2011-09-28

The Lion King – A Chat With Producer Don Hahn

by Yo Snyder

Disney has always been a master of marketing their collection of
animated films. Timed releases, exclusive editions and more keep all of
their films in demand generation after generation. However, I don’t
think anyone could have predicted that 17 years after it’s initial
theatrical run that The Lion King would dominate the box office during
it’s (initially, now extended) two week run. It’ opened to over $29
million the first weekend, and added another $22 million plus the second
weekend. That’s two consecutive weekends at number one, and it ended up
with a ten-day total of over $61 million. Many first-run movies would
be thrilled with those kind of numbers; but a release of a movie that’s
almost two-decades old? You gotta be kidding. Sure, the thing is now in
3D and looks more beautiful than ever, but still, the success of Lion
King’s re-release at the box office surprised everyone. Expect to see
more films trotted out to capitalize on the concept, but in the
meantime, we had a chance to talk with one of the producers of the film,
Don Hahn, about the conversion to 3D, the surprising success of the
re-release, and what fans can expect on the new Blu-Ray release coming
October 4th.

Yo: Did you, in your wildest dreams ever think that this seventeen
year old movie would gross over sixty-one million dollars in ten days on
it’s re-release? Did you ever think it would do that well, again?

Don: No. You gotta be kidding. That’s a…(laughs)…that’s like who
in Hollywood gets a chance to even re-release their movie much less have
it be appreciated and welcomed as much as the audience has with Lion
King. It’s unbelievable.

Yo: Yeah, it’s been absolutely amazing that it’s been that well
received. What was the process like converting it to 3D. I mean, the
first time I heard this announced, I was thinking “It was a 2D,
hand-drawn animated film, how do you convert that to 3D?” Was it a
challenging process? What was that like?

Don: Yeah, it hadn’t been done before, really, and I think part of it
is trying to find the right people. We had an amazing sterographer in
Robert Newman who helped us with the process, and part of it was
bringing together the original filmmakers. We brought in Robert Minkoff
and Roger Allers and some of colorists and art directors that worked on
the film so we could put our heads together and come up with the best
and most comfortable solution for the audience. And part of that
solution was taking, you know, flat drawings that were done with a
pencil and paper and actually creating a geometry out of them so that
you can sense that those characters have a dimension to them and are
living and breathing on the screen. We also worked on the soundtrack to
make it feel like you’re sitting in the middle of the orchestra when
this movie happens and really give you that ultimate, immersive
experience of watching a 3D film.

Yo: Now with the Blu-Ray coming out, I was reading that you guys did
some new stuff for the special features, including doing some bloopers
and outtakes. How much work went into that and how fun was it to go back
and listen to those old recordings and then say, “Hey, let’s do some
drawings for those”?

Don: (laughs) It was a crazy amount of work, but so much fun.
Somebody came up with the idea, I think it was David Justin – one of the
producers in our home entertainment area, and it was nuts at first, but
I thought you know we’ve never done it before. So we went back and our
editor went through two years worth of recording sessions with some of
the funniest people on earth like Rowen Atkinson and Nathan Lane and
even Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones had some really silly, stupid
outtakes. (Laughs) And we pulled those together and I called up all the
original animators and said would you come in and animate Mufasa again
and would come in and animate Scar again, and so it was like the
ultimate family reunion and everybody, to a person said yes. So, the
bloopers on the Blu-Ray are just hilarious and look exactly like they
came out of the movie and hopefully people really appreciate that.

Yo: I can’t wait to see that myself. What other little surprises or
things for the fans have you included on the Blu-Ray for the special
features that are new for this release?

Don: Well we tried to put in as much of the behind the scenes of the
making of the film, so there a terrific feature about the back-story of
it and how the movie turned into a great stage play with Julie Tamor and
kind of the history of the project. And then I did something unusual, I
did a memoir film. I had so much footage of, kind of home movies,
behind the scenes footage of when we were making of the film that I just
shot for myself. I ended cutting together this twenty minute, little
scrapbook, almost, of a documentary to be able to show people what it
felt like in the trenches while we were making the film. So, I think
it’s a great insight into the creative process of making an animated
film and that it’s not particularly easy and that Disney has no
advantage when it comes to creative ideas that it’s all hard fought
territory and I think that documentary is a little gem on the Blu-Ray
disc.

Yo: And as a fan of movies, let me just say thank you for putting
that type of stuff on there because I’m fascinated by it and I’m so glad
you’re including stuff like that. I’m excited to see it. Now that Lion
King, being converted to 3D and re-released, did really, really well,
are there any thoughts about doing some other films like that, for
instance Beauty and Beast, doing a conversion for that or other films?

Don: Yeah, I think this release surprised us all. It caught Hollywood
off-guard because of it’s success. We’ve already converted Beauty and
the Beast, we did it last year, we actually did it before Lion King, so
it’s exquisite and it’s there available for theatrical re-release and
it’s coming out very shortly on Blu-Ray as well. So I think we find with
these movies, particularly with more recent ones that were created
digitally have a wonderful opportunity to transform them into 3D
experiences that the audiences can enjoy again. So there are no specific
plans for theatrical re-releases, but this Lion King re-release I think
has turned a lot of heads and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll be
seeing other films like this in the future.

Yo: Yeah, I can imagine there are other companies that are thinking,
“Oh, well it worked for them. I guess we’ll have to try it.”

Don: (Laughs) I know, last Monday morning I think every studio in
Hollywood was flipping through their catalog going, “Hmm, what can we
do?”

Yo: Yeah, I bet they were. What was your favorite memory of the time you spent making this film?

Don: Oh, you know what, there’s a lot of them but I think that a
couple that come to mind, one was that late at night over at Hans
Zimmer’s studio when we first heard circle of life for the first time.
We had Elton’s demo, and Elton is such a genius when it comes to melody,
but we knew we had to turn it into something that felt like it came out
Africa. Hans invited over his friend Lebo M, who was the guy that does
that rrrrhhhaaa nnnnghennnaaa, you know the cry at the beginning of the
movie? (laughs) Lebo was actually parking cars at the time in Los
Angles, he was a valet parking service. So he comes in and Hans plays us
this song, Lebo does that amazing cry and these kinds of African chants
underneath it and we’re sitting there eating Chinese food and we go,
“Wow, this is a little bit bigger movie than we thought it was. This is
no longer a cartoon about a lion cub that gets framed for murder, this
actually can have some epic quality to it.” We had a lot of work left to
go, but it was one of those nights where you start to see the crack in
the door and see where this movie could go.

Yo: Well, Don, thank you so much for your time and again thank you
for the effort that you guys have put in for doing this Blu-Ray edition
of Lion King because it is such a stand-out movie I’m glad it was given
the time and attention it got for this Blu-Ray release for fans of the
film.

Don: Oh, thanks for saying that, it’s a real tribute to a lot of
great artists and engineers at Disney Home Entertainment that putting
these things together that it’s important to us that they’re done with
the best quality so that audience can enjoy them.

Yo: Yeah, well I’m looking forward to digging in to all the those special features, so thank you for your time, Don.

Don: It’s a pleasure.