Don Hahn Swims in the Oceans

The legendary Disney animation producer Don Hahn discusses the studio's latest film in their long tradition of making nature documentaries

The Walt Disney Company has had a long tradition of making award-winning documentaries about the wonders of nature. Beginning in the late '1940s and continuing through to the early '60s, the films were the brainchild of company founder Walt Disney and often won Oscars for best documentary like '1953s The living Desert, '1954s The Vanishing Prairie and '1958s White Wilderness. The company's interest in the documentaries dissipated in the '60s with the growth of their animation department and the addition of their popular live-action films. However in 2008 the company announced the creation of DisneyNature, an independent film label that would continue the company's tradition of making big screen nature documentaries. It began with last year's Earth, a film that explores our own planet, and continues with the new film Oceans, which is in theaters now and is an exploration of the underwater world, narrated by Pierce Brosnan.

Film producer Don Hahn is no stranger to the Disney Company having worked on some of their most important movies including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Lion King and the Oscar winning film Beauty And The Beast. He is also no stranger to documentaries having directed the recent film Waking Sleeping Beauty, which documented the fall and rise of Disney's animation department in the mid '80s and early '90s. So of course, that would make Hahn the perfect choice to executive produce and over see the new company's slate of nature documentaries. We recently had a chance to speak with the very busy Don Hahn and discuss the new film, the long process of bringing it to the screen, Disney's tradition of making nature documentaries and all the strange and unusual creatures that they discovered under the sea. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, the Walt Disney Corporation has a long tradition of producing these types of nature documentaries, can you talk about that and how you got involved in the process of making this film?

Don Hahn: Yeah, it really is part of the legacy of this place. I guess because, you know, Walt Disney was a storyteller and he saw such great stories in nature. He saw those great adventures out in nature and to be able to pull those stories together was very much a part of this company. Particularly when television started because, all of a sudden you have this new medium and you have to be able to put all this programming out there, and it was a great way to create these stories and content for this new medium. That fell by the wayside after some time and then just in the last three or four years, we started to put a focus back on that and say, you know, this is an arena that we used to be really great in and used to dominate back in the 50s and 60's.

Why aren't we making these kinds of films again with the best filmmakers, the best possible quality and really focus on story in a way that maybe some other studios don't? Or, in a more thorough way than maybe you can do in a television format. So that was kind of how we got into it. I got pulled into it just out of interest. I felt like I could use my moviemaking chops to be able to contribute to these stories that are very relevant to our planet, you know, what's going on and educating kids and audiences about kind of the state of the of the planet. So it was kind of a passion project for me.

Why do you think these types of films fell by the wayside for so long throughout the last few decades? Do you think it's just that the interest was down, or was the technology not quite where it needed to be to make a film like this in the scope that you did?

Don Hahn: Well, I think that like all things it probably lost a little momentum here at the studio and others picked up the momentum, like National Geographic who certainly has long had a presence in these movies as has Discovery Channel and BBC. You know, there are great people out there doing these films. I think we got into it because we wanted to do it more on the motion picture side. Everybody does this really good television, there's great television out there right now. We felt like, why don't we get it on the motion picture side where we can work on large screen formats, tell some longer form stories and really allow the big screen to tell these stories. I think that's why Disney Nature has had such a quick recognition factor with the audiences. If it's not just on television, they know it's going to be more of a movie event when they go to see these movies, so that's why we jumped in a couple years ago and tried to grab some of the best filmmakers we could find. You're starting to see the proceeds of that right now.

Can you take us a bit behind the scenes of the process of making a film like this? Is it as simple as just placing a camera somewhere and waiting for something to happen?

Don Hahn: First of all, it starts with great directors. On this one the French directors, Jacques Cluzaud and Jaques Perrin are really amazing with their meticulous approach to this topic. I mean, I thought animation was tedious, but they've been working on this film for ten years! They did Winged Migration and they've been working on this ever since. They've been shooting in the field for four and a half or five-years. They'll do things like they'll go up to film Beluga Whales. They'll helicopter up there, the water will be too murky, they leave, and they have to come back next year because there's only a little week of time where they can shoot. They'll come back the next year, and the water will be clear, there are no whales, and then they'll come back the third year.

