This summer, there's going to be a new kind of Disney film hitting screens and it's from the guys who brought you Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (but were also involved in various capacities in Lion King, Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove and other Disney projects). Big guns, sure, but I think it should be remembered that Don Hahn was also an associate producer on Who Framed Roger Rabbit as well as the Roger Rabbit cartoons Tummy Trouble and Roller Coaster Rabbit.
I got the chance to speak with Mr. Hahn on Friday afternoon about his new project, Atlantis: The Lost Empire which he produced in conjunction with directing duo Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) off a script by Tab Murphy (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan).
Smilin' Jack Ruby: Just to start with, can you give us a set up? What is Atlantis: The Lost Empire?
Don Hahn: Oh, boy. Big, fun, action-adventure movie, you know, in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark or those great old Disney movies of the 50?s like 20,000 Leagues and just a great opportunity to expand the medium of animation and try to take it to a place we've never been before, especially a place like Atlantis because everybody knows the title "Atlantis," but nobody really knows the mythology or what that all means. So, it's been a great process bringing Atlantis to the big screen.
S.J.R.: How much of the mythology did you bring out of history and how much of it did you come up with on your own?
Don : Well, a lot of it came from history. I think we started on the internet with a couple of months of research, picking out things that go back as far as Plato to Solon, the kind of politician/statesman who told Plato stories of Atlantis to more modern day people like Edgar Cayce or Ignatius Donnelly, the U.S. Senator who wrote about Atlantis back in the 1800's. We kind of tried to do our homework and study about the Atlantis mythology, but then spin our own sort of story based on original elements that related to that mythology, but was a fresh story for us.
S.J.R. : Why Atlantis? You've done stories in the past that are branded to where people know what they are before they hit the theaters. What about Atlantis seemed topical and timely for you to do a movie about it?
Don : In a world that's, here in California, struggling with power outages, you know, things like relationships and energy crises and political turmoil, Atlantis was to have been a culture that was perfect at one time and I think we're all fascinated with what that would be. What would be a place to live in that was utopian, that was perfect, an ideal. I think that's why it's incredibly topical, because I think it's fascinating to all of us in our kind of times we live in. What would it be like? Of course, in our story we paint an Atlantis that was perfect except for one fatal flaw. In our story, we talk about their fascination with their technology, the kind of "heart of Atlantis," the crystals of Atlantis and how that was their undoing. So, it's topical just in people?s fascination with Atlantis in general as a utopian civilization becomes fascinating in and of itself.
S.J.R.: Is there a particular civilization or mythos that you based the artistry or architecture of Atlantis on?
Don : Well, no, because I suppose in our reading and certainly what the directors and I wanted to do with the movie was create an Atlantis that was a mother civilization both in terms of its language and its architecture. We wanted to create a civilization that really felt like it was the wellspring of all other civilizations and that?s how it?s described in a lot of mythology. So, we went around for architecture, for example, and looked at Cambodian ruins and Tibetan, Balinese, Nepalese, Indian architecture and tried to mould that all together into one common language where you could believe Atlantis was a mother civilization because you can see elements of other civilizations in the architecture on the screen. The same is true of the language we created for the screen. Mark Okrand who did the Klingon language for Star Trek came in and helped us develop a spoken dialect for the Atlanteans that was the same thing, kind of a primitive dialect that you could imagine was like the dialects people spoke before the Tower of Babel - a "root" dialect. I think that was kind of fascinating trying to recreate those core traits of what a civilization might have been.
S.J.R. : Does that mean the lettering you?re using is some kind of early transliteration of any kind of Greek lettering or where did that come from?
Don: We made it up (laughs ). We looked at a lot of early typefaces, Phoenician, Greek, a lot of different cultures even Asian typefaces and then just tried to come up with something you couldn't quite put your finger on. It wasn?t Arabic, it wasn't Chinese, it wasn't Phoenician or Sanskrit or something, it was just something that was uniquely "Atlantean," but again was reminiscent of all of those cultures.
S.J.R.: Over the past ten years, how have things changed about the way you balance playing to both adults and kids?
Don : Well, you know it's always been ? we make movies for family audiences and we really take that literally. We make them for the entire family. I think the minute we try to focus in on any segment of that family, we'll lose our audience. I think even going back to films like Aladdin and Lion King and films that had several levels to them, I think what has not changed is that we try to create a film that has several levels to it where the kids can appreciate it on one level for its physical humor and comedy and the adults can appreciate it on other levels for its subtext or its metaphor. I think that's what makes it interesting. We don't to make movies where Moms and Dads just drop their kids off at the theater. I think Atlantis , in particular, is incredibly compelling for adults to look at because of the conclusions it draws or the conversations you can have in the car on the way home from the theater. I think, because of that, it?s an interesting topic. Essentially, our approach to filmmaking hasn't changed all that much.
S.J.R.: I was at the WGA theater last night where Jeffrey Katzenberg introduced Shrek and he talked a lot about how much animation had changed since the days of Little Mermaid and Lion King . How do you regard some of the new abilities granted to animators through computers and how much of that did you incorporate into Atlantis versus something like The Emperor's New Groove or Hunchback?
