If you had bet against Disney Animation in 1983 no one would have blamed you. But just as things looked bleakest for hand drawn animation at the studio that had all but perfected the technique, a sudden explosion of creativity and genius brought Disney back to the forefront and changed forever the history of animation and filmmaking. From 1984 to 1994 amazing things happened, and that’s the story Don Hahn is telling in his new documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Don has a unique perspective on Disney in those years, being the producer behind Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (and the only one until this year’s ten picture slate allowed Up into the club). We see the young Hahn at work in Disney back in the early 80s, alongside such future notables as Tim Burton and John Lasseter. He brings us an insider’s point of view that feels fair and doesn’t shy away from the battles that went on behind the scenes.

I sat down with Don (and Peter Schneider, who oversaw Disney Animation in that decade and produced this doc) in the historic Old Animation Building on Disney’s Burbank lot. These were the same halls that Walt Disney walked during the production of some of the most famous and enduring cartoons of all time; today Don, a producer and burgeoning documentary filmmaker, has his offices there.

Waking Sleeping Beauty opens March 26th.

Did this film start life as a book project? 

Schneider: I’ve been trying to make this for ten years. I never thought it was a book project, I always thought it was a film. I met with Don, and I said, ‘Don, come talk to me.’ We had coffee and I said, ‘Don, I want to make this movie – come make it with me.’ This couldn’t have happened without Don – he’s an insider here, he’s trusted and respected. Much more than me.

Hahn: It’s all true. 

Schneider: We went to Dick Cook together and said we wanted to make this movie.

Hahn: He’s the one who really made it happen. If Dick had not said yes at that breakfast we had with him.

Schneider: It wouldn’t have happened, would it?

Hahn: It wouldn’t have happened at all. There was one ideal day for this movie to get made, and luckily it got greenlit on that day. We had the intense support of people – Dick called Jeffrey Katzenberg and asked him to be involved, Peter called Michael Eisner, I talked to Roy [Disney]. Everyone wanted to step forward and tell their story. I think enough time had passed and it was cathartic for everyone to tell their story.

Schneider: I’m surprised everybody agreed to do it. 

You made an interesting decision not to use any talking heads in the modern day. You have people today in audio, but you only show them as they were back in the 80s and 90s. Why did you decide to do that?

Schneider: I’ll give Don all the credit. It came about because Don did a video test of an unnamed person…

Hahn: We shot some stuff and I looked at the DVD bonus materials of something that had just been released…

Schneider: And it looked like old, ugly people.

Hahn: It was a bunch of old white guys reminiscing. So we ended up saying let’s not do that because you see it every time, and you see it on TV every night. And we had a wealth of material – this was a heavily [recorded] time. We had EPK material, but we also shot the recording sessions and we had bootleg video and home movies were around, and I thought if we can not care so much about the quality but care about the story and make this a grab bag of storytelling it would be really unique. That’s what it ended up being, and the one thing I think people respond to is that it’s not old white guys reminiscing.

If you look at the time line it was a lot of the same guys in Disney animation before 1984 as it was after 1984, but there was such a remarkable change. Part of that obviously came from management, but is there some other magic thing that happens? Does their perspective change, or is it that these kids came into their own?

Schneider: I think it was a perspective change. They were given permission to be aggressive. If I were to tell the previous story [before the events of Waking Sleeping Beauty], it would be about Woolie [Wolfgang Reitherman], and Woolie’s desire to have people not give strong opinions. You were not encouraged not to have strong opinions, and in fact if you had a strong opinion Woolie would never do it your way. You had to find…

Hahn: You just couldn’t express it. You could never go upstairs and say ‘I have this idea.’ It just wasn’t done.

Schneider: What I did was give everybody permission to express their ideas. Whether or not it was that they came of age, whether or not we just have encouragement, they’re very passionate but very quiet people. You have to find a way to make quiet people passionate.

