UI alum finds boyhood calling at Disney

When Don Hall was first assigned to work on the movie Meet the Robinsons, he never imagined that he would lend his voice to two characters: Uncle Gaston and Coach.

As the main animator for the Walt Disney Studios film, the UI alumnus worked for four years to help create the characters that he embellished with his vocal talents.

The Glenwood, Iowa, native said he has pictured himself living in California and drawing for Disney since childhood. Now, he works as the head of story for the company and has put his hand to a number of animated pictures, including Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, Chicken Little, and, most recently, Meet the Robinsons.

"I did imagine it," the 1991 UI graduate said. "Apparently when I was little, I told my parents that I wanted to work for Disney."

Hall pursued his dream to become an animator through middle school and high school. Before ending up at Disney, he earned degrees in drawing and painting from the UI and returned home for a year after graduation, working at a bank until he was admitted to a California art school.

It was during an experimental animation class at the UI that he was able to create his first animated work by using an old camera from the university's communication department.

"My first animated film was of Janet Jackson dancing," he said.

While Hall noted he got his first glimpse of animation at the UI, he said he doesn't feel he applied himself fully to the curriculum, because he was so focused on Disney.

"I got good grades, but I didn't really immerse myself in drawing and painting [during his undergraduate years]," he said. "If I could go back, I would definitely paint more, because it is something I don't get to do as much now."

Hall moved to the West Coast to attend art school in 1992, where he studied animation for three years before snagging a job with Disney as a story artist in 1995.

Since then, excluding a five-month period during which he worked for DreamWorks, Hall has driven to his Disney office in Burbank, Calif., every workday morning.
Hall was promoted to the head of story for Meet the Robinsons, which came out in theaters March 30. The film grossed more than $100 million nationwide in the first three weeks of its release. As the head of story, Hall arrives at work by 8:30 a.m., attends meetings, draws, returns home by 6 p.m., and gets back to drawing by about 8:30 p.m., continuing as late as midnight.

The film, based on William Joyce's 1993 book A Day with Wilbur Robinson, took around four years to complete – the usual length of time required for an animated production, Hall said.

A five-person team composed of Hall, three story artists, and a director wrote most of the dialogue for the picture, using a story reel as a way to view the movie before spending money to produce it, he said.

"Most of the time we do the 'scratch' voices for characters, so we don't have to pay someone else to do it," he said. "I did the 'scratch' voices for Uncle Gaston and Coach, and they just kind of stuck."

Lending his voice to a film was a first for Hall in his nearly 12 years with Disney because he is an animator, not an actor. Hall is already working on another film but said he could not disclose any details.

John Bueltel, Hall's middle-school art teacher, said he remembers Hall as a student with real natural talent and a curiosity for experimenting with different media.

"We did an animation unit in eighth or ninth grade and he said, 'Mr. Bueltel, I want to work for Disney one day,' " Bueltel said. "At that time I was still showing Fantasia, and he was fascinated. You could just see the lights going in his head."

E-mail DI reporter Kayla Kelley at:

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