Animation Legend Glen Keane Is ‘Over the Moon’ About His First Feature Directing Project

Peter Debruge
·10 min read

Oscar-winning animator and SCAD Savannah Film Festival honoree Glen Keane knew he wanted to be an artist from a young age. The evidence is right there in the archives of his father Bil Keane’s daily newspaper comic, “The Family Circus.”

You see, Glen served as an inspiration for 7-year-old Billy, who would, from time to time, step in to scribble a few installments of the beloved single-panel strip. In reality, those crudely drawn “guest” entries were daddy’s invention, although it’s true that Glen displayed an early interest in art, and the encouragement from both parents set him on the course that would make him responsible for some of the best-loved animated characters of the last half-century.

During his run at Disney, Keane served as supervising animator for Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and the title characters in “Aladdin” and “Tarzan.” Forever drawn to new technology and what it could do for the medium, Keane worked on a computer-animation test with John Lasseter for “Where the Wild Things Are,” and later experimented with pioneering 360-degree tools on his Google Spotlight Stories short “Duet.” He partnered with Kobe Bryant, hand-drawing “Dear Basketball,” the late Lakers legend’s homage to his beloved sport, which earned them both Oscars. And now, the animation icon finally makes his feature directing debut, overseeing CG musical “Over the Moon” for Netflix.

Looking back on his formative years, Glen Keane describes his father, Bil, as a key influence in pursuing the career path he did. “Any time I needed it, I would go out to his studio and knock on the door,” recalls the director, who would bring whatever he was drawing along to share. “Dad, I’m trying to draw this horse but it looks like a dog,” he might say, and Bil would lift his arm and sweep his desk clean of the “Family Circus” to make room for his son’s work — a gesture that always made Glen feel like his own work was important — and show him how to improve it.

In a way, Bil was Glen’s first mentor.

Years later, Glen Keane had the good fortune to receive such guidance from the last surviving members of the “Nine Old Men” — veteran Disney animators who’d been with the studio since the early days.

“When I got to Disney, I was 20 years old, and I had so much to learn,” Keane says. “The old guys who had done ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Snow White’ were looking for a new generation to pass this [legacy] on to. It was very much a master-apprentice approach. You would stand over the shoulder of a master, and they would draw over your work.”

That was different from the training he’d received during his two years at CalArts. Keane and his father had visited CalArts during spring break, when the school was closed, and Glen’s fine-arts portfolio somehow found its way to the film graphics department.

“I knew I wanted to paint and sculpt, and film wasn’t part of it,” says Keane, so CalArts’ invitation to attend its experimental animation program perplexed him. But he was delighted by what he discovered in the field of animation. “I found that this was the ultimate art form. It was a combination of dance and music, painting, drawing, sculpting, design, acting, everything.”

Keane admits he still had a lot to learn after graduating, and considers himself grateful that his first years at Disney coincided with a period in which the veterans were encouraged to pass on their expertise. Keane’s first lesson came from artist Eric Larson on “The Rescuers.” “I had this first little animation I was supposed to do of Bernard sweeping the floor in the background of a shot,” Keane recalls. After a couple weeks of struggling, he went in to Larson’s office. “He said, ‘Well, Glen, what kind of a guy is Bernard? Well, does he want to do a good job?’ He started talking about Bernard as if he was a real person, and I realized that sincerity is believing in the character.

“Later, when I worked with Ollie Johnston, he told me, ‘Don’t animate what the character is doing. Animate what the character is thinking and feeling,’” says Keane, who passes the same lesson on to young animators. Audiences can see the application of Larson and Johnston’s principles in the animated performances Keane created for all his characters, but especially in 2014’s post-Disney “Duet,” wherein a boy and girl are born, grow up and fall in love over the course of a three-minute, hand-drawn 3D dance.

That Google-backed project allowed Keane to experiment with what new technologies could do for a medium that, in his estimation, still has enormous room to evolve. “I really believe that if you took [artists like] Rodin, but did not show any of what’s been done with animated movies now, they would move this artform into something so new and fresh and different. There’s part of me that longs for animation to move this way, and I’ve always said that I’m an artist first, an animator second, and whatever it is that I’m doing, I’m trying to find some way to take all that I love in classical art and bring it into animation.”

While working on “The Fox and the Hound” at Disney, Keane was assigned to work on a bear fight. “I thought, ‘How do I express the power, the fear, the enormity of a bear?,’”so he started drawing the scene in charcoal. “I wanted a way to capture the charcoal in film, and I realized how much the look of animation was because of a technical limitation of doing it on film.” Whereas earlier Disney projects, like “Bambi,” had used multi-plane technology to move through space dimensionally, “Our animation in ‘Fox and the Hound’ was pretty much relegated to a flat surface,” Keane says.

