Drawn to Greatness

Director Don Hahn discusses his insightful new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which travels back to 1984 to chart the rebirth of Disney’s creative spirit and a behind-the-scenes look at the studio politics and artistic battles that were the backdrop of hits such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King.

Although ‘Making of’ documentaries have become a regular feature of special edition DVDs and Blu-ray releases, audiences rarely get to hear about the real stories behind the making of some of their favorite animated movies. It’s even harder to come across a revealing film that chronicles how great films get made, at times despite the political machinations and battles between studio executives and artists. Next month, audiences get to enjoy one of these rare treats as director Don Han and producer Pete Schneider’s effective and highly watchable new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty is released in theaters.

An editing session with director Don Hahn (left) and producer Peter Schneider (right) of Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Schneider, who led the animation group during the 1980s renaissance at Disney and Hahn, the Oscar-winning producer of modern classics such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Nighmare Before Christmas offer a surprisingly candid look at the studio’s phenomenal creative and financial comeback during the period between 1984 and 1994. Recently, the film’s gifted director Don Hahn was kind enough to answer a few questions about his must-see documentary. Here are some of the tidbits he told us:

Animag: You are one of the busiest men in Toon Town. What prompted you to make the documentary?

Don Hahn: As with most good films, the idea for this one started at a

coffee shop. I hadn’t seen Peter Schneider in years and I ran into him at the opening of his play, Sister Act. As we sat down with our lattes, we inevitably started talking about our time together at Disney. I think we both remember back then with a combination of euphoria and horror. On one hand we knew we were part of a winning team of people that made some incredible movies, on the other hand it took it’s emotional toll and left us with some of the most unbelievable Hollywood stories.

Peter had always wanted to tell the story of what really happened in watershed. He felt like it had been told poorly by people who were not there and didn’t know what really happened from the inside. We did know. We probably knew too much about what happened, but we thought that if we could tell that story in as honest and candid way as possible, it would be an amazing tale: Shakespearean characters, and palace intrigue, mixed with cartoons. Who wouldn’t love that?

Animag: How long did it take to make, from idea to delivery and how did you pull all the footage together?

Don Hahn: It took two years to pull the film together. We didn’t want to make a film with talking heads and old guys reminiscing. We’d seen too many of those films on DVD bonus tracks. So much of the production time was spent working with our great researchers Tracey Miller Zarneke and Maggie Gisel to find vintage clips that could illustrate our story. We called everyone we knew to find footage It was important to me to transport the audience back in time and put them there in the rooms that Peter and I had been in when it all happened.

I’d always been aware of Randy Cartwright’s home movies of the studio going back to 1980. Randy was leaving the studio to go to Japan to work, and he decided to film everything before he left. Morale was low among the younger artists, and even though photography of any kind was strictly prohibited on the Disney lot, Randy (and his cameraman John Lasseter) filmed anyway and created a rare snapshot of a special time at the studio. The fact that filming was prohibited, makes it even more funny when studio head Ron Miller walks into what is essentially Randy’s opening shot.

The 1975 graduating class of Cal Arts included the future stars of the animation business like John Lasseter, Brad Bird and John Musker.

Randy might have been thrown into jail that day, but because of a good-natured Miller, the footage survives to this day and becomes the centerpiece of the first act. Cartwright went on to shoot another round of film after returning from Japan and finding all of his friends and colleagues sitting in a warehouse in distant Glendale. Jim Cox, a writer on Oliver and Company, shot home movies of the studio to show to his wife, Penney. Penney could never manage to make it over to the Disney warehouse, so much of the footage from the warehouse comes from Jim’s filming spree, once again against company policy, but this time capturing a young Peter Schneider, Oliver director George Scribner, and some precious vintage footage of the late Vance Gerry and Joe Ranft at work in their story room.

Some clips were found in vaults at the Disney Channel, others in cold storage with publicity, and still others that we only found because my mom would tape things off the TV when the films came out (thanks, mom!). The caricatures from that period were rich and plentiful. The big problem was selecting which drawings were best to tell the story. John Musker, whose caricature work figures prominently in the film, started a caricature show in the 1980s and because of that we have a rich catalogue of the funniest nastiest caricatures imaginable.

