NAMES: Don Hahn, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

DESCRIPTION: Creative team behind “The Lion King.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: They made the highest-grossing film of 1994, and nobody knows who they are.

NEXT PROJECT: Recognition?

It’s unlikely more than a handful of Hollywood players could name the creators of 1994′s top-grossing film, much less speed-dial them from their car phones. But the landmark success of Disney’s “The Lion King” – the first animated film to take the top B.O. prize – could help bring animation auteurs out of obscurity.

That would be fine with “Lion King” producer Don Hahn and the film’s two directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Hollywood myth has animation masters happily toiling away in anonymity – doing exactly what, no one knows, but surely whistling while they work.

Wrong.

Like everyone else in showbiz, animators increasingly crave credit. And while an interview with the irreverent “Lion King” trio plays like a Marx Brothers routine, they get serious when the talk turns to box office success relative to personal status. Sources say top feature animation directors at Disney make high six-figure salaries and receive hefty bonuses for hits. But they don’t approach the multimillion-dollar fees of A-list helmers.

“When you see other filmmakers getting millions for movies seen by a fraction of the people who saw ‘Lion King,’ (imbalance) does occur to one,” admits Minkoff, 32. In fact, the director is now developing a fantasy feature that will be his first live-action assignment, he hopes at Disney.

Yet all three point to what Minkoff calls a “sea change” in attitudes toward animators – a tide that began to swell when 1991′s “Beauty and the Beast,” also produced by Hahn, became the first animated film nominated for a best picture Oscar.

And it isn’t just artistic recognition. “Before ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ there was always this cap on what an animated film could do at the box office,” says Allers, 45.

“There’s a much higher profile on talent in this business now,” adds 39-year-old Hahn, who’s prepping Disney’s 1996 animated release – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Unlike live-action directors and producers, Hahn, Allers and Minkoff are studio employees. (They recently moved into Disney’s new animation building.) All admit to getting recruitment calls from rival studios, agents – “everyone but starlets,” says Hahn.

None expresses an interest in leaving Disney, but none denies the offers will get higher. One major factor is former Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Katzenberg’s hands-on control of the animation department left little room under the spotlight for the creators themselves – not to mention feature animation president Peter Schneider. While Hahn, Allers and Minkoff praise Katzenberg’s ability to rally the studio machine behind animated releases, Allers says, “There is a sense of more creative freedom around here now.” The trio confirms that new studio chairman Joe Roth discontinued Katzenberg’s weekly story meetings with animation.

That freedom could be a powerful lure for talent, but the flip side of Katzenberg’s exit is that the exec will at some point set up his own animation studio – and will no doubt try to attract the same talent with hefty salaries.

The three men agree that any elevation in the status of animators probably won’t lead to a future where top creators are hired guns moving from studio to studio, like live-action talent. “Animation functions like a repertory company,” says Minkoff. “It requires a stable group of people. Disney’s animation division is the modern equivalent of the old studio system – which I believe is a better way to make all movies, not just animated movies.”

Minkoff, a native Northern Californian, started at Disney right out of CalArts. Like Allers, with whom he was partnered by the powers that be, Minkoff’s first feature directing assignment was “Lion King.” He had previously directed two Roger Rabbit shorts.

Arizona-bred Allers, also a fine arts major, had previously served as head of story on “Beauty and the Beast.” He’s now developing an animated feature for the studio that he describes as “an Incan-themed original story.”

Disney uses multiple directors on animated features because of the enormous complexities in production. Helmers essentially oversee two films – first directing the vocal recording sessions (yes, they report, top stars can be just as difficult on animated films) and then supervising the creation of the animation itself. And like live-action directors, animation helmers must consider production design, lighting and music, not to mention the story. While some directing teams divide the labor, Allers and Minkoff collaborated on nearly every aspect of “The Lion King.”

Because cartoons can be changed more easily than live-action films, Disney relies heavily on previews to fine-tune its animated features. Audience response often leads to major changes in the film, with the creators belting out songs and storylines to execs. During a pitch to Katzenberg on a new song for “The Lion King,” producer Hahn – a music major and former drummer – grabbed an empty plastic water cooler bottle and performed a bongo routine. “Everyone in animation is a performer to a degree,” says Minkoff.

And while the public (and rival studios) may think Disney has some magic formula for creating cartoon hits, the men behind the cameras say it ain’t so. “There’s always a slight edge of desperation,” says Minkoff, a fear that comes with the awareness of how important these films are to the studio’s marketing machine.

“Regardless of the Burger Kings and the Mattels and all the other promotional side events,” says Hahn, “when the lights go down, that all means nothing. We have to deliver a good movie.”

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