UltimateDisney.com's An Interview with Don Hahn

- October 11, 2006

In the past thirty years, just about everything pertaining to feature animation has changed, from how it is made to how it is marketed to how it is received by critics and the general public.
The Walt Disney Studios have experienced those changes many times over, with switches in personnel, medium, and style reflecting both technological advances and fluctuating audience interests. The company has expanded and its focuses have shifted, but animated storytelling remains a chief concern. One man who can testify to that is producer Don Hahn, who has worked at Disney over the course of the last thirty years.

Hahn cut his teeth as an (uncredited) animation assistant on Pete's Dragon, Disney's big release of the 1977 holiday season. He went on to work on 1981's The Fox and the Hound as assistant director and 1985's The Black Cauldron as a production manager. When animation became hip again, Hahn was there, producing the blockbuster live-action/cartoon hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Over the next thirteen years, Hahn would stick with producing Disney's Feature Animation, overseeing two of the biggest hits in a period dubbed a Renaissance for the medium -- Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). Subsequent outings would not match the two previous in any standard of success, as Hahn supervised three more films -- the $100-million-grossing The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), under-promoted but ultimately embraced The Emperor's New Groove (2000), and summer flop Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) -- before management decided to move away from traditional animation and into the alluring world of computer animation. While many others moved on, Hahn has stayed at Disney, producing 2003's "other" park attraction-spawned film, The Haunted Mansion, and three segments for a third Fantasia movie that never came to be. (They've since debuted as standalone shorts.)

His latest project is something rather different. In celebration of its 13th anniversary, the stop-motion musical fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas is returning to theaters on October 20th.
The one-sheet poster for "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in Disney Digital 3-D
Buy Nightmare posters from MovieGoods.com
What makes this third trip to the big screen special is that the Tim Burton-produced, Henry Selick-directed cult favorite will be presented in Disney Digital 3-D, a new projection method that debuted last fall in select theaters' presentations of Chicken Little. With ghoulish, collectible 3-D glasses over their eyes, audiences will now find themselves immersed in the intricate worlds created as miniature sets for the film. Hahn oversaw the transfer of the film from its original form to three dimensions. Last week, he spoke with UltimateDisney.com about how and why Nightmare has been transformed to 3-D, in addition to discussing his career, the current state of animation, and the possibility of some of his shorts and films surfacing or re-surfacing on DVD.

UltimateDisney.com: What prompted the decision to re-release The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D? Why revisit this movie at this time and in this way?

Don Hahn: Well, I think the main thing is the movie itself. It's stood the test of time. I don't think anybody who was around when the original movie was made would have thought, that 13 years later, it would be such a classic as it is or a cult film at least. It really does have that kind of cult following. Plus it is the kind of movie that is perennial, it comes out every year and it seemed like the perfect topic, the perfect film, to be able to try to make a 3-D out of it. So, it just seems like it's going to be something that's around for a long time, let's give it the 3-D treatment and send it out for the audience to enjoy.

How much input did the film's creators have in the jump to 3-D?

A lot. When we started out, we wanted to bring in (producer) Tim Burton and have him be part of the process, so every step of the way, we've taken dailies over to London for him to see. Same with (director) Henry Selick, who is working on his film (Coraline). We brought him into the process. And actually, we have a small brain trust of people who we call our "3-D Brain Trust" and they're guys that worked on the original movie. Animators, cinematographers that worked on the original film. And they come in sometime every week for dailies in the process of making the film and made sure we were staying true to the original.

I assume on most of the films you've produced, you've been with them from conception or close to it. That's not the case here, as you weren't credited with Nightmare on its original release. How different was it for you to become involved with something that wasn't yours from the start?

Well, really different, because you're doing something where you want to honor what the original filmmakers did. And you're not bringing to it a lot of your own creative ideas. You're just trying to do a restoration, if anything else, to the original film and be true to what the filmmakers were doing. So in large part, my job was to try to get a team of people together that wanted to do that.
I guess my first priority was Tim Burton, getting him on board. And then once he was on board with the idea, all the other pieces came into place. What you find is that the people who worked on Nightmare are a really special group of guys. They're really loyal to this movie and they really wanted to be a part of it. That made my job a lot of easier.

Is there a scene or a portion of the movie which you think especially benefits from the 3-D treatment?

Yeah, there are a couple of parts. One is when Jack first arrives in Christmas Town. The whole thing about 3-D is you really feel like you're in the space with the puppet. When he arrives there, you're in the middle of this very colorful place. Another spot that I love in 3-D is deep in the movie when Jack takes off with his skeleton reindeer and he's at the back of his sleigh, his coffin, and they're taking out to drop toys over the town and being shot at by the cannon. It is so fantastic. You feel like you're really flying with them and that the characters are really flying out over the audience. That's one thing that 3-D can do that no other medium can.

When Nightmare was initially released, it came under the Touchstone Pictures banner. Since then, the film has maintained a strong presence as a Disney property in the theme parks and widespread merchandise. And now it is officially under the Disney banner. Do you view the film as existing within Disney's animated canon?

Yeah, it really does. You know, it's funny, when it was made, I remember it was going back and forth. They were debating heavily about whether it should be a Disney or Touchstone film. I think just because of that time and [because] the movie is pretty nutty, they made it a Touchstone film. A lot of time has gone by and, like you said, the movie's been really embraced by the general audience and especially in the theme parks. You know when you go down and see The Haunted Mansion (which is redone with a Nightmare theme each fall) or you see how much this film is loved by the audience. This time out, it seemed like there was no question that it'd be pretty easy to re-brand it and call it a Walt Disney film.