Don: Atlantis is a real hybrid movie. It's got loads of digital animation, probably some computer graphics elements in virtually every scene and yet, a lot of the film was created with traditional methods. It's one of those movies that's really at a crossroads for us. Half of our crew came in and picked up a pencil, half came in and picked up a mouse and created with a keypad and a digitizing tablet. I think that was what was exciting about the film is that we weren't driven by the need to make a all computer graphics film or an all traditional film. I think that's what you'll find more and more is, right now, we look at them as two different mediums, there's CG films like Toy Story or Shrek and there's traditional films like The Emperor's New Groove and I think those lines are going to become very gray over the next several years as artists just pick up whatever pencil they need to make the movie.
S.J.R. : How is that decision made? What things are so intensive that they are done in CG and what things are chosen to be done traditionally?
Don: On Atlantis , we had a whole civilization of vehicles and creatures and just cool stuff to create. To create something on the screen that's unique for our audience, some of the creatures and elements of the movie would be too intense to draw by hand, so we just turned to the computer to help us create those creatures or those set pieces in the movie. So, it's really a creative decision driven by the story-telling and the directors and how we approach what technique we use to approach that part of the movie.
S.J.R.: There seems to be a real Jules Verne influence...
Don : It's probably a little later than Jules Verne because that was more Victorian, more ornamented, more Captain Nemo, so we tried to go a little later in time period to 1914 which was on the crest of the first world war and that was the time that we really felt like man was at a crossroads. There were a lot of people living on farms and plowing the land every day, but there was also a tremendous industrial nation going on and it was a real crossroads where exploration and invention and the new modern era was coming into its own. We thought it was a really interesting point of departure for the film, but also an interesting contrast visually to what Atlantis is. In our film, Atlantis is a very ancient culture, very organic and tribal in its look and that was an interesting kind of contrast to the sheet-metal-and-rivets surface world in our film.
S.J.R.: What can you tell me about the character designs of the Atlanteans and how they're different from the humans in the picture?
Don : We pulled on a lot of different inspirations. Mike Mignola, the comic artist, came in and helped us with a lot of early character designs on the Atlanteans. He, along with Kirk and Gary, the directors, really felt like if Atlantis is existing hidden in the middle of the Earth somewhere, it's going to be close to the molten core of the Earth and it's probably going to be in some sort of symbiotic relationship with the lava and the water seeping down from the surface and it's going to have to have some sort of steamy, tropical vibe to it to exist. So, they created its own little terrarium down there where Atlantis exists in its own atmosphere, not at the bottom of the ocean in water, but high and dry in an air pocket in the center of the Earth. A lot of inspirations came from Mike Mignola, a lot from our production designers and art directors to try to stay away from the Greco-Roman Atlantis that we've seen so many times in movies in the kind of togas and aquarium tank Atlantis and try to take us to a little bit different place.
S.J.R.: What are some of the challenges of animated a film that has a great deal of the action taking place underwater?
Don : Well, a great deal of it is underground, not necessarily underwater,
so you?re not dealing with normal clouds, sunrises and sunsets, you're
dealing with a lot of people in a claustrophobic setting. We wanted to
make it plausible, so we did a lot of research, we went to Carlsbad Caverns,
we spent a couple of days 800 feet underground ourselves to try and see
what that felt like. We also wanted to create a kind of contrast or a fight
between the visual style of the surface world and the visual style of Atlantis
itself. That was one of the biggest challenges when you go to Atlantis
to make it feel like a different place, that you're going to a different
planet, as it were. The other thing we wanted to do was make a big, fun
action-adventure film with a lot of e-ticket thrills to it, but bring to
it still a lot of the storytelling and emotion that this studio is really
known for. A lot of times, action movies are all about explosions and kind
of pure visceral action. Ours did, too, I mean we have a fair amount of
that in our film, too, but we wanted to try to lace it with strong storytelling
and character motivations as well. Certainly, Michael J. Fox brought a
lot to his vocal performances and our cast was terrific in making those
characters feel like real flesh-and-blood characters. So, there are some of the main challenges anyway.
S.J.R.: You have both Leonard Nimoy and Mark Okrand from the Star Trek world. Were you using them to go for the otherworldly thing or was that more of a coincidence?
Don: It was honestly by chance. We hired Leonard Nimoy first. Mark came in and they knew each other from the Star Trek series, obviously, but we had found Mark's name much earlier and had toyed around with developing a language and it just seemed to make sense. Some of our actors took to it better than others. Nimoy could like sight-read the stuff and was immediately there and knew exactly how to pronounce it. Michael J. Fox hated the language and really had to labor over it and in the end did a great job in delivering it. It was just a happy circumstance that Nimoy was in the cast, because he could just nail the Atlantean language as though he'd spoke it since birth.
S.J.R.: To develop these stories, what kind of relationship do you have with the screenwriter, but also Mr. Wise and Mr. Trousdale?
