hands of some people it’s brilliant. In the hands of others, well they don’t get it. It’s all about timing. When done right, it looks absolutely effortless. It’s just magical. The viewer doesn’t see the amount of work, study and practice that goes into it.

NRAMA: Obviously, you put a lot of emphasis on the Disney productions. Would you say the same thing applies to the other studios out there whether it’s a Warners, Paramount or Fox film, for example?

DH: It really is. It’s the same process. I dwell on Disney for the obvious reason I’ve worked for them almost my entire life. So the access is there. I also think that the quality is here and all the other studios out there are doing all they can to keep up with us. They don’t have the number of decades Disney has over them, from Snow White to Wall*E and everything inbetween.

NRAMA: Would you say people are finally starting to get past the shiny newness of computer-generated films?

DH: Yes. I think John Lasseter certainly understands it because he greenlit films that involved both the other traditional processes. The Princess and the Frog is in traditional 2-D animation. He realizes that it isn’t the process that’s going to attract an audience in the first 2-3 minutes of a film, but the story and characters. A visual gimmick doesn’t last that long. We just signed Tim Burton to do Alice In Wonderland, that will involve stop motion, which is the oldest animation process of all. It will actually be a stop-motion/live-action combination like another film I’m personally working on with him, the full feature version of Frankenweenie. They will all very much be in the style of Nightmare Before Christmas.

I think that since we’ve brought in the guys from Pixar, there’s been a new fearlessness about everything we do. In three years, you’ll see traditional, stop motion and CGI movies coming from us. We have a new generation of animators who want to work in all genres.

NRAMA: Would you agree that animation is the ultimate control freak’s art form?

DH: Um-hmm, and it’s getting very pervasive in all forms of movies. Whether it’s Iron Man, Dark Knight or A Christmas Carol, which I just saw a preview of (Directed by Robert Zemekis and due in 2009--ED); the amount of control a director has over that animation is extraordinary. These days you don’t have to sit on a set until 2:00 a.m. because the actors can’t get it right or a floodlight breaks down. You can work in a much more normal environment and have complete control over every aspect of what you do. Find any director who doesn’t want to work on that? That’s a director’s dream.

NRAMA: Still, look at the amount of detail one can put in. Look at what Guillermo Del Toro did in Hellboy 2….

DH: Yeah…I love that movie. To me that’s a perfect example of what a great director can do when he turns to animation. The audience doesn’t know, and doesn’t really need to. For them it’s just purely entertainment.

NRAMA: Now, to me, the irony is that animation is the ultimate control freak’s form, yet it is the spawning ground of incredible levels of anarchy on the screen.

DH: That’s the beauty of animation. It can surpass opera as an artform, but really it all started off as a parlor trick. My favorites have always been by Jay Ward, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett who were incredibly subversive. They were totally irreverent, funny and took full advantage of animation as a medium.

NRAMA: Would you say animation is a mix of art, technology and commerce these days?

DH: It’s a fact of life that you can’t make a movie if you aren’t going to sell it. You have to do all three. They all operate together hand in glove. We don’t think too much about the commerce of a movie when in the creation of it, but I do talk a bit about it in the book. I thought carefully about it. It really is an important part of animation. It’s very important that the audience knows about the movie. Also, it’s important that they can take the movie home in the form of games, toys and other merchandise.

More important. If you do it right, it helps pay for the next movie. It really is a true collaboration in all three areas.

NRAMA: Let’s be honest, Wall*E was not a cheap movie to do.

DH: It wasn’t. What I was going to lead to was Walt was well aware of this before Snow White. He then moved it in a huge way when that film came out. He saw that he had something special, and he wanted the audience to know they were seeing something special and would go to a theater to see it. He was smart enough to realize one had to do that through marketing.

NRAMA: At the same time, he lost money when he did Sleeping Beauty. He poured a ton of time and money into the marketing of the film, but it lost money.

DH: He did. He lost money on Fantasia, too. That’s the business though. The good thing is there is always someone crazy enough to come around and give it a second run. There’s up and downs. In both those cases, it wasn’t until the second time around that they made their money back. Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t a box office success until it came out on DVD. One of my favorite movies of all time, Iron Giant was the same. Now people recognize Iron Giant as the great movie it is. People see that now, but not at that time.

NRAMA: Moving on a little. Disney has an agreement with Miyazaki, and the anime business in general is doing fine. The Weinsteins signed Michel Ocelot. The Hensons released the film Blue Elephant, which was a Thai movie. Do you see a further internationalization of animated movies?