Animag: Why do you think Disney was able to make its famous comeback during the 80s?

Don Hahn: The timing was right, and the marketplace was right. It was the perfect storm of artistic excellence mixed with executive boldness in the form of Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg. Then add equal parts new technology like computer graphics and the advent of the VCR. Add to that the presence of Roy Disney, who defended and nurtured animation when he brought Eisner and Wells into the studio, and also add Peter Schneider and others like him from the Broadway theater who brought a sense of collaboration and a creative ‘workshopping’ process to the studio.

I guess it was less a perfect storm and more akin to a gasoline fire. It was a time of high productivity, artistic competition, technical advancement, stressful debate on every creative grain of the movie, and intense pressure to out-do the last accomplishment. It was equal parts chaotic, exhausting and thrilling.

Animag: Why do you think there were so many strong personalities and nasty politics involved at the studio at the time?

Don Hahn: Executive egos and infighting are things we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, but in truth the egos exist in any business. Eisner even says as much in the last quote from the movie. It was the age of the celebrity CEO and Disney offered one of the biggest stages on earth for the personalities to surface. With success came magazine covers, and talk show appearances … and not just for the executives, but for the artists too. The animation industry had been one of the most anonymous professions on earth, not unlike monks copying bibles, and now everyone could have their 15 minutes of fame, executives and artists alike. With fame came ego, notoriety and financial rewards … and with the good press, you’d start believing that you’re special and that you deserve to be in the spotlight. And as we know, fame and success can be fleeting, as the film shows.

Animag: What was the biggest discovery you made as you put the documentary together?

Don Hahn: I wasn’t aware of the strong role Frank Wells played in keeping the company glued together. As Katzenberg, Eisner and Disney shared their stories, they would always call Frank the peacekeeper. I had no idea he was playing this role behind the scenes. I was surprised too when Roy Disney compared Howard Ashman to Walt Disney in terms of the influence he had on us. That’s a pretty heady statement to make. I was surprised when Eisner commented so frankly on Jeffrey’s resignation, and offered up that Jeffrey ‘played it wrong. Had he just stayed and been patient, he would have gotten the job.’ (Who knows if Katzenberg would have ever been president of Disney. Not likely while Roy was around).

Clockwise from Top Left: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King.

Jeffrey was perhaps the most generous, candid and giving of all the films participants. He was eager to give his perspective of how he was hurt when Eisner announced a new building for animation without his knowledge. He was touched when he recalled how much the artists, whom he didn’t know at first, became close colleagues, and in his most astonishing clip from the end of the movie, Jeffrey says his final ‘thank you’ to all the artists on The Lion King, but also unexpectedly wraps up his ten year career at Disney in what plays as a farewell speech to the troops. The clip is my favorite in the movie. I shot it in 1994 without notes, teleprompters or any preparation. Jeffrey did it in one take exactly as it is in the film, from the heart, and now 15 years later, it plays like the summation and epilogue for this extraordinary era. When we screened the film for Jeffrey at Dreamworks I would not expect him to agree with every point of view in the film, and he did not. But I think he was moved by seeing such a key chapter in his life played out on screen, especially his relationship with Howard Ashman, and it was a very emotional experience watching it with him.

Animag: How do you think the animation division is different now from the era you covered in your movie?

Don Hahn: I’m probably too close to it to tell. However, Up was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year [as well as winning the Best Animated Picture Award], it’s about time. I don’t think of Up as animated film. It’s a film, and a great one at that. If Beauty and the Beast had a tiny part paving the way fro that to happen, great. But animation is not a novelty anymore, and the guys and girls working as animation directors are making the most popular, beloved films of our era.

Animag:There has been much written about the philosophy and management style of John Lasseter and what he brought to Disney a few years ago. What is your take on that?

