The Disney Producer, Director, Etc. Don Hahn
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It was a real entry level job but Don was thrilled, as he never dreamed he would see the inside of the gates at Walt Disney Studios. When he was 16 years old and got his drivers license, the first thing he did was drive over and park on Keystone Ave. behind the studio and crawl up on the chain link fence to look into the studio lot and to see all the back lot sets.
“I thought Wow if I could ever get a job there, I would have it made. So it was a real thrill to be able to go there and work” Don recalled. He was 20 years old and his job was to deliver artwork to the animators and help with the archival material.
“So they would call up and say I want a couple of scenes of animation from 101 Dalmatians for reference and I would grab them off the shelf, sign them out and take them up to their office. At that time those animators were people like Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Ken Anderson. Inevitably they would ask who I was and what I was interested in. That’s the kind of people they were” recalled Don. “Ken Anderson in particular would stop what he was doing and say ‘what are you interested in Don’ and I would say music and I enjoy drawing and stuff. They would genuinely take an interest in me and I was nobody. And that’s how I started out.”
Eventually, after 6 months or so, there was an opening on Pete’s Dragon and Don Bluth was the animation director. Hahn started working as Bluth’s assistant, which meant doing everything from getting coffee to setting up meetings, doing charts, paying bills, whatever needed to be done. This was a real opportunity because Bluth was a veteran of Sleeping Beauty, highly regarded at the Studio and it was a chance to learn one on one from this great leader and animator.
Don never dreamed he would be doing what he is doing now, but back then it was a great opportunity to work in an environment that was really interesting to him and he was a big fan. He wasn’t specifically a fan of animation but a fan of Disney. He really loved the park, loved their animated movies and would be the first in line to see them.
Don’s wife was an animator at Disney. He says that she is the real artist in the family. Denise started her career as a tour guide on opening day at Walt Disney World. She was a VIP hostess and showed around celebrities such as John Lennon and Sophia Loren. She finally came out to California to make a change in her life and got a job at Disney animation, where they met on the studio lot and eventually married.
Don went from his job on Pete’s Dragon to be assistant director on Fox and the Hound and Production Manager on Black Cauldron and Great Mouse Detective. Eventually his journey led to producing.
He explains “It took years and it was an evolution as opposed to a revolution. It wasn’t like winning the lottery but I was slowly step by step moving along with the help of a lot of interesting people. After working as an assistant to Don Bluth, for about a year I worked as an assistant director to Woolie Reitherman on Fox and the Hound.”
“Woolie was near retirement,” Don continued, “but was still producing and directing. I was a kid and getting him coffee, cleaning his moviola, taking notes and running back and forth to editorial with his notes. But by being his assistant director, I was learning. I had never in a million years thought about being a producer. I never thought about it until recently, but working with a world class producer who was also an artist like Woolie had a huge effect on me.”
“My big heroes were always Walt Disney, Jim Henson, Woolie Reitherman and they were all creative producers and that is what I am” explained Don, “So those are the guys I modeled myself after. I loved the way Woolie worked. I loved the way he delegated to his artists and would work in a really collaborative way with everyone. He was also a really good leader, was clear and knew what he wanted and was great with talent. When we’d record with people like Mickey Rooney, Paul Winchell and Sandy Duncan on Fox and the Hound I would be taking the notes and running the session and he would be out working with Pearl Bailey. To be able to apprentice in that environment, where you are seeing a legend of Disney animation work with somebody like Mickey Rooney was amazing, and that experience got my juices going.”
Don had thought about going back to Cal State Northridge as he had left a year early and had not graduated. He said “but no, why would I ever go back to school, this is the best place to be for me to learn and grow.”
He tried animation for awhile but “then I saw I wasn’t going to be Glen Keane, I wasn’t going to be Andreas Deja…. I was okay but not great. I really enjoyed walking around and being a people person and working as a manager.”
Don’s first break at producing came on Who Framed Roger Rabbit partially because he had worked with Don Bluth on Pete’s Dragon and was one of the few people left at the studio who knew how to manage live action and animation combination. By that time Michael Eisner, Peter Schneider and the new regime had come to Disney. Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis were really interested in doing Roger Rabbit and Don went to the first meetings, loved working with them so his first job as producer (associate producer) was working on Roger Rabbit.
Roger Rabbit led to a renaissance of animation and Don started development on Beauty and the Beast. “It was a very special project from the start, the last of the great fairy tales” said Don. “It was special too because of the great talent on the movie. The animators were coming of age and films like Little Mermaid and Beauty were full of great work from Glen, Andreas, Mark Henn, and so many more. It was also the years when we got to work with the genius of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.”
Beauty went on to win a Golden Globe for best picture and was the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. Don’s next picture was a challenge.
“It was called King of the Jungle. When I asked animators if they wanted to work on it, I would tell them the story. It’s Moses, and Joseph meet Hamlet in Africa with music by Elton John. I couldn’t get anybody to work on it,” laughs Don. “But over time the crew came together and we changed the name to The Lion King. Somehow everything worked out.”
In subsequent years, Don produced Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Executive produced The Emporer’s New Groove.