You produced another unorthodox animated film which was branded Touchstone but became commonly viewed as a Disney movie - Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Do you view that as being the same type of situation?

Yeah, it really was. It was made a little earlier. Roger Rabbit came out in '88. It was the same thing, though. There were some things in there - you know, Jessica Rabbit and some things - we thought "Eh, this isn't probably for general audience in 1988." So it was branded a Touchstone film. I think if you went back to it today, it's also a film that stands up pretty well. And you could probably call it a Disney film. Certainly, it exists in the parks and Roger's out there in the parks' hotels and everywhere throughout the Disney company. So, like anything else, things change with time. I remember the older guys talking about the scary scenes in Snow White or Fantasia and they had to warn parents that it was really scary when the witch came out. Over a period of time, those movies are viewed differently because audiences change. Luckily in this case, with Nightmare, the audiences still love it and flock to it every year about this time.

What do you think it is it about Nightmare that has made so many people connect with it?

It's always the story. I personally love the technique and the design of the film. What Henry Selick, Tim Burton and those guys brought to it is a really unique style. The design of it all - Rick Heinrichs, who was the design consultant and is a production designer now on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies - his design is so unique. So I love the artistry of it all. But I think general audiences may feel that, but generally, they love the story. You know you have this kind of tortured love story between Sally and Jack, and you have this movie that sits between two holidays, and you have this guy who loves the idea of taking over Christmas. I think that fantasy and the way that animation, especially stop-motion animation, can take you to that fantasy is what people love. And it's really what I love about this movie.

Do you think there's a specific audience that the movie most appeals to?

Off the top of my head, originally, you would say, "Oh, it's always been kind of a goth audience" or something like that that really went for it, that bought the merchandise and everything else.
The Hot Topic crowd that's gone after it. Not so true anymore, though those people are incredibly loyal to it, like The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show or something. They love the film. But, I have a teenage daughter and all her friends can't wait to go see this movie on opening night because it's something they've grown up with. If you are 15 years old, this movie has been around since you were born just about. So it's become kind of like Wizard of Oz was when I was a kid. You just love to go see it and be scared and love the style of it all. So it definitely has a niche audience. We can't say it's everybody across the board comes to see it. It's a very loyal audience and it's grown so much over the years. It's huge, for example, in Japan. Absolutely huge. To the point where I don't think Tim Burton could walk down the street over there because they love this movie so much. So, it's interesting the reaction it has gotten.

For discussion of the Disney Digital 3-D Process, DVDs,
The State of Animation Today, and Cartoon Shorts

Related Products:
Order "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 2-Disc Special Edition Soundtrack CD from Amazon.com Buy "The Nightmare Before Christmas" Special Edition DVD from Amazon.com Marketplace The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Film, The Art, The Vision hardcover book by Frank Thompson (2006 reissue)

The Nightmare Before Christmas figurine set

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge PlayStation 2 video game

The Nightmare Before Christmas manga
The Nightmare Before Christmas:
2-Disc Special Edition Soundtrack

available October 24, 2006
features the entire original score
plus Danny Elfman's song demos
and brand new covers by Marilyn Manson,
Fiona Apple, Fall Out Boy, She Wants
Revenge, and Panic! At The Disco; 3-D cover
The Nightmare Before Christmas:
Special Edition DVD

Out of print / DVD Review
1.66:1 widescreen, DD/DTS 5.1
audio commentary, making-of documentary,
storyboard-to-film comparison,
deleted scenes, trailers and art galleries,
Tim Burton shorts Vincent and Frankenweenie
The Nightmare Before Christmas piano/vocal book

10" Jack Skellington doll figure

The Nightmare Before Christmas desk lamp

More Nightmare Before Christmas Toys

Related Links:
The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D - Trailer
The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D - Official Website
The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D - MySpace Page

Related DVD and Blu-ray Reviews:
The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition Waking Sleeping Beauty
"The Little Matchgirl" on The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition
"One By One" on The Lion King II: Simba's Pride - Special Edition
"Mickey's Christmas Carol" on Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two Classic Holiday Stories
Pete's Dragon: Gold Collection The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition
The Black Cauldron: Gold Collection Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Vista Series
Beauty and the Beast: Platinum Edition The Lion King: Platinum Edition
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Fantasia 2000 (w/Fantasia)
The Emperor's New Groove: New Groove Edition Atlantis: The Lost Empire: Collector's Edition
The Haunted Mansion Bambi: Diamond Edition Dumbo: Big Top Edition
"Knick Knack" on Finding Nemo: Collector's Edition
James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition

Related Interviews:
December 2005: Leonard Maltin, host of the Walt Disney Treasures
September 2005: Ilene Woods, voice of Cinderella, and producer Don Hahn
May 2005: Irene Bedard, voice of Pocahontas February 2005: Don Dunagan, voice of Bambi

For discussion of the Disney Digital 3-D Process, DVDs,
The State of Animation Today, and Cartoon Shorts

Interview conducted October 2, 2006. Published October 11, 2006.
All non-original images copyright Disney. "Nightmare" font courtesy of The Tim Burton Collective.