Director Don Hahn talks about his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, the Tim Burton movie Frankenweenie and more

Producer Don Hahn's place in animation history has long been secured since 1991, when he was the first producer to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for an animated movie with the classic Beauty and the Beast. Before the renaissance of Disney animation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, times were fairly dark at the Mouse House, with a string of animated failures from a studio that seemed to resist changing with the times. Don Hahn makes his directorial debut with the new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which takes a look at the period spanning from 1984 to 1994 at Disney, which changed the face of the company and the state of animation in general. The documentary will be released on DVD on November 30 and I recently had the pleasure to speak with Don Hahn over the phone about this compelling new documentary, and here's what he had to say:

Can you start off by talking about how this project initially got started and how you became involved?

Don Hahn: Well, it all started with having coffee with Peter Schneider, who ran animation in the 80s and 90s. We were reminiscing and he said that we should make a movie about that time. I thought it was a terrible idea, actually, because to do that, you would really have to get everyone involved, get reactions and quotes from Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, who had a checkered relationship. We took it to Dick Cook, who was running the studio at the time, and he was really interested in preserving the history of Disney and had greenlit The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story and Walt & El Grupo at the same time, and he was open to it. It was surprising, actually. We said we wanted to tell the story, 20 years had passed, we feel like we could tell it effectively from the inside out. He said, 'That's great, let's develop it.' That was the beginning of it all.

Was there still that trepidation of getting these people together, about what would actually transpire? Or were you not as worried about that since enough time had passed?

Don Hahn: I mean, trepidation is a good word, because we didn't know that they would be involved. Dick called Jeffrey Katzenberg and once Jeffrey said yes - I thought Jeffrey was incredibly generous with us on this movie, in a way he didn't really have to be. He wanted to share his reflections and tell his story as well. Once that happened, Michael Eisner certainly warmed to the project and got interested and Roy Disney was on board very early. Once we got those three gentlemen, the artists and the directors were fantastic and that gave us the whole complement of people to tell this story.

There aren't any new on-camera interviews but there are new audio interviews. Was there a reasoning behind that or can you talk about why that decision was made?

Don Hahn: There was a lot of material from other discs, Blu-ray's, and I had a couple of rules. I didn't want to do a bunch of old guys reminiscing. I really wanted to put people back in time and sit them at the table we were at. To do that meant using archival footage and the other reason was, I felt that if I got hair and makeup and lights and cameras and microphones, people aren't going to talk as freely as they would if it was just a microphone. All the interviews were done in a really casual setting, a microphone on the table. After five minutes, I think most people forgot that they were being recorded and opened up and were able to talk openly about what happened back then. That was the main reason, I didn't want people to edit themselves and that's where we got this story from.

That makes a lot of sense. You came into Disney around this time as well. Can you talk about your own perspective about the general vibe around the studio was at that time?

Don Hahn: Well, I think when Katzenberg and Eisner came into the studio in 1984, it was a slap in the face, in a refreshing, wake-up way. The studio was good before that. There was a lot of good work in that period. Tron came out in that period, Splash, some really good work. But it wasn't a place that was on fire from a business or artistic standpoint and was certainly isolated from the mainstream Hollywood. I think master stroke of bringing Eisner in, was it immediately plugged us into Hollywood. You started to see actors and directors from the entire industry were coming in and making movies at Touchstone and Disney and it was really like a revolution. In animation, I think it was particularly difficult, because no one knew what quite what to do with it, and the combination of the management getting pushed off the lot into offices in Glendale and swimming for your life was really the beginning of where that good work came from. Out of that fear and chaos came some really interesting work. The earlier generation had more of a country club setting. It was more relaxed and I think the work was more relaxed so the stress and tension that might have come out of this period, really helped the work.

There are a lot of great bonus features on this disc, particularly the Studio Tours. What was it like to go through all this stuff that you couldn't exactly put in the movie? It's almost like a trip back in a time capsule.

Don Hahn: It really is. When I started on the DVD, I called David Jensen, who puts together some amazing stuff for all of our DVDs and Blu-rays. I asked him how much real estate I had on these discs and he said I had about 85 minutes. I said, 'Great, I'll give you 85 minutes of bonus material,' and I did. You said it, it gave me a chance to put things on that I couldn't put in the movie, so I could put all of the Studio Tours on, I could put all of Howard Ashman working with Jodi Benson, or Howard Ashman's lecture to the animators. It really lets people spend some time with Howard or Roy Disney or Michael or Jeffrey. That's what I loved about the bonus material. I tried to do the same on the audio commentary. I talk myself but I also try to give you some of the sound bites from the interviews that we couldn't fit in the movie. If you switch on the commentary, you hear what's almost an alternative soundtrack.

Being the first producer to be nominated for Best Picture for an animated movie, what's your take on the Academy's stance on animation?

Don Hahn: Well, Up was nominated for Best Picture in a field of 10 movies, and I would be very surprised if Toy Story 3 didn't get nominated this year. I mean, I loved Inception, I loved The Social Network, but I think a movie like Toy Story 3 stands up there with them. I think it's an incredibly clever movie. I'm really happy about that, being the lone guy that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar was great, but not as great as seeing someone getting nominated now because I think animation is going through a real renaissance and boom time right now. It's great to see the audience and Academy reward that.

I believe Toy Story 3 is still the best-reviewed movie of the year. It would be a travesty it it wasn't at least nominated because it's phenomenal.

Don Hahn: Yeah, it really is.

You're working on Frankenweenie and I was wondering if there's anything you can say about that? Is the casting process still ongoing?

Don Hahn: Yeah, it's still going on. We're reading some people but it's coming together pretty well. The adult cast is pretty much together, we're just looking for kids right now. The movie itself if so fun. When you see some of the trailers or other things for it, you'll see it's a very fresh approach. Tim (Burton) has really outdone himself on this one.

Are you shooting that next year then?

Don Hahn: Oh, we're shooting it right now. It's all stop-motion. It's being done in London and we've been shooting for 10 weeks now. It'll go into next summer and the film comes out March 9, 2012.

To wrap up, what would you like to say to those who didn't get a chance to see Waking Sleeping Beauty in theaters about why they should check out this great documentary on DVD?

Don Hahn: If you're a fan of animation and film, it's an obvious choice because I really tried to give people a hand-held tour through the studio and through the personalities that made these movies possible. The people that have really warmed to this movie are students, not only art students, but students who were drawn to the movie because it was the soundtrack to their lives. Also, you have some great morals, in terms of business and corporate behavior and artistic excellence and all those things. I showed the movie at Google and NASA and HGTV and all over the place. It has a real interesting application if you're just interested in corporate culture and what that means. Those are the people who will like it. It's a real general audience movie that way and I appreciate you covering it that way.

Absolutely. Well, that's my time. Thanks so much for talking to me and best of luck with Frankenweenie and the other projects you have.

Don Hahn: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

You can pick up Don Hahn's informative and entertaining documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty on DVD on November 30.