Veteran Disney producer and Walt Disney Family Museum Advisory Board member Don Hahn has recently completed work as Curator of our newest special exhibition, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Masters of Animation. Historian Lucas O. Seastrom sat down with Don to look back on the experience of putting the show together.
This is part two of a two-part conversation. Read part one here.
Lucas O. Seastrom: Do you have a favorite discovery or revelation that came as a result of this exhibition?
Don Hahn: Some of the best days in the process of curating this exhibit were the days of discovery, and they were endless. The families of the Nine Old Men generously opened their doors to show us their collections of art and photos. I was amazed at Les Clark’s paintings, and equally amazed at Milt’s fly fishing equipment. My heart was broken when I heard from John Lounsbery’s family about his ranch burning down in the Malibu fire, and I was inspired by the stories of Woolie Reitherman flying in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Beyond their personal lives and their contributions to the art of animation, I was impressed by their loyalty to Walt. It’s unimaginable today for someone to work for the same company for 40 years, and yet that’s what these men did. Yes, they did it for the job, and the art of it all, but they also did it for Walt, a man that they believed in, and who was able to push them to take their talents to unimaginable heights.
As I made the film for the exhibit, I was moved by the interviews I did, especially the talk I had with Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, and Eric Goldberg. Yes, they studied and even idolized the Nine Old Men, but they themselves were innovators in the art form of animation. They were able to take the lessons of the Nine Old Men and turn them into modern miracles of entertainment like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the Genie in Aladdin (1992). It was a surprise how much the Nine Old Men left behind not only in their books and comments about the art of animation, but also in the pure body of work that they have given to us. It’s a source of endless inspiration and study for generations to come.
I’ve put together this first-ever exhibit of the art of the Nine Old Men to celebrate them in the same way we celebrate the French painters of the Impressionist movement. If animation is an artistic movement, and I believe it is, these nine men were the equivalent to Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and the finest artists of their generation. Like the Impressionists, the animators are easy to dismiss as something that is not art, and certainly not mainstream, but in a very real way these animators are the greatest artists of their generation and are worthy of study and appreciation for the work they left us all.
LS: How much emphasis do you place on letting the artists tell their own story? How do you implement their first-hand accounts?
DH: Motion was important to me in this exhibit. These guys made their careers in a kinetic art form, so to hang a bunch of still drawings on the wall seemed out of tune with their achievement. I wanted each of the nine galleries to have a monitor so that we could not only show the animation, but we could also show and hear the artists talk about their work in a living way.
One great idea that Ron Miller insisted on early in the process was his desire to have the next generation of animators talk about what they learned from the Nine Old Men. In many ways, Ron can be credited for seeing that the art form was aging and that the Studios needed to refresh its talent base or the art of Disney character animation might die. He and former Disney executive Card Walker made it a priority in the 1970s to recruit and train the world’s best young artists. They sent the Nine Old Men out on lecture tours, and put Eric in charge of training. The new recruits also included women and people of color in an art form that had been dominated by men. In this way, the Nine Old Men not only mastered the art of animation but also were generous in sharing that process with the next generation.
This all gets back to the artists telling their own story. We found brilliant archival footage of many of the Nine Old Men talking about their careers, and we paired that with new interviews with people like Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg and many, many more. The result was a first of its kind film that will show in the gallery, narrated only by these masters of animation young and old. To hear the students of the Nine Old Men testify to the greatness of these artists is one of the most personal and emotional parts of the exhibition.
LS: All of these artists had active lives beyond The Walt Disney Studios. Beyond their achievements in animation, what kind of inspiration can we take from the Nine Old Men?
DH: The thing that always inspires me about these men and their choices is that they lived larger-than-life lives. These were people who were brilliant artists by day, but also deeply involved in their lives in music, trains, painting, sculpting, travel, and any activity that would inspire their curiosity. I look at these men as Renaissance artists who created an art form by virtue of their work in character animation, but also had the creative energy to expand far beyond that into every imaginable area of expression.
So often a life in the film industry could be categorized as a life of long hours and drudgery, and at times it is. But by choice these guys pushed outside of their extremely demanding day jobs and fearlessly pursued their own personal interests. It’s incredibly unusual to see this in the arts. You never hear of Cezanne building a locomotive in his back yard, or Monet playing in a band that becomes a hit on the music charts. But the Nine Old Men did that and more. I wanted to include some of that story in the exhibition because it’s the kind of thing that inspires all of us to reach deeper into life and enjoy the variety of experiences that a creative life has to offer.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, filmmaker, and contracting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum.