We had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Hahn, the executive producer of Disneynature’s new film Oceans. He spoke with us about the filmmaking process, how the movie has changed his views on the environment, and future Disneynature projects in the works.
Could tell us, as the producer of this movie, how this film came about and how you got involved in it and how this project came to fruition?
Dan Hahn: Well, we have a couple of brilliant directors, Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, two French directors, and they did a film years ago called Winged Migration that was really well received. They wanted to capture the oceans on film, which is no small feat. They shot for five years in every corner of the planet and developed some new equipment for filming – for example, a camera that can film dolphins while they’re swimming at full speed and torpedo cameras to pull behind boats and film.
They really had to invent the best way to get the best footage for this film and that’s really a credit to them and their hunger for putting something on the screen that audiences haven’t seen before. Aside from the logistics of getting around the world and trying to capture that footage, we also want to tell a story. For that we pulled in Pierce Brosnan and a team of people to try to create a story around, not only these characters, but also what faces these characters have and why the ocean means something to us. Why we are here to be, in a sense, stewards of the ocean? Well, because our life depends on it.
Is there anything that really surprised you or blew you away as you saw the footage?
Dan Hahn: What always surprised me is the patience of the camera people out in the field because you’ll have a guy sitting in Antarctica watching a hole in the ice waiting for a penguin to jump out. You have somebody sitting there, and it could be two weeks, waiting for this moment to happen. These are men and women of amazing skill to not only to catch that image, but to catch it with great quality. That amazed me when I saw this movie and saw the pieces. I thought, “Oh my God!” There is such an unseen group of filmmakers here that are really contributing to this film and making it special, and that’s always been the pleasure here.
Of course, the animals, there are things in this movie that I promise you haven’t seen before. There is a fish in this film called the Asian sheepshead wrasse that is a cross between a tuna and the elephant. There are just all these amazing creatures down there and the irony of it is sometimes as a race of people we look out at the stars for the alien planets for that life, and there is this amazing alien planet right under our noses here that’s so close to us. I think this film brings you, as an audience member, closer to that world and those creatures.
The whole thing with the Nature Conservancy and how you guys are donating money from the movie to that organization, can you talk a little bit more about that, just how that came about?
Dan Hahn: You know, it’s great. It’s the one nice thing about Disneynature is yes, it’s called show business, but every once in a while you can do some great things to give back. Part of what has happened with Disneynature is we’ve had the phone ringing off the hook with people who want to help give back and use the movie to bring up issues that we all face.
Nature Conservancy, for this film, we’ve partnered with them to try to create some nature preserves and, specifically, some marine preserves off the Bahamas in an area where the coral reefs are really crucial. These are the equivalent of creating national parks. You try to go out and create some land, and in this case a stretch of coral reefs that is protected and set aside for future generations and just allowed to exist in its most beautiful form.
Last year, for Earth we planted a tree for everybody that went to see Earth during its opening week. This week you can really make a difference with your ticket because we donate a portion of ticket sales to that effort to preserve these coral reefs. It’s a really great chance to see a movie and actually do something concrete for our planet.
What exactly were your responsibilities as executive producer?
Dan Hahn: It’s all about the food. No, I do a number of things. I think on this movie I was really involved in the storytelling and how the final movie came together. I’ve made most of my career in animation working on films like Beauty and the Beast and Lion King, and I think what I love about the potential of these nature films, is the potential to not just show things but also tell a great story and on this particular film my job was mostly working with the directors and writers and musicians to try to turn this into a film that is really relevant in a modern world, and deals with issues that touch us all. As a creative producer that was my job on this film.
How difficult is it to take nature footage and turn it into a story?
Dan Hahn: I think it depends. When we did Earth, the directors on Earth were able to take polar bears or animals that have faces and things, when you get under the sea things are really odd down there and you have creatures with eyes on either side of their head and somehow it’s hard to relate to them. I think what is really smart about what the directors chose to do was to just let us spend time with the creatures and create this experience where you’re just with them for a while and get a sense of that environment and the personality.