Hahn: There was also a fear factor. The day we got kicked off the lot [Disney animation was moved from the main Burbank studio to a nondescript space in nearby Glendale] it became clear that if you wanted to work in animation if there was no Disney you wouldn’t be working in animation. Unless you were doing He-Man or something on TV. You really had to step up then. If you wanted the job to continue – to say nothing of the art of animation – you had to step up then. There was real fear in everybody’s stomachs.

Schneider: At the same time there was great resistance. When I came in there was great resistance to change, and what I would always hear was ‘That’s just not the way Walt would have done it.’ And then I turned around and looked at everybody and they were 25 years old, so there was no chance they were around when Walt was around. But it had been passed down and passed down and passed down. This wasn’t senior people telling me this, it was the young kids saying this. They would say ‘This isn’t the way it’s done!’ and I would think, ‘Go jump in a lake! We’re going to do it differently!’ It was also easy, quote unquote, because [The Black] Cauldron had been so bad – unsuccessful. As I say in the movie, I couldn’t have done worse than that movie.

Hahn: There were some people in the ranks who were trying to change, though. Look at Tim Burton’s designs for The Black Cauldron, which are in his show at the MOMA. You go, ‘Wow, that would have been a different movie!’, but they were discarded. John Lasseter did a CGI test with Glenn Keane on Where the Wild Things Are – he was fired afterwards.

Schneider: The test is great. It’s a 3D test with the camera following the little guy down the stairs.

Hahn: Twelve years ahead of Toy Story. What a different story it would have been if that had been encouraged here.

Schneider: If the money and support had been put into that. ‘You’re the right artist – go and make a short!’ No one was doing that. Don tells me a story, which I didn’t know and which isn’t in the movie, which is that you animated the scene and you sent it upstairs and you got back a typewritten note telling you what you should do next. There was no interaction. You didn’t go up and fight and argue and say ‘Wait a second, I want to do it this way!’

Hahn: It was in this very building we’re sitting in. Woolie sat down on the second floor. The tests would go down and the notes would come back up. It was very much a 1950s office setting – you had secretaries and notes and memos.

After this period covered in the movie, after Peter left, Disney tried some other things. I’m thinking specifically of Atlantis, bringing animation into a teen-oriented adventure story, and that didn’t work. Do you think that now in the 21st century we’re ready to try again to break the Disney mold of the song and dance film and go somewhere else?

Hahn: I don’t know that it’s genre-specific like that. I do always hope for the new idea, because it’s easy to get stuck. If there’s any self-criticism it’s that it’s easy to get stuck in a style of doing eight songs by a composer, something stylistically we got stuck into for ten years and were afraid to get out of. If Pixar is having any success it’s because their directors have been able to choose topics that are really unconventional and execute them in a great way. You would never make a movie about rats in a kitchen or an 80 year old guy in a flying house with a boy scout. They’re ridiculous ideas for movies, but they’re really brave. They could have easily stuck with their original patterns. Hope springs eternal in Hollywood. You always hope somebody is going to come out with a new invention, a new style. That’s why Avatar is so great this year, because it’s fresh. Whether you like it or not, at least it’s game changing. I think that will happen again in animation.

What is the future of hand drawn animation? It feels like it’s at another crossroads like it was in the 80s. 

Schneider: I’m more negative on this – I don’t care if it’s hand drawn or computer drawn or live action combo or photorealistic. It’s about why use a technique to help you tell a story better. Is it better to tell the story in 2D or 3D or a combination? How do you tell the story emotionally? Whether it’s 2D or 3D I don’t think the audience cares – you might care as an animation geek – but I don’t think the audience cares, per se. They only care if you’ve transported me to a new world, have you told me a story I didn’t know about and have you made me laugh and cry? And if you’ve done all those three things you’re successful. I don’t know whether it’s 2D or 3D… who cares? Make a movie! Take a technique!

In terms of this movie we took an interesting step in that it’s all archival. That’s not how you make a documentary – documentaries are talking heads!

Hahn: Our technological advance was to go back to Super 8 movies.

