Taps for Tots: Knock Knock and the Who’s There Doors

Disney animator Dan Lund turns out an app that’s pure fun

Dan Lund has worked on little-known films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. When his niece and nephew made him the audience of their constant stream of ‘knock knock’ jokes, he turned to the app world to develop a game that could provide the same. “Who’s there?” kids playing Knock Knock and the Who’s There Doors ask to a myriad of whacky characters, always receiving a clever answer that makes them giggle and come back for more. It’s the perfect app for this last weekend of road trips before school starts again. And, like a Disney movie, it’s something the whole family will enjoy. —Kate Guadagnino

Can you explain what a visual effect animator does?
Animate everything that is not a character, to put it simply. I show up expected to look at a blank piece of paper and try to bring it to life through a cool new effect that supports the film’s style, tone, and schedule. One day could be spent animating lava that’s chasing Aladdin, and the next could be prepping designs for how leaves will accent Pocahantas’ emotional arc. I’m currently designing for an upcoming feature, Frozen.

How did Knock Knock come about, and what do you like about the app format, as opposed to film?
I am the least likely person to have done an app, because I had never downloaded one in my life, but I was back home for two weeks over the holidays…my nephew said “knock knock,” I said “who’s there?” and I was trapped! For two weeks, I was told knock knock jokes nonstop, and it didn’t matter that they were bad or told incorrectly. The kids just cracked themselves up every time. This app gives kids that constant friend to do the jokes with, and I love the fact that I was in control of the momentum while creating it. At Disney and any other studio, the machine is so big that your idea, which always starts out like a rocket, can quickly get replaced by another shiny object that’s caught the attention of an executive.

What did you learn from testing the app with kids, and what has the reaction to the app been so far—do parents play too?
One of the best features—the tap twice with knocking sound—was born out of kids’ input. Also, my niece was adamant about not having commercials in the app. “Not cool,” she said, and of course, Uncle Dan listened.

It’s like magic every time I see someone turn it on. The biggest surprise has been seeing how quickly users become sucked in and mimic the voices. They will pick the pirate door and suddenly say, “ARRRR, who’s there?” And yes, parents play along, at least when they’re not filming their kids because this app causes some awfully cute moments.

Back to movies for a second—of those you’ve worked on, which are your favorites?
I get asked this a lot and it’s a hard question. Some did more for my career than others. Pocahontas gave me my first starring role as an animator, even though it wasn’t as big as some of the others. Same with The Princess and the Frog. I feel like my fingerprints are on every frame of that film. The Lion King was the biggest box office hit and I love the movie, but I don’t have the same emotional attachment to it as I do to Mulan or FrozenBeauty and the Beast was my first feature, it the first animated film to get an Oscar nomination. I have to say it’s the one I wouldn’t trade for anything, maybe because I can still sit and watch it today and without thinking about the work behind the scenes; it’s just so transporting! I probably shouldn’t say this, but hey, we all like gossip: the film that did nothing for me was Home on the Range. It didn’t do much for audiences, either, so enough said.

Elizabeth Street did a review of a cool kids’ exhibit the Milwaukee Art Museum did on the art behind animation—where do you turn for inspiration to get the aesthetic feel of a new project?
What’s great about our business is that it gives you license to gather inspiration from anything. No one questions what you’re watching or reading. I don’t look at a lot of animation when doing research. My mentor at Disney always said, “We are not making cartoons; we are caricaturing real life.” I love that and always think of it when I’m looking under a rock that no one else would look under.  Effects guys tend to film and study a lot of fire, water, and natural disasters to get a handle on real-world dynamics, but when you’re locked away at your desk doing 80-hour weeks, you turn to your own sources. I watch Hairspray a lot to stay in that happy place while I’m animating. And I see a lot of theater to remind me how it feels to be in an audience. While developing the app, I listened to Stevie Nicks’ new album, “In Your Dreams,” on a constant loop. You may not see it, but she’s there in every frame!

Are other Knock Knock plans in the works?
I want to continue doing themed volumes, but more than that, I want them to live outside the app. I would love to lend my doors to children’s hospitals, charity events, or school carnivals. How cool to give access to this fun app world to a sick child stuck in a room getting chemo.