Don Hahn’s ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ & Desert Vows

Don Hahn’s ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’, An Ode to Creativity: Then…And Now

By Mike Merell

Originally Posted Oct 9th, 2009

My film ‘Desert Vows’ is about an artist who rejects the status quo and searches for an environment that awakens and feeds her spirit and soul. Although the main story line of the film is about a woman who is about to get married, thematically the the woman’s quest for inner fulfillment is close to me.

I started my second job as a computer animator at Disney on April 4th 1994. It was on a Monday, the day after Disney’s President and Chief Operating Officer Frank Wells had died in a helicopter crash. I was new to the studio, I didn’t know anything. As they say for new hires at Disney, I was getting my ‘ears’.

‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ is your classic underdog story. The documentary is a candid portrait of the how the second golden age of Walt Disney Feature Animation materialized. This is the time between 1984 and 1994 when Disney produced such animated classics as the ‘Little Mermaid’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and the ‘Lion King’. The movie opens during the making of ‘The Black Cauldron’, a period when the animators felt as if each day they might not have a job to come back to. From there the movie chronicles the rise of the studio up through the success of ‘The Lion King’.

The movie is directed by Don Hahn, who produced ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King’, as well as many other major Disney releases including the first film I worked on there ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. His documentary, which was produced by Peter Schneider, who was President of Feature Animation during that time, delves into to not only the creative magic surrounding that time but also honestly portrays the politics and the egos between Schneider, CEO Michael Eisner, COO Frank Wells, Senior Executive Roy Disney, and Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

I saw the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival and I loved it. Now I should make it known that I had a great career there, mainly because of Don and Peter, but I was always surprised that I was there. I didn’t grow up with Disney films, I grew up with Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo. I did go to Cal Arts, the school that Disney built, but I was studying in the basement with Jules Engels, the pioneering experimental animator (who actually also worked for Disney and animated on ‘Fantasia’), not the character animators up on the top floor. The fact that I at ended up at Disney doing character animation seems accidental and improbable still to this day and for a while I loved it.

In film, because it is an expensive medium, and animation is very expensive, the marriage of art and commerce does not easily mesh, but without one, the other would not exist. In ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ Don does a fantastic job of portraying the creative energy of all the artists involved at that time, which also included some other names you might be familiar with like Tim Burton and John Lasseter. It is interesting to me that while I watched the film, many of the positive feelings I had in the early days of my career there resurfaced. In any creative endeavor, film or otherwise, it is important for the artists involved to be allowed to do what they do best…create. That is what I was felt in my first years; of course then I was working with Don, Kirk Wise, and Gary Trousdale(the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ trio). That I believe is what the artists on those classic films felt. I think it is what allowed those films to be made.

In the film, Don overlays recent interviews with Eisner, Katzenberg, Shneider, and Roy Disney with archival footage. It is a very effective technique that allows the story of the politics behind the magic to come out, but one that also doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of all involved. Every one’s ego is exposed, but no one person appeared worse then the other. And I think that is the point, that together, combined with the immense creativity of the artists, that they all realize in hindsight it was creative magical moment where everything came together because of everyone involved, and ultimately came apart because of everyone involved.

The success of those Disney classics, most specifically the ‘Lion King’, raised the studio’s expectations for success, and subsequently it was harder to be creative. Everything was more scrutinized. The film cites a few moments where the studio’s downward turn kicked in. The one fact most people don’t know about is the death of COO Frank Wells, who apparently kept everyone on speaking terms, most notably Katzenberg and Eisner. His death was shortly before the ‘Lion King’s release and then Katzenberg took the momentum and co-started Dreamworks. A lot of talent left to go to Dreamworks at that time. I can remember sitting with Peter Schneider as he convinced me to stay. What a punk he must of thought I was, I had only been there for one film. But times had changed, animation was hot. Toy Story had also been released and computer animators were hot. Everything was different.

Unfortunately, what I had liked about Disney, and what Don and Peter always championed the whole way, was beginning a slow death; that being the support it gave to the artists to do what they do. The films were still good and that was a testament to the artists still caring, but by the time Peter Schneider left the studio in 2001 the artists were joking about how many ‘creative’ executives there were. I recall the count being about 17. In my opinion, and I know others who would agree with me, the studio took its biggest downturn when Peter left. And that’s a whole different film, perhaps in a roundabout way its ‘Desert Vows’. I think the essence of that period is in ‘Desert Vows’, the artistic spirit being squelched by a corporation searching only for profits and an artist who is searching for something more fulfilling.

‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ is a very timely film. Not only is Disney arguably at another make or break point with its animation studio (albeit with Pixar pulling the strings now) but the entire film industry is in transition. Most, if not all studios, have scaled back production considerably. This is in part due to the recession, though theatrical and home viewing numbers are up, and partly out of the large studio’s fear of digital distribution and falling victim to it much like the music industry.In that context ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ can be seen as a metaphor for the entire film industry as everyday no one is sure that what they will be working on next if anything. Both the studios and the independent film makers should view the film and see it as a call to arms to ‘champion’ the creative and embrace the new technologies and I believe the successes will ultimately follow. We are all underdogs now but a third golden age is upon us all- one in which the profit squatters are disappearing and the filmmakers who will be left are the ones who need to make films, who need to be creative. This will ultimately benefit the audience because the films will be more personal and engaging. The films will cease to be copies of a copy. Whatever the future holds for ‘Desert Vows’ I am fine with it. I made the film I had to make at the time. It was fun and rewarding. I let talented people be talented and the film is better for it. Like Don and Peter I championed the creative.

Mike Merell


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