Schneider: That was a really conscious choice. That was a decision to transport you back to the past. We weren’t being – and this is a new word I didn’t know, because I’m stupid – we’re not observational documentary makers. We’re not observationalists. We’re not observing, we’re participating. And we want you to participate and observe. That was a choice we made. When you talk about 2D or 3D, John [Lasseter] really wanted to transport you – I still remember these conversations on Toy Story. He’d say ‘I really want you to remember the toy soldiers you used to play with,’ and the way to do that was to have the seams. And we spent an inordinate amount of time and money on those friggin’ seams. And I would go, ‘Why are we spending so much time on the seams?’ Then you’d realize we have to. He couldn’t do it in 2D. He couldn’t transport you back to that world of the bedroom, with the seams, without 3D. You couldn’t do it 2D. That, I think, is my stupid long answer to the question.

What do you think, Don?

Hahn: I feel the same way. I don’t think anybody goes to see a technique, they go to see a story. I think we’re stuck in a rut. If I were really honest with you -

Schneider: He won’t be!

Hahn: I will be. There’s a Disney style of hand-drawn animation, there’s a Pixar style of 3D animation… and that’s it. There should be a million styles, there should be a billion forms of expression in that medium. But we’re locked into those two styles because they’re very commercial. But there are always interesting new voices coming into animation who could change it.

This has been an interesting year for animation – just looking at the Oscar nomination it’s a really diverse group. Secret of Kells has a totally different look.

Hahn: Secret of Kells is a great movie.

Miyazaki didn’t get into the Oscar race but he had a very unique picture this year. Is animation as robust as it every was, regardless of the technique?

Schneider: I think it’s more robust. You had 20 movies that were considered [for Best Animated Picture] this year, and a category with five. In 1994, a) we didn’t have a category and b), there was only one movie that would have qualified.

Hahn: And with Avatar you have the motion capture and you can argue whether that’s animation or not, but it’s animation. And Kells is a movie that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, and Coraline is really interesting in design and animation. I love it. I think it’s a dynamic time because there’s so much diversity now in animation.

You use archive footage for the film, but were all the sketches and doodles you use to illustrate some scenes also archive, or did you recreate some stuff?

Schneider: Everything is original drawing. April 1 was always a caricature show, and you were allowed to draw anyone, use any pose, be nasty and use any word you wanted – there was no repercussion. It was something we all looked forward to, which was that once a year the sharp pencils came out. 

Hahn: It was okay to take a shot at anybody, and that’s what ended up in the movie. The scene at the end when Howard Ashman [composer on Beauty and the Beast] roasts Kirk Wise [the director] at the table is a new drawing. I didn’t have any footage or stills or anything to illustrate that point, but Kirk telling the story was so hilarious I had to use it in the movie. So I went back to Kirk and said, ‘Kirk, give me some drawings. I was in the room, you were in the room, give me some drawings that show how it felt.’ He says they’re fairly accurate.

You mention that on April 1 any word was available. As young creative guys working at this family friendly place, were you ever chafing at the restrictions or was it comfortable being in that G-rated place?

Schneider: I don’t think there were any restrictions. If you were at Disney you were there because you believed in a family…

Hahn: Ethic. You know you’re making a certain kind of movie.

Schneider: You’re not going to say the F word or the S word. When I worked with Jerry Bruckheimer on Remember the Titans - which I am very proud of as the first movie I ever made with them – they gave me the script one weekend and every third was N, S or F. I went back on Monday and said, ‘I love the script, I pitched the script to somebody, but you have to pull the swear words.’ They said it would never work. I said they were wrong because the heart of the story was strong and if they took out the swear words they would have a very emotional movie. They did it reluctantly, and if Jerry was honest to you he would say that was what made the movie special. It became a PG Disney movie.

But were there days when there were guys drawing risque pictures of Mickey Mouse?

Hahn: Let’s put it this way – whether it’s Chuck Jones in his studio, or Disney and you give a bunch of guys pencils…