Then, in 1982, Keane and Disney colleague John Lasseter saw “Tron,” in which computer-generated “light cycles” cut glowing trails through 3D space, and they both saw the potential of applying this new technology to animation. Together, they collaborated on a primitive short-film test for “Where the Wild Things Are” of a cartoon Max drawing on a CG wall to show their superiors how computers might change the game.

They were too far ahead of the curve. Lasseter lost his job, and Keane was pulled into other hand-drawn projects — “The Black Cauldron,” “The Great Mouse Detective” — in what. many see as a low point in Disney animation, before the resurgence that began with “The Little Mermaid” and put Keane at the center of the Disney renaissance.

Walt Disney kept a library on the second floor of the animation studio stocked with art books. “When I would get stuck, I would roam through there and find a book about Degas or Lautrec or François Boucher. Boucher, who had a way of drawing just like Disney, but in the 1700s,” Keane says.
“The Little Mermaid” co-director Ron Clements describes an example of Keane incorporating fine art references on that project: “It was Glen’s idea to use Georges de La Tour’s ‘The Penitent Magdalene’ in Ariel’s grotto when she contemplates, ‘What’s a fire and why does it, what’s the word … burn?’ There’s an emotion in this painting that works perfectly in underlying what is going on in Ariel’s head.”

Over the next few projects, Disney slowly began to embrace digital innovations. “Any time I found that new technology crossed my path, it always forced me to be a better artist. Like for ‘Tarzan,’ I wanted Tarzan not just to be swinging laterally on a vine, but to physically surf down canvas, and we had this way of doing it now,” he says, referring to a CG breakthrough called Deep Canvas.

On “Treasure Planet,” Keane animated a character, John Silver, with a CG arm on a traditional cartoon body. A few years later, Disney studio chief Michael Eisner asked Keane to direct an all-digital Rapunzel movie, “Tangled.” Keane had planned to make that his feature directing debut, working with the team to explore the possibilities of the new technology, but had to step away over health issues in late 2008.

Keane has played a vital role in so many beloved projects, but didn’t necessarily feel a pressing need to direct. “For me, it’s such an expressive art form. I’m not happy if I’m sitting back watching everyone else do it,” he says.

When the opportunity to make “Over the Moon” came along, he found a way to balance helming duties (last summer, he brought on John Kahrs to co-direct) with what he loves most: “I drew more on this movie than I did on ‘The Little Mermaid,’” says Keane, who drew the enchanting early sequence in which characters printed on a scarf come to life himself.

On “Over the Moon,” Keane’s vision for the world of Lunaria blends inspiration from artists who have come before with original concepts designed to push the bounds of the medium.

One day, while sitting at a café in Paris, he happened to meet the grandson of Spanish artist Joan Miró. That chance encounter gave him the idea for the floating abstract shapes that define this realm — although he credits production designer Celine Desrumaux for suggesting the ethereal way that the lunar world (and its stylized inhabitants) appear to glow within.

“When she showed me an image of our main character, Fei Fei, standing on one of these glowing illuminated spheres in that world, I laughed and cried at the same time,” Keane recalls.

According to Desrumaux, that reaction isn’t unusual for Keane. When he reacts emotionally to the team’s work, “It’s the best compliment we can have,” she says.

Before collaborating at Netflix, Desrumaux respected Keane’s many accomplishments as an animator. “But I really discovered the artist when I worked on ‘Over the Moon.’ I was surprised because one of the first references Glen gave me was [French symbolist painter] Odilon Redon, which is not an animation-friendly reference.”

But if there’s one thing that’s clear about Keane — besides being an artist — it’s that he’s determined not to color within the traditional lines of animation. “I just love the idea of sculptural drawing,” Keane says, describing the appeal of embracing digital tools in his directorial debut. “Being an artist is wonderful, but it’s the blend of being an entertainer at the same time” that makes animation the ideal medium for him.

When Melissa Cobb, VP of original animation for Netflix, approached him back when the department had just 60 people (now it numbers closer to 800), he was excited to see how the kind of creative freedom she offered might work at this new “algorithm-driven studio,” as he calls it. The project was based at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver, where the team was always eager to learn from the master — although Keane insists that inspiration flows both ways: “For me, now I’m really trying to live something different, a kind of reverse mentorship, where I am surrounding myself with young people I really want to learn from.”

Maybe the same thing was true for Keane’s father when Glen was first showing promise. He remembers a day when Bil called him aside. “I want to talk to you,” the cartoonist beckoned, telling his son, “Glen, you’re an artist.”

“Those were the most wonderful words. It was like being knighted,” Glen Keane recalls now. His father lived until 2011, long enough to see many of Glen’s accomplishments. “Dad always felt I would be an amazing animator,” he says. “My dad was really my biggest fan.”

The SCAD Savannah Film Festival hosts a virtual In Conversation event Oct. 26 with Glen Keane (filmfest.scad.edu/schedule#in-conversation).

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