Don : Gary, Kirk and I are kind of like brothers. We live on top of each other for four years and try to create the film together and it's incredibly collaborative. Unlike live-action where you have a writer that drops off the script and you go out and shoot it, we had a brilliant writer named Tab Murphy who got us started with the screenplay, but then we spent two or three years with a story crew of a half-dozen guys and girls to just flesh out the details of the movie. One thing that I think makes Kirk and Gary great directors is that they're great storytellers. I think they are able to take some as abstract as Atlantis and turn it into a flesh-and-blood story about compelling characters that the audience aspires to follow. It's really fun working with them. Obviously, we worked together on Beauty and the Beast and other films and it's just nice to re-team with them and bring some of the storytelling and fun of Beauty and the Beast to a whole different genre. A lot of people think of animation as a genre and it's not, it's a medium where you can express anything and so often people think of animation as a fairy tale medium and I think one of our ambitions, among many, was to show that no, animation can really stretch and create a really thrilling adventure movie that's not a musical, that?s just a widescreen epic adventure movie.
S.J.R.: There are no songs in the movie?
Don: No songs.
S.J.R.: Does that provide a new challenge to marketing this to parents who may be expecting a musical?
Don : No, not at all. I think it's a huge opportunity at best. I think what people find is, if we keep making the same movie over and over again they'll feel like, oh, no, here comes another one and I think I've seen that already. I think by creating something that's a widescreen movie without songs in it, at least it creates a trend and an interest in our audience for what that would be. So, it's been a real plus. It also bears mentioning that James Newton Howard, who is the composer who's done The Fugitive, Dinosaur last year, The Sixth Sense, he brought so many musical themes to this film, much like John Williams and what he brought to the Star Wars movies where, even though nobody breaks into song, there?s a tremendous musical component to the movie that really is kind of the voice of the movie. Through James' work, even though no one's singing in a traditional musical way, music, you find, is a real storyteller and a real present aspect of the film.
S.J.R. : Is this something you're planning to move into? More animated features that aren't musicals? What else is coming up for the three of you?
Don : We're going to be all over the place. I think we?re guys sitting here with a blank piece of paper and so I think we're just going to go where the spirit takes us and the last four years it took us into the center of the Earth and I think next year you'll see it go some place else and not try to repeat ourselves. If anything, we as artists need to constantly refresh ourselves and challenge ourselves to press out and do something different. And, in a way, our audience demands that. They demand that when they come to the theaters, they are challenged and are shown something that is, at least, a fresh piece of entertainment. So, I never feel that these things are trends. I feel that movies are like striking a match and you can?t do it twice. We'll never get the same people together, we'll never get the same kind of circumstances to make this movie again, so, for me it?s a real one-off and a real chance to try something new and we'll see in June how it does.
S.J.R. : In Belgium, they're starting to do more and more of those 3-D animated thrill ride-type movies. Is this a medium you?re interested in tackling at all?
Don : You know, I'm not aware of all of them, I've heard of some of them and I suppose it?s interesting, but I think what we do really well here is storytelling. As long as our story can take you to somewhere fresh that?s where we'll be. There's no sense for me, anyway, in doing a film that's just about a thrill ride because you can go to a theme park and have a roller coaster ride. I think what really makes our films special and certainly Atlantis is unique in this way, is that it's a compelling story you want to follow and yes, there?s incredible thrills and chases along the way, some of which I think will really shock the audience in terms of what we've been able to put on the screen, but none of that will matter unless they want to follow the story of our characters and that's kind of our mantra around here.
S.J.R. : What do you want people to know about the movie when they come in? So far, the marketing has been rather mysterious and the poster didn?t really give much away about "what is Atlantis?"
Don : Yeah, with a purpose, because Atlantis, as a topic, is really mysterious. I think that that curiosity is something that has tormented people for a couple thousand years or more since the mythology of Atlantis began and I think part of the mystery of the movie and maybe that's why it?s reflected in the marketing campaign, is that Atlantis is a conundrum, it's a mystery, and the solution is anybody?s guess, so this is just one group of filmmakers guess in the year 2001 of what Atlantis was. All I hope for is that the audience comes to the theater and straps in, and gets ready for our version of what Atlantis might have been and that we can kind of peel back the layers of the onion and show them at least one version of that great myth that?s been around for so long might have been. So, I'm perfectly happy with people coming to the theater with a completely open mind with just a title in their brain.
S.J.R.: What about comparisons to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or George Pal's movie, Atlantis, the Lost Continent?
Don : Well, those are all great movies in their own right for their
eras and brought with them a terrific definition of what the genre was,
a great kind of romp to Nemo?s world. I think all we?re trying to do is
take that genre of action-adventure and tell a story with it in animation.
So, the comparisons are mainly about the genre and again, you'll judge
when you see the movie how successful we are in taking that genre and taking
it to a new level. I think that?s what's essential about filmmaking. You
get guys like Bob Zemeckis making Alfred Hitchcock-esque movies because
he?s trying to take a genre that somebody else has done and turning it
into a very personal voyage for him. That's all we're trying to do. We're
fascinated with the topic of Atlantis, fascinated with the adventure movie
genre for animation and we?re just going to try and lend our personal voice