One oceanographer said, “Even every fish has a personality,” like we associate with a dog or a cat. They’re all individuals and we seldom see it that way. I think that was the challenge and opportunity here is to take what normally we would say is a screen full of fish and try to personalize them, not in an anthropomorphic way, not try to humanize them, but just to say each one of these fish is an individual character, an individual being and as such that can help us tell a story about who they are, how they exist, who their predators are, how they interact.
You see some amazing scenes. There is a shot in this movie of a walrus and her little cub, her newborn cub and she’s cradling him since he was born a few hours earlier. It’s so emotional. I think those are the things we look for in these films to share with our audiences.
How does producing a nature documentary like Earth and Oceans differ from your work on animated movies?
Dan Hahn: You know, it’s really different. I certainly don’t go out in the field and grab a camera and put on some scuba gear and shoot; that’s left up to some amazingly talented camera people and directors to pull that together. In a sense, it’s similar in that you’re trying to tell a story and you’re doing it in a milieu or genre that takes infinite patience.
Just like when you’re doing animation, doing a nature film takes infinite patience to sit out there with that camera and look for that special behavior. It might mean sitting for two weeks to wait until a bird jumps out of a tree or two weeks to wait until an otter comes by and cracks a shell on a rock on his belly. Those are the wonderful moments you look for.
At most I’m the host of the party and at best what you want at that party are great filmmakers, great cinematographers, and people that will go capture footage that allows us to tell a story.
How does a film like Oceans relate to a movie like The Cove, are there any similarities, do you think?
Dan Hahn: For your readers who may have seen both of them I think there are similarities. I think The Cove, which in my opinion is a brilliant movie and won the Oscar for best documentary last year, deals with a very difficult issue of slaughter of marine mammals, and dolphins in particular, and that is an important issue. It’s important to bring it to the public’s mind. It’s important to film it and show it although it’s very graphic and very difficult at times to look at.
I think what we’re trying to do in Oceans – the issues are parallel; you’re dealing with endangerment of environment, loss of environment. It’s not so much that you might damage or kill a piece of coral reef, it’s really we’re damaging the environment and the entire reef in many parts of the earth. It’s about issues of preservation and acknowledging our role in preserving what’s in the oceans.
I think certainly it being a Disneynature movie we’re trying to do it in a way that is accessible to families. The Cove dealt with information in a very graphic way because it had to because the subject was very graphic. I think what we’re trying to do is deal with the information in a way that is inspiring, and still doesn’t dodge the issues of preservation and keeping our environment working as a system with the ocean being at the center of that system.
If this movie is profitable, which I’m sure it will be, do you think there is a chance for more movies like Oceans to be made, or are they already on the drawing board?
Dan Hahn: Well, I would certainly hope that there is room for more of these movies. There are some on the drawing board. What these movies do is – yes they’re a part of a business, but most importantly they’re part of kind of a give-back strategy for Disney and our partners because we have the tools and wherewithal to work with some of the best filmmakers on the planet and tell these stories. What a great way for us to contribute to our environment and to the education of our audience, and to the entertainment of our audience.
Next year we’re working on a film called African Cats. It’s about lions and the most amazing footage of natural environments with big cats in Africa. The year after that, we’ve been shooting for many years already on a film called Chimpanzee and it’s being shot in a nature preserve adjacent to Jane Goodall’s preserve in Africa. It’s a soap opera of a movie because you get to literally be there and experience many months in the life of a family and really a group, a town of chimpanzees in the wild.
The filmmakers have gone through hell to bring it to the audience but I think the results are unbelievable. The ability to get the cameras in and be with these creatures, whether it’s in Africa or whether it’s under the sea, or whether it’s with chimpanzees, it just allows us as an audience to go places that we’re probably not going to get to in our regular lives. I think that’s what’s cool about these movies and why we’ll continue to make them.
How can a person who wants to make films like Oceans get involved in this type of filmmaking process?
Dan Hahn: If you’re interested in filmmaking, particularly if you’re an up and coming young filmmaker, the age we live in is a huge benefit. You don’t have to worry about some of the obstacles that perhaps filmmakers 20 or 30 years ago had to worry about. You can go out this afternoon and buy or rent a camera and cut together and film a movie on your laptop at home. That technology allows you to put a film together in a really inexpensive way, and even distribute it on YouTube and get it out there so your friends and audience can see it.
