Don Hahn's Rudimentary Lessons in Animated Movie Production
He's the biggest and best producer in animated movie history and he regularly visits Kontraband. Good, huh? He's just finished making the wonderful-looking Frankenweenie. so we spoke to him about it...
What makes a good producer in your eyes? And what's the best way to describe a producer's role in an animated movie?
It's really simple: you find the best people you can to tell the best story you can find and then you step back and stay out of their way. I really believe that. Most of my job is done at the beginning and at the end of the movie. So, on Frankenweenie, I had a Tim Burton story based on Frankenstein: great. Let's pull in Rick Heinrich to art direct. Let's pull in Alison Abbate to produce. Let's get Danny Elfman to do the score. Why would you stand in their way? You just stand back and cheerlead.
I have a kind of servant mentality when it comes to producing where I make sure the artists are supported and can do their best work.
So it's mainly about recognizing talent and then stroking it and massaging it?
I'm like a coach on a football team. I'm standing on the sidelines. I'm not calling the plays on kicking the ball into the goal, but I am managing from afar.
To a degree, you also need to make sure the collaboration between the studio and filmmakers is strong because none of us stands alone, you know? Frankenweenie without a studio behind it would not work. So a lot of my job is keeping that relationship strong and we've been pretty lucky on this one to have a pretty strong relationship with Disney.
How tough was it to get the studio on board for Frankenweenie? It being a reboot of a 1984 film and it being in black and white?
Tim has a great quote, he said it's "not on a lot of executives lists to make a movie about dead dogs and do it in 3D black and white", so yeah, they were cautious at first but once they gave the go ahead they were fully behind us. We joined hands knowing that we were pushing the artform, doing something interesting and entertaining: we're trying to get this brilliantly warm story over to the masses. It was difficult to get the studio and the executives behind Tim, but once they met with him and saw what we were doing, they jumped in and didn't look back, and we were really fortunate to have that.
With regard to Frankenweenie, what the most difficult parts of the movie-making process?
Every day is difficult when you're making a movie one frame at a time. There has never been a black and white animated feature before, so there was no benchmark. We did a lot of due diligence, we got Peter Sorg on board, a tremendous German expressionist cinematographer on board who really understood The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [a 1920 German silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene] and just knew the beauty of black and white. So a lot of time was spent finding the people who could really execute Tim's ideas in the best manner possible.
Another huge problem was just talent. Animation is booming right now and there are great studios around. We did the film in London and there are great studios around. So we try to swap talent back and forth. At one point we brought in some Eastern European who didn't speak English so we had to hold lessons for them so they could communicate with the director.
Sometimes the problems aren't all to do with the film, some of them are very human. How do you handle the human aspect of having 200 people working in warehouses out in Bromley-by-Bow who speaks different languages to all come together and capture Tim's overall vision? You overcome stuff like this every day.
Has Frankenweenie been your biggest (and possibly most rewarding) challenge since becoming a producer?
They're all challenges - much like our children! - but what a wonderful challenge it is. I can't say I ever had a bad day on this movie, and that's not always the case. I hadn't worked with Tim, whom I consider a friend, for a long time, and to do so again was just terrific. I lost track of what an amazing work ethic he has. And I'd lost track of how clear he is. He has this façade of being an eccentric, which he is, but he's also tremendously disciplined when it comes to his work, and I had forgotten that. It was a thrill to watch him work again.
Would you consider him a genius?
It is certainly an overused word, but when it comes to Tim, I really would. The only person I've worked with who comes close is Richard Williams, the great British-Canadian animator who directed Roger Rabbit. But Tim is one for the following reason: he's not just a filmmaker, he's an artist - and I mean that in the strictest sense of the word. When he did a show in New York it sold as many tickets as Matisse or Picasso and to me that says he is special.
I would certainly put him in that category - I'm sure he would violently disagree, but I would put him in that category, yes.
Aside from marketing and promotion, what separates a successful modern animated film from a run-of-the-mill modern animated film?
The audience is incredibly smart and they can smell something that's repetitive or a cash-grab or something's that's not sincere or trying to be entertainment from a good way away. We all have limited finances and a family opens the paper at the weekend to see what's available and they want to see something that's going to return something to them. So you have to trust the audience, not talk down to them, not do a movie just to make money; do something with value, that's great entertainment and has something to offer people.
Who is your favourite character that you've been associated with in animated films? Where does Frankenweenie rank?
It's funny, because it's right up there. I really liked the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. He was interesting because he was a character trapped in a horrible circumstance. He's supposed to be a Royal and a prince but he's trapped in this hideous body, and he's devastated by it. He was a very complicated character, so what the director and what the animators on that project did was magnificent.
This movie is not too dissimilar: you have Sparky who never says a word, is trapped in this horrible circumstance, but like every dog we know has this earnestness, this honourable approach to his life even though he is in this stitched together body. It's really a love conquers all - even death - story.
Handling death in a Disney movie is not unusual, going back to Snow White, and Bambi and Lion King, we've always handled death and it's important in mythology to do that. Sparky has a pantomime twist to his character though, which gives the animators and the audience something fresh to enjoy.
How do firms like Disney, Pixar recruit their staff? Sites like Kontraband host a lot of new YouTube talent. Are sites like ours a good place to start when looking for new ideas and creative solutions and staff?
Yes, we definitely do look at sites like yours, sure. I've been on Kontraband before and I'm a fan of what you guys do.
The talent out there in the world right now is spectacular. When I was starting out with Tim and John Lasseter and those kind of people, there were three schools that taught animation, now there are hundreds. The level of talent and brilliance in the arts is definitely out there. But it's sometimes in odd places so we really do sweep the corners: yes, we look at the portfolios and college students, sure, but we also look at Kontraband, we also look at Deviant Art [http://www.deviantart.com/], those odd places where we may find some talent who's really interesting or really introverted or a poor communicator or couldn't afford art school: that's where you find some brilliant talent. Look at Tim, at a young age he was incredibly introverted, and look how he turned out.
Frankenweenie is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 25 February