So they have this amazing tenacity about getting the shot and getting the story. You are right when you say it's not something you can go out with a script, lines of dialogue and shoot. You almost have to follow the stories that are happening in front of you. There are some amazing sequences in this movie where photographers just camped out at the beach for weeks on end, just waiting for those special moments where you can roll and find something just once in a lifetime on film. That takes extraordinary patience. That's a real tribute to the cinematographers and the people out there shooting these things.

So it's really just like catching lightning in a bottle, right?

Don Hahn: It is! Because you can't, it's not ethical and inappropriate to control what you're seeing. I mean, maybe back at certain times in the '50s you would see people throwing lemmings off a cliff or whatever, but you don't do that now because it's not nature photography! So you're really out with extraordinary equipment that didn't exist fifty years ago, digital recording equipment and so forth to capture what happens, but you can't coax it and you also can't stop it. If there's a scene of a sea lion getting eaten on the beach by an orca, which there is in this movie that's extraordinary, these orca's beach themselves to feed. You can't go in and stop that because you don't know if you're affecting future generations of orca's or seals, so we have this kind of, don't intercede, don't provoke ethics about what we do. That means you really do just have to exercise patience and be clever about how you capture those scenes. You try to be in the right place at the right time with film in your cameras so you can get those scenes on film.

Can you talk about the editing process and how you begin the daunting task of sifting through the footage to find a narrative for the film?

Don Hahn: The filmmakers shot in the field probably five or six hundred hours of film that they used over that five year period and yet they would always know when they had something unique and special. So they would mark those moments of extraordinary visuals on the screen and there really is a very, very long editing process because you're trying to follow a simple story. In this case, trying to experience the ocean through the eyes of the animals that live there and you're really hunting for those opportunities to find those. They found an amazing walrus with its little baby cradled in its arms. You can't write that in a script, you can't send a crew out to say go find that shot, but we're lucky enough that they did (find that shot) and that becomes something that the audience can relate to.

So, in these nature films you're just looking for that thing that is, what can we as human beings relate to? The mother and child relationship, the sense of if it's not love at least it's nurture. It's hard to prescribe human emotions on mammals and other creatures, but it sure looks like love to me, and it sure looks like war between two crabs or armies of crabs. So, finding those moments that evoke a response in us as human beings is really what the story comes from. Again, our directors did a great job identifying those moments and then just trying to string them up into some sort of sense in terms of a flow of entertainment for the audience.

Once you do begin to have a cut of the film forming, I would imagine that the movie really starts to feel like its coming together when you add music and the narration by Pierce Brosnan, so can you discuss what both of those elements add to the film?

Don Hahn: Well there are really three things that I can point to that are the hidden secrets behind this movie. One certainly is Bruno Coulais score for the film, which is really kind of a symphonic suite. What he's doing is helping to tell the story with his music and create emotional moments and heighten emotional moments that are already on the screen. So you might be able to see a couple thousand dolphins racing towards a feeding site, but to have Bruno's score behind that makes it a much more emotional experience.

The second thing of course is the narration, and we had a great writer named Michael Cadence who came in and, I think the philosophy on this movie was really different than other films. We didn't want a lot of dialogue in this film. The directors were adamant that it almost not be a documentary and let the audience experience it in its silence, sound and grandeur without having to tell you about it. You don't have to say, "Oh, there's a lobster about to eat that other crab." You see it and so there's a very experiential ethic that the directors had on this film which I think works really, really well. So, out of a ninety minute movie you have very few lines of dialogue that help you understand at least where you are and what you're seeing. The rest of it's up to you and Pierce was not only a terrific talent to bring that to life, but also, an oceans activist himself. So it meant more to him than just words on a script. He really believes in those situations of the oceans and those creatures.

