From Drums to Disney: Alumnus Don Hahn Works His Way to the Animation Pinnacle
While attending California State University, Northridge, the young aspiring artist Don Hahn ’75 (Music) scored a summer job as production assistant at Walt Disney Animation Studios. He delivered coffee and transferred art pieces from “the morgue,” a basement storage vault for Disney’s old art pieces, to animation giants such as Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and Wolfgang Reitherman, who produced classics like Fantasia, Dumbo and The Jungle Book.
“I think of my time at Disney as a whitewater rafting trip,” said Hahn, who never imagined that he would one day produce motion pictures. Years later, he created his own classics — The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
The CSUN alumnus was an undeclared major for a while before majoring in music with a minor in graphic design. According to Hahn, the university gave him a strong foundation and provided him with sufficient space to discover his strengths and weaknesses.
“It was a very valuable time for me,” he said. “There are a few years after high school when you’re scared to death. You’re not quite sure what this college thing is and your skills aren’t quite good enough, and you have taste but you can’t quite execute it.”
The music major, who focused on percussion, said he found great mentors while studying at CSUN who helped him explore his passions. One of those was Joel Leach, head of the Department of Music at the time.
“A terrific guy,” Hahn said. “He really inspired me to express myself through my music.”
Music always has played a central role in the creative process for the award-winning producer, who uses music as an important component in his films.
“I was a really introverted kid, and it was hard for me to express myself in a lot of ways,” he said. “Music was a terrific way to say who I was.”
Leach held weekly individual meetings with Hahn, during which they assessed the student’s musical progress. “He was delightfully tough on me,” Hahn said. “[He] was not afraid to say, ‘Wow, that sucked.’”
But Hahn said he appreciated Leach’s honesty and added that it taught him how to accept himself and his weaknesses. “In the arts, it’s OK to [criticize] because it’s a comment on the art, not on you,” he said.
Another mentor at CSUN was Morrell Pfeifle, director of of the Matador marching band in the 1970s. Through Pfeifle, Hahn discovered that a life in the arts doesn’t revolve around practicing one particular discipline 24/7 — but in experiencing life, and then expressing it in one’s art.
“He had this big life,” Hahn recalled. “And it wasn’t just about music. It was about art, it was about travel, it was about coffee. [Pfeifle] was a great man and really impressed me with that. Yes, he was a good teacher, but he was a great liver of life and that was the biggest lesson I learned from him.”
Tragically, Pfeifle died in an airplane crash in 1978, just a few years after Hahn graduated from CSUN.
Hahn still feels his professors’ impact on his personal and academic life. “I carry those things with me into my work now,” Hahn said. “Thank God I ran across those people, because they were really meaningful.”
The producer has maintained a strong bond with his alma mater. He spoke at Commencement in 1999, presented as a guest lecturer at the Department of Art in 2007 and hosted a lecture in CSUN’s Commerce of Creativity series in 2012. In 2011, the CSUN Alumni Association honored Hahn with a Distinguished Alumni Award.
“[CSUN] is one of the major universities in terms of its plug-ins to the motion picture and entertainment industry,” Hahn said.
He reserved particular praise for the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication, the Valley Performing Arts Center and CSUN’s experienced faculty for empowering art students and future film professionals to break into Hollywood and the global film industry. “[CSUN’s faculty] give [students] permission to reach out and experiment,” Hahn said.
From music to painting to graphic design, Hahn experimented with it all, trying various art forms during his studies at CSUN. One of the few media he never considered was motion picture production — until his summer working at Disney.
“It’s luck, being at the right place at the right time,” Hahn said. “And then it’s doing the most with what you’re given there.”
Hahn said he recalls working for Wolfgang Reitherman, the director and producer of films such as The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians, which were Hahn’s favorite movies as a child growing up in LA.
“I got to learn from him,” Hahn said. “I got him coffee, and I would take notes and I would clean his Moviola (a device for film editors), and do whatever he asked me to do.”
Meeting and working with the directors and producers of Hahn’s favorite childhood movies inspired and encouraged him to learn more about the art of filmmaking. He eventually received opportunities to demonstrate his potential to the Disney staff.
“My goal as a production assistant was to just try to get in that environment,” he recalled. “Eventually, I believed they would learn that I was a hard worker and trust me — and I could move into other places.”
For today’s students, Hahn recommended an open mind and willingness to do any task, no matter how small. The smallest opportunity could lead to the goal, he said.
“The animation industry and the film industry in general is very fluid,” he said, noting that people often move between studios. Hahn believes networking is important in the industry — as an introvert, however, Hahn never enjoyed networking events and mixers himself.
“But I can call, I can email, I can reach out to people,” he said. “I’ve had people reach out to me. They think that I’ll never respond, [but] I read those things and once in a while, I’ll answer.”
As a young man, Hahn was “really shy about asking [people for help],” he said. “I studied at the feet of some of the greatest men and women of Walt Disney Animation. And they were so reachable if you just asked.”
Eventually, he asked Joe Grant, the creator of Dumbo, to have lunch with him.
“We talked about storytelling, and we talked about character development,” Hahn said. “And it was life changing.”
He worked his way up at Disney, from assistant to production manager and finally, to producer. Hahn is currently producing a live-action version of his 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast.
“I love that film. I love the people that worked on it, and I have fun memories of it all,” he said. “But I also believe that as storytellers, it’s our job to reinvent a story and repurpose it for this generation.”
Hahn said he wants to let the filmmakers of today retell the story and trusts director Bill Condon to take Hahn’s classic in a contemporary direction.
Hahn was also the executive producer for Maleficent, released in early 2014. He encouraged the film crew to reinvent the story of Sleeping Beauty from 1950, he said.
“The trouble is, [the original film said] if you’re a woman, you should really stay asleep until your man comes along, and then your life can start,” Hahn said. “You can’t tell that story in 2014. I don’t want to tell my daughter that story.”
Hahn is also a board member of PBS SoCal and works on several smaller projects, such as documentaries, for the public broadcaster.
Even though the production of documentaries is very different from that of animation, Hahn said he has developed a passion for documentary filmmaking. He is an executive producer for Disney Nature films and has produced nature documentaries such as Oceans, African Cats and Chimpanzee. He also produced Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary on the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Hand Held, the story of New England photojournalist Mike Carroll, who reported on the pediatric AIDS epidemic in Romania and its effect on orphans.
“What I love about documentaries is they never quite go where you think they’re going to go,” Hahn said. “It’s almost like putting a puzzle together without the picture on the box.”
In retrospect, Hahn said life is not about finding one single occupation and entirely focusing on it. He places importance on having life experiences and honing a variety of skills that shape each person differently.
“Your job is to be the best you that you can be,” he said. “My job right now is to make films and be the best Don that I can be.”