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Omaha Magazine

Don Hall Turns Visuals into Oscars

Jul 01, 2022 11:08AM ● By Joel Stevens

Illustrations by Don Hall
Design by Derek Joy

Don Hall has won an Academy Award. He’s directed billion-dollar Disney properties from Winnie the Pooh to this year’s Oscar-nominated Raya and the Last Dragon.

His first streaming series drops on Disney+ this summer. Strange World, his much-anticipated fifth animated feature, lands in November.

It’s the drawing that captures Hall’s attention. The sketched DNA of animation springing to life from pen to script to screen is still his first love. In many ways the 53-year-old who arrived at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1995, fresh out of the California Institute of the Arts, is still the same kid who grew up drawing and consuming animation and fantasy stories in Glenwood, Iowa.

“I still draw as much as I can,” said Hall, adding every one of his film’s rough character designs, visual development, and storyboards all began in hands-on collaboration. 

Today’s animated films are almost entirely computer-generated, but the foundation remains the hand-drawn image. Drawing that is typically done digitally, on Wacom tablets or iPads like Hall uses. 

“Generally, I draw more at the early developmental stages of a film,” Hall said. “The deeper into our process we get, the less time I have to draw. I’ll do quick sketches in meetings to illustrate a thought, but that’s about it. Drawing is the thing I love to do most in life. Hard to imagine not drawing. Guess that’s one of the reasons I love animation.”

Hall’s first job in animation was as a storyboard apprentice—“An intern, really,” he said—but for him, it was a dream job. The first thing after getting the Disney nod was to call his parents, Janet and Don Hall Sr., who still reside in Glenwood.

“It was emotional, but there was a practical component to it as well, I just felt like it was the place I was going to learn the most,” Hall said of his Disney hiring. “To be there—with all the history and the legacy in addition to all the great people I knew were there—where I was going to learn the most dictated everything.”

Hall would go on to cut his teeth in various roles on a half-dozen projects, including hits The Emperor’s New Groove, Tarzan, and The Princess and the Frog. He stepped up to the director’s chair for the first time in the 2011 Winnie the Pooh reboot. The film would be the studio’s last traditionally animated feature.

The next three features Hall directed or co-directed would all be computer-generated and combine to make more than $1.3 billion at the box office. Big Hero Six won Best Animated Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.

Hall is currently deep in production on Strange World, Disney’s 61st animated feature film. Based on his original story idea, Hall’s tight-lipped about the plot that reportedly revolves around a family of explorers. A single publicity shot from the film shows a colorful fantasy vista with a decidedly pulp magazine look and feel.

“That’s a pretty fair assumption,” Hall demurred. “I like those stories. I’ll put it that way.”

Hall co-wrote the script with Qui Nguyen, who is also co-directing the project. Nguyen also co-wrote Raya and the Last Dragon.

If Hall’s latest feature is indeed influenced by the sci-fi fantasy magazines of his youth, an affection for those stories and their universe building are all over his oeuvre. With Big Hero 6, the filmmaker plunks audiences into fully formed worlds that are felt as much as they’re seen, whether it be a techno-near future San Fransokyo, the magical realm of Kumandra in Raya, or mythological Motunui in Moana.

“I think that’s the fun part of the process, especially early on in development where we spend so much time thinking through these different worlds,” Hall said.

“We’re trying to build a world that feels familiar and lived in, even if it’s a fantasy world. We want it to be realistic at least to the parameters of the logic of the world we’re building. I really enjoy that, but I think everybody at Disney does this as sort of a part of what we do. I think that’s what makes these movies feel so big and expansive.”

Hall returns to his biggest hit June 29 with the Disney+ Big Hero Six-inspired Baymax! The streaming series is Disney’s first to be produced entirely by the feature animation division.

“This was another world that was so expansive and built, and we only explored what we explored in the movie,” Hall said. “But ultimately it came down to Baymax the character and wanting to revisit a character that is very near and dear to my heart.”

Nearly three decades into the business, Hall is still discovering things about animation, creativity, collaboration, and, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, necessity. Raya and the Last Dragon, Hall’s 2021 hit, was largely completed on time and on budget from his and his production crew’s homes during lockdown. 

“We made movies, not a movie,” Hall said. “We made movies. We’re still making movies. If we can do that during such a global crisis, I think you walk away with a certain amount of confidence. The movies haven’t fallen off in quality at all, they’ve actually furthered the art and the technique of what we do. To come out of that with confidence, I think we learned some things practically we can put into practice going forward.” 

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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