DH: I really do. It’s not very well known, but Disney has really been influenced by Miyazaki. He’s really been a major influence when you look at the last 20 years of our movies. I think it’s a pretty important development when you get down to it. There used to be a time when we had this very Western-dominant viewpoint. But to say that it’s always say it’s been Hollywood is pretty dry and narrow.

Even when Disney started out, there was the influence of the New York animators. They were an extremely irreverent, anarchistic style of animators. Guys like Art Babbit, Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick came from there. I think that we’re now getting a more international series of voices is fantastic. The move voices the better.

NRAMA: Another trend. What about guys like Mike Judge or Parker and Stone, who started off with their own computers and came up with Beavis & Butt-Head and South Park? These days you can go to a Best Buy or sites like aniBoom and build a studio at home. They can change the landscape by coming up with animation that doesn’t require a small army to produce.

DH: Yes, and that’s thrilling because it’s taking animation down to its roots. With the right technology and software like Flash, the number of people you need is getting incredibly smaller. At Disney, some of the best movies were made under the toughest financial conditions. I mean Roger Rabbit had no budget, no money yet people had the creative impulse and energy to make it. I think the same is true now.

These days, if you throw a lot of money at a movie, all it really means is you’ve thrown a lot of money. There are a lot of movies out there that didn’t have a lot of money but still was a great movie. It’s all in the craftsmanship and the artistry. Today it’s possible to make a great movie with only ten people and a garage. If the writing’s clever, there is a greater chance it will work. The Simpsons Movie is actually a good example. Believe it or not, it was done for a relatively small budget and with not that many people, but it was tremendously funny and well-written.

NRAMA: So, overall, how do you see the future of the animation industry?

DH: It’s had its ups and downs over the years and there are people who feel that animation is only going to last another year or so. I think the future is brighter than ever.

I think one of the more interesting things is Steven Spielberg is about to do a motion capture movie. Bob Zemekis has been doing them for a while now. Peter Jackson is doing one. There are a lot of visual effects houses getting into the business. Also, there is a worldwide trend of a lot more studios entering the industry.

It’s a pretty bright time. Animation’s easy ability to communicate is why. It explains why people like the Weinsteins are regularly buying animated films.

NRAMA: Is there any trend you think will be critically important over the next few years?

DH: I think the one to pay attention is the growth in mo-cap or motion capture. I think Zemekis saying it’s not animation is just silly. He feels it’s another thing. It’s an amazing technique and everyone is now using it. I see it getting increasingly popular. I don’t know what its full effect is going to be, but I do see it becoming very popular.

NRAMA: It is an interesting trend when you look at it historically from what Max Fleischer did with rotoscoping to what Zemekis is doing now.

DH: Yes! Disney used it heavily in films like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. If you were able to go into the vaults, you would see what basically were live action movies of each of them. The animators were heavily reliant on the live action footage. It’s a big mistake to say mo-cap is a new thing. It currently being used in the film Bolt.

FUNIMATION SIGNS ON WITH JOOST

FUNimation Entertainment has partnered with Joost (www.joost.com) to bring its catalog of full-length, legal anime video content to the online social video service.

Starting in November, FUNimation will launch its video channel on Joost with a sampling of shows from its wide-ranging library of anime, including Black Blood Brothers (also available in the original Japanese with English subtitles), Mushi-Shi, Peach, Slayers and xxxHOLiC. More programming will be added monthly and will be available for free, in-browser viewing to Joost.com users in North America.

In addition to viewing these popular series, fans will also have the opportunity to interact with each other and form communities around FUNimation content. Using the social features of Joost, they can share favorite episodes, form groups around their favorite shows or character, or express their thoughts about a particular show or moment through comments and “shouts.”

“Joost recognizes that there exists a varied entertainment landscape and a thirst for unique content,” said Gen Fukunaga, president and CEO at FUNimation Entertainment. “Partnering with them offers us the opportunity to provide the content fans are already looking for, legally, while also reaching new audiences. We understand that entertainment fans across the board want web-based free on-demand programming. In the anime industry, FUNimation is leading that charge with our online syndication strategy based on strong relationships with partners such as Joost.”

NEXT COLUMN: Yes, you read that right. Michel Ocelot’s Azur & Asmar is being distributed in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company. The english dubbed version, directed by Ocelot himself, and makes its domestic debut at the NY International Children’s Film Fest this weekend. We review the film this Thursday..

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