I think the challenge for any filmmaker now that the technology is so accessible is trying to find a subject and a story that you can relate to as an audience. That’s why we go to the movies, we love it when the lights go down and it’s like telling stories around the campfire. It’s not enough to get a great shot of a lion or an elk or a coyote— what’s the story? Why are we focusing on that? Why bother to tell this story? What’s important to us and how can I relate to it? It’s always about story whether you’re making a nature movie or an animated film or live action film. If your listeners or readers can learn by that I think it’s a great opportunity now to grab the tools that are so readily available and go out and focus and tell those stories that are really close to you as a filmmaker.
Has this movie affected your personal view of the environment?
Dan Hahn: Yes, it really has. On a very personal level it has, partly because I really didn’t have a macro view of the environment and by being able to work with people like Sylvia Earle, who is an oceanographer and scientist – you might consider her the Jane Goodall of the ocean world – and hear what they have to say about the oceans, it’s affecting. In one hand, there is a crisis going on and there are a lot of issues that are facing the oceans, in the other hand they have great optimism and great hope about the ability to preserve environments and preserve species out there in the world.
So much of it starts and ends with us. Why do we care about the oceans? Because every drop we drink and every breath we take relies on a healthy ocean. That was an eye-opener for me because you never think of it in those terms. You think, well, yeah, I’m not going to litter, but you realize no, we make choices as human beings. It can be choices from the kind of plastic we use and recycle to the kind of seafood we might order off of a menu.
Those choices have consequences, good, bad, or indifferent. Just to be aware of those consequences and the choices that we face as human beings is really eye-opening and I think something that people are becoming more and more aware of. That’s certainly why we’re here talking on Earth Day is because it’s a film that just brings up our responsibilities as human beings, as audience members, as residents on the planet to make more informed decisions and preserve the planet for generations to come.
Does this film talk any about the problem with plastic pollution in our oceans?
Dan Hahn: It does. It does. I mean there is, as you know, a huge raft of plastic garbage floating out in the middle of the Pacific and probably dozens of other places around the world. So many times it’s not literally plastic bottles floating out there; it’s microscopic plastic that’s broken down over years of exposure to the elements. It’s certainly dealt with in the movie in a fairly direct way, just the issue of animals and habitats coexisting with some of the issues of pollution that we’re laying over the top of the oceans right now.
Again, it’s not meant to be punitive. You’re not going to the movies to be anything other than entertained and informed, but part of that is the joy of seeing these species out there in their natural environment and then a sense of responsibility for you really can do something. There is tremendous hope and optimism about how we can reshape our habits to affect the oceans.
What is your vision, with the other movies coming out in the future that you’re working on, for the green movement? What is your overall goal as an individual who cares about the planet?
Dan Hahn: The issue of the environment is something that’s intimidating and overwhelming if you take it on as a whole. I think what’s encouraging to me and what’s fun for me is to take it on one-on-one. For example, now I’m at Disneyland actually doing this interview and I just walked out of a screening full of school kids. There were probably 400 school kids in this theater watching Oceans and each one of them will take home a piece from that movie: a memory, a sense of responsibility, a sense of awe or wonderment at it. I think that one-on-one relationship with a filmmaker and an audience or an adult and a child, or a teacher and a student is really crucial and important to changing our mindset.
I don’t think there are any single broad stroke measures we can make. Certainly, at Disney, with this film, we’re very careful to contribute directly to the preservation of the coral reefs off of the Bahamas and be able to do something very specific. I think we can do something much grander if each and every one of us takes a little responsibility of our own in our own neck of the woods.
Disneyland does it. We just drained one of our Rivers of America here, for example, for a normal maintenance job and that water wasn’t just released. It was put into an aquifer and very consciously preserved so that that huge deal of water was preserved. It’s little choices like that on a corporate level, on a school level, and on a personal level at home, that together make a huge, huge, huge difference in our personal lives and the lives of the creatures around us that really have no control over these things the way we do.
Official Oceans Site: disney.go.com/disneynature/oceans/