Don Hahn: No one is more passionate about animation than John. And even though he pioneered computer graphics for features films, he is no snob about it. He just really likes good stories told with great animation. That means he’ll be making 2D, 3D and stop-motion films’whatever technique fits the vision of the director. I also think John has an ‘artists first’ mentality. He believes in a filmmaker-driven studio and he walks the walk. He knows how hard it is to make an animated film, and he’s willing to cheerlead both inside Disney, and out in the industry for the highest quality in art and technology. Whether you work for Disney/Pixar or not, we’re all the be beneficiary of his leadership.

Animag: Personally, you’ve been responsible for some of the biggest animated hits of that period. What is your recipe for success?

Don Hahn: There’s a great saying about producers that I really subscribe to: hire the best people that you possibly can, and then do exactly what they tell you to do. That may sound over simplistic but it really isn’t. If I have a talent for success, it’s my talent to know and understand great people when I see them. Working with directors like Richard Williams, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, Tim Burton. You really can’t go wrong. It’s such a team sport, and if your team is sound and your artistic leadership is strong, then the success will come. You can take a great idea and kill it with mediocre people, but you can take a mediocre idea (like rats in a kitchen) and make it a huge hit (Ratatouille) with great people (Brad Bird and Pixar).

Animag: What do you hope audiences will take away from your movie?

Don Hahn: The working title of the film was ‘Persistence of Vision.’ That’s it in a phrase…that’s what makes animation so special. I hope the audience gets an honest look at the joy and struggle and persistence required to make an animated movie. So often, especially with Disney films, the audience feels like the movies just drop from heaven for your enjoyment. Not so. And the lessons of the film apply to every creative craft. The arts are hard, and yes full of joy and accomplishment, but also full of hard work and struggle. I look back with equal parts pride, sadness, humility and joy on the years I cover in the film. Pride in what we accomplished with some paint, pencils, paper, pixels and persistence, and sad at the loss of Howard Ashman, our colleague and mentor. Humbled to this day by the audience’s reaction to our work, and happy to have been in the right place at the right time to see it all happen. It was a winning season, in every way as exciting and hard fought as any winning season in any sport. And we were lucky to be players.

Peter Schneider, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg take a break from a story retreat in Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Animag: What kind of advice would you give young students who want to pursue a career in animation today?

Don Hahn: It’s a great time to be in animation right now. Really. Not only are animated films thriving at the box office, but now you are seeing directors like Jim Cameron and Steven Spielberg take on animation with motion capture. Add to that a huge gaming industry and an international marketplace, and it’s clear that it’s a boom time. Along with that though is competition. Never before have there been so many animation schools or animation programs at universities around the world. As a new talent you are competing with every grad that comes out of these schools. There is only one way to stay above it all, and that is to make yourself excellent. That means study, tough critiques, and really hard work. There are thousands of so-so artists out there and only a few really outstanding ones. Make yourself outstanding, or go do something else. You have to set your goals high, because the industry will dismiss you if you don’t!

Animag: When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in animation and who were your idols?

Don Hahn: I was a music major and an art minor when I was coming up through college. I wanted badly to go to Cal Arts but my family just couldn’t afford it at the time, so I attended L.A. Valley College and Cal State Northridge. I always like animation and got a chance to work at Disney in the summer of 1976 in a job that had me delivering coffee and artwork to animators like Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl and Ken Anderson. What made me pursue animation? They did. The guys that worked for Disney were real artists. They weren’t fans or geeks, they were mature artists who led full, interesting, well-rounded lives. Woolie [Wolfgang Reitherman] was a fighter pilot, Frank [Thomas] played piano, Eric [Larson] was an architect. They were all deeply passionate about what animation could do. As Eric once said, ‘it will flex every artistic muscle you have and then some!’ These guys were so inspirational that I was hooked.

About that same time, I ran across Walt Stanchfield, who was a longtime animator and artist at Disney. Walt ran the training program for new talent and he was my mentor. He lived larger than life. His interests ranged from drawing to opera, to basket weaving, tennis, painting, guitar and beach combing. He was a role model for many of us not only by his art and passion for animation, but also for his passion for life. That’s why I published his writings last year [Drawn to Life, Focal Press], so that everyone could share his genius. We all need a role model like that.

Waking Sleeping Beauty opens in select cities on March 26. For more info, visit www.facebook.com/WakingSleepingBeauty