Don Ernst, a Stevenson Ranch resident, has had a long career in the film industry, but he said there were many things that made his time as co-producer of the animated classic “Aladdin” special.
The Signal caught up with Ernst ahead of the release of the live-action version of the popular film — expected to be a shot-for-shot remake of the original, retelling the tales of a street rat, his comedic genie and monkey pal, an outspoken princess and the path they take to stay true to themselves.
Ernst shared stories of working with Hollywood luminaries, such as the late Robin Williams.
“I loved working with directors Ron Clements and John Musker, I loved working with Robin (Williams), and I loved working with Howard (Ashman),” Ernst said. “Those are the things that stick out in my mind. It was very exciting, as far as the film went.”
Ernst’s job as producer entailed “making sure everything got done and got done on time.” He worked closely with the directors to ensure that everything went smoothly.
Their first task was casting, which began with securing Williams to voice the part of the Genie — a role specifically written for him.
“He was a tremendously funny man and really important for the film,” Ernst said.
Once filming began, they would do scenes with Williams where they would first have him read it how they had written it, but after Williams was familiar with the story, they would let him say his lines how he wanted to, according to Ernst.
“It brought out much more comedic things from him,” Ernst said. “Then we would go back with the editor and put together a combination of how it was written and how he had said it.”
It was that process that Ernst thought was unique, and one of the best parts of animation.
“In animation, you can rewrite all the way through the film,” he said. “You have the ability to go back and re-record the voices if it’s not working, tune it up and make sure everything worked well.”
Ernst also fondly remembers working with Howard Ashman, who composed a few songs for “Aladdin” as head of the music department, before his death from complications related to AIDS halfway through production of the film.
Once “Aladdin” was complete in 1992, it broke Disney’s box office records, grossing more than $217 million domestically and more than $504 million worldwide. The film became the most successful Disney movie ever made until “The Lion King” was released two years later.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Ernst said. “Here’s something you worked on that people appreciate and can see what you’ve created — it’s one of the reasons we do what we do.”
Ernst said he believes the live-action remake will certainly be successful.
“I’ve seen the trailer,” Ernst said. “There seems like a lot more of what is popular today — lots of exciting special effects, which is a different concept than what we were going for.”
And, although he may be biased, he said, “They might not be able to do it as good as we did though, and I don’t think they’ll ever be able to do the genie that Robin did.”
Ernst attributes that to the fact that live-action films face more difficulties than animated ones.
“It’s hard, because with live-action, you’re stuck with what you’ve got,” Ernst said. “It’s easier for animators to put more acting into the characters, and they can go back and revitalize the acting (through the animation).”
Regardless, Ernst is still looking forward to seeing the film.
Though he is now retired, Ernst began his career as a music and sound editor, working on titles, such as “Gunsmoke,” “Gilligan’s Island” and the 1978 “The Lord of the Rings” film before joining Disney as a producer for “Aladdin,” “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” and “Fantasia 2000.”
His goal throughout his career was always to become a producer, and when the opportunity arose with “Roller Coaster Rabbit” in 1990, he “jumped on it.”
“I liked working with Disney a lot,” Ernst said. “With Disney, the product had to be as good as we could do with what we had, and we made sure we did the films the best they could be done.”
Throughout his career, Ernst worked on various films and shows, yet he says it’s hard to judge one against another.
“They’re all great in certain aspects,” Ernst said. “But the one film that I feel I did a better job on was ‘Homeward Bound.’”
Ernst was brought on as executive producer to remake the 1963 film “The Incredible Journey,” in which the animals don’t talk and the story is told through narration. He took pride in the fact that he was able to bring the animals to life, which completely revamped the movie.
Ernst worked in the film industry for nearly 50 years before retiring.
“I had a long career,” he said, “I really enjoyed all of it.”