And, the last secret weapon was Skywalker Sound. We had a sound design team at Skywalker that just brought this movie to life as an audio experience. It's one thing to see all this happen, it's another thing to feel like you're diving with the animals and feel like you're right there alongside these creatures in that environment. I think that contributes a great deal to this movie and makes it kind of poetic in places that you're just experiencing it as though you were right there in nature amongst these animals.

I noticed that there are visual effects used in the film, obviously not with the animals but can you talk about how those shots were integrated into the movie and how that helped you better tell your story?

Don Hahn: To make a story, we're really careful not to use visual effects when it comes to the creatures, the animals themselves or some sort of behavior, but part of the story is looking at the earth from a really macro point of view in outer space. There are several shots that you saw when you kind of go up into the clouds, a motion graphic studies satellite goes by and you see real images of the earth and how all the pollution spills out. A lot of those were done with the help of computer graphics or, you know, when the satellite launches up into space and you see the reflection of that satellite launch in the eyes of the marine iguanas. So we use special effects sparingly but where we think it's important to tell the story, or to give information to the audience, then that's certainly where those computer graphics were used in this movie.

The film manages to touch on the serious subjects of global warming, pollution, and the effects that they have on the oceans and their inhabitants without seeming too preachy, can you talk about how you were able to discuss those difficult subjects and educate people about them while still keeping the film light and fun for the audience?

Don Hahn: Yeah, you don't pay your ten dollars or whatever to go see a movie to get a sermon. I think our audience is incredibly smart to know already when they go to see a movie like Oceans that there are some issues that face the oceans now. What we really wanted to do, and here again, I point to the directors as the people who guided this idea was celebrate what the oceans are. So that by the end of the movie you feel like you have a vested interest in what they are because every breath we take and every drop of water we drink is very much part of a healthy ocean. So it's not just some distant place that you visit every once in a while with a surfboard. It's a place that we literally breathe, eat and drink in every day and the health of it depends on us.

So that kind of message is in and under this story but the main thing was to celebrate the life out there. The huge, kind of, you know, the buffet of life and strange creature that you've never seen, and the potential of a healthy ocean. The other thing though is that I'm happy that I work for a company, and this comes from Bob Iger on down, that doesn't shy away from the difficult issues. We don't shy away from you know, showing you issues of over-fishing or pollution because it is such a real thing. I'm thankful that we don't have to whitewash that or create some sort of movie that stays away from those issues. It's important for all of us to talk about those pretty frankly.

What was your favorite segment or sequence in the film and do you have a favorite strange new creature that perhaps you had never seen before that you discovered while making this movie?

Don Hahn: Oh man, there's so many. There are some things I couldn't believe when I first watched them and certainly that was the crabs off the coast of Melbourne, you know, kind of attacking each other. But there are other things like the cuttlefish. You know, you see cuttlefish on the menu and then you see them in real life and you realize these are the most odd alien creatures. If you drew those as part of art direction for a movie nobody would believe them. Or the mantis shrimp, he's the meanest guy down there. The divers call them "thumb-crackers" and they are so defensive of their territory. To be able to see that is kind of like a Jackie Chan fight in the middle of the ocean. It's hilarious on one hand but you realize how sophisticated these creatures are, and their eyes. I mean, we go out in outer space looking for alien life and the coolest alien planet in the cosmos is right here under our feet. I think that's what's great about this movie is that you can go explore that.

Finally, last year you released the film, "Earth," and now that you've made "Oceans," what can we expect coming up next from Disneynature?

Don Hahn: Well there's a great movie we've been shooting for a couple years called African Cats: Kingdom Of Courage and there's a trailer of it attached to Oceans when you see it in the theaters. It's been a soap opera out on the savannah because we've had photographers out there following African cats, leopards, cheetahs and things for three years trying to capture them, their majesty and their stories. So it's kind of a The Lion King for real out there and I think it's going to stun a lot of people when that comes out. It'll be done next year.

It's funny that you say that "African Cats: Kingdom Of Courage" is going to be a live-action "The Lion King" because "Oceans" felt like a live-action "The Little Mermaid."

Don Hahn: Yeah, there's some amazing stuff. You just can't believe what's down there.