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Great advice & flying Twinkies rain down in Don Hahn's "Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self"

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Great advice & flying Twinkies rain down in Don Hahn's "Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self"

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Welcome to June. That time of year when many of us struggle to find the perfect graduation present. That thoughtful, well-chosen item which will then make an impression on the newly capped-and-gowned.

Luckily, Disney Editions has - just yesterday, in fact - released a book that (I think, anyway) will make a great gift for the recent high school & college graduate in your group. It's called "Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self" and features acclaimed film producer Don Hahn's somewhat unique take on the care and feeding of a creative spirit.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I mean, it's not every day that you'll pick up a paperback which talks about how ...

... It's nearly impossible to use mere words to describe the feeling of power you get where you lob (a) Twinkie two hundred feet in any direction. It is very satisfying.

But that's part of the fun of "Brain Storm." The way that Hahn uses behind-the-scenes stories from his days at Disney to illustrate how creativity can often be ... Well, messy. And unpredictable. With great pieces of entertainment often being birthed in extremely unlikely settings under somewhat bizarre circumstances.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Take - for example - how the opening number for "The Lion King" actually came together:

... Hans Zimmer had done a stirring arrangement of 'The Circle of Life' in preparation for a singer to come in and record the vocals, but something seemed missing. We knew that to establish the African setting, we wanted a more indigenous sound from the first note of the film. Hans invited African singer Lebo M to the studio to try some experiments on tape. Lebo had been working as a valet-parking attendant, and Hans had used him to sing on an African-themed score a year earlier. At the time, Hans worked in an improvised space that he had carved out of the back of a nondescript industrial building on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The studio didn't even have a glass partition separating the recording booth from the area where the talent stood at the microphone. The room was stacked with boxes of tapes, and there were old guitars, a piano, and a table laden with Chinese food in the corner. It was in this backroom studio that Lebo put down his egg roll, stepped up to the microphone, and began recording. He experimented a few times to find something unique - a sort of tribal cry - and then, on the next take, out of nowhere, came the now-famous cry in the wilderness that begins 'The Lion King.' It was improvised quickly, crudely, and with little preparation, but it worked. It captured the mood of an entire film.

Lebo M at the "Lion King" DVD premiere event at the
El Capitan Theatre in October of 2003.
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Singer Carmen Twillie came to the studio that night to sing the vocal track on 'Circle of Life.' By late that evening the crew had finished up all the moo shu shrimp, bang bang chicken, and kung pao pork, and Carmen had finished recording an extraordinary version of the whole song. At the time, Carmen's performance was meant to be used as temporary vocals that would eventually be discarded and replaced. For months, we listened to other singers, looking for a permanent vocalist for 'The Circle of Life,' but in the end we could never improve on Carmen's emotional delivery, recorded that night in a backroom studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. The setting was improvised - part recording studio, part storeroom, part Chinese bistro - but the work was electrifying.

Or - better yet - take a gander at how Richard Williams got ready to work on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit":

I worked with Dick (Williams) for two years ... After spending a few weeks with him in the studio, it shocked me that this legend of animation seemed to do very little work. He's come in in the morning and we'd talk a while. Then he'd take a call. Then, faced with a deadline for designing a character, say Jessica Rabbit, instead of sitting at a desk and pulling out a pencil, he'd leave the studio. About an hour later, he would come back from the bookstore with loads of magazines and books under his arm and proceed to pull out a pair of scissors and cut them up. Each clipping became an idea. That girl's hair, this one's eyes, that actress's body, or her dress. Dozens of clippings were made, and Dick would tape them to big white cards. I would offer to help, but he'd always say, 'No, no, it's this thing that I do, and I really have to do it.'

Richard Williams in the "Roger Rabbit" production offices in 1987.
Image courtesy of Tom Sito

I thought he was nuts. Why are we paying this director to cut out pictures and tape them to a board? But as eccentric as Dick was, he was smart. Really smart. He knew about immersion. He went on for weeks with this clipping-and-pasting routine. When he wasn't clipping, he was taking home cartoons and watching them until the early hours of the morning.

It was Dick's way of preparing and it was preparation at its highest level. He drank up a big bucket of inspiration from every imaginable source and then, often in the middle of the night, he would hover over his drawing table, where the drawings would leap like fire out of the ends of his fingers and onto the paper. His weeks of immersion, of ideas gathering, would culminate in heaping torrents of nonstop work. The deadline arrived. The work got finished at an alarming rate of speed. It was all brilliant.

Mind you, not all of the stories that Don shares in "Brain Storm" are funny or fun. Take - for example - Hahn's take on what it was like to work at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 1970s / early 1980s, when ...

Some of the young turks from Cal Arts -- among them Brad Bird and John Musker -- who
would challenge the status quo at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the late 1970s /
early 1980s. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

the studio was full of eager young talents chafing under the leadership of veteran artists who, as masterful as they were, had become creatively stagnant by trying to repeat well-worn formulas from the past. The studio was starved for artistic leadership and the collaboration that was once there, but both had died with Walt Disney years earlier. The culture was broken.

"I remember working at places in my career where the creative leadership was threatened by the young people coming in," John Lasseter said referring to that era. "I was told, 'Just be quiet and do what you're told.' I decided that if I was ever in charge I wouldn't say to a young guy what was said to me."

And Lasseter ... He definitely took the life lessons that he learned during those dark days at Disney and then applied them directly to Pixar. Which - the way Hahn describes it - has become  a place where no one keeps quiet. Where everyone (in the story department, anyway) challenges the status quo every day:

Inside the "Toy Story 2" story room. Image courtesy of Floyd Norman

If you were to walk into a (story) session at Pixar, you would think you had walked into a huge family argument. People are shouting and talking over each other as though their lives depended on it, and you know what? They do.

That's what's great about "Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self." Don constantly reminds you about how creativity isn't neat & quiet, safe & predictable. Which is why - in order to keep your creative spirit alive & well - you sometimes need to feed your soul / feed your face by going back to nostalgic hangouts like Burbank's SmokeHouse restaurant. Where - according to Hahn - the garlic bread is so amazing that ...

... if the planet were being destroyed tomorrow and I had to get on a spaceship to leave but was only allowed to take ten things, I'd take the Mona Lisa, a copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet, an iPad, a Bible, the remastered Beatles anthology albums, a print of Citizen Kane, the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, Miss Welch, a change of underwear, and an order of garlic bread from the SmokeHouse. With these things one could form a suitable colony on any planet.

The food of the Gods, the garlic bread at the SmokeHouse in Toluca Lake

Okay. So Don does spend an awful lot of time in "Brain Storm" talking about food. Which is understandable. Given that Hahn genuinely believes that ...

... Our physical being is literally a sum of the food, water, and air we take in, plus the effect of the environment in which we exist. I balance my diet with grains, dairy products, vegetables, and meat, and on other days my four essential food groups consist of sugar, caffeine, chocolate and Advil.

Well, you can forget about that Advil. It's not your head that will ache after reading "Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self," but - rather -- your sides. This is one entertaining self-help book. One that - along with all of the great behind-the-scenes stories that Don shares about his doings at Disney - features tons of practical advice about one goes about keeping a creative spirit alive in today's world.

So if you really want to make an impression on the recent graduate on your life, give them a copy of "Brain Storm." Just don't be surprised if - at their graduation party, thanks to Hahn's inspirational prose --  baked goods suddenly become " ... really, really, really airborne and land somewhere near New Guinea."

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  • Thanks for the heads up, I look forward to reading it.

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