Interview With Disney Animator Glen Keane
by Brendan Burch
One of lifetime Disney animator Glen Keane’s crowning career achievements takes place late in the 1991 Disney feature film Beauty and the Beast. The Beast, having heard of Belle’s love for him, goes through a transformation…
Keane, who was honored in 2007 with the Windsor McCay Award for lifetime contribution to the field of animation, has too has undergone some transformations in his career, and also watched the industry transform as well. A gifted football player in his youth, Keane opted out of a scholarship and turned his attention to painting – and eventually animation while at Cal Arts. In his first job at Disney, Keane’s work on The Rescuers marked the transition from the era of The Nine Old Men; subsequently beginning the era of The Nine New Men. Working alongside John Lasseter, Keane helped guide one of the seminal CGI projects ever conceived – a 30-second test based on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that merged 2D character animation with CG backgrounds. Along with films like Star Wars, Tron and Luxo Jr., the projected helped transition the world of animation closer to the CG landscape we now know. After his legendary work on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Tarzan, Keane underwent another transition – that into director. He took the director’s chair in 2003 for the CG film Rapunzel, which is due in theaters next summer. In 2008, due to non-threatening health reasons, Keane relinquished his directing duties to Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, taking instead the role of Executive Producer on the project.
Glen also helped me transform into an animator – after seeing him in The Making of ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
I recently got the chance to run a few questions by Glen, and we go over the onset of the Lasseter-era at Disney, his Windsor McCay award his thoughts on passing his legacy onto the next generation.
BRENDAN BURCH: Now that you’re directing, do you miss the physical process of animating?
GLEN KEANE: Directing Rapunzel has been a great learning experience for me. However I have always seen myself as an animator at heart and have longed for the day to be back animating, living in the skin of the character I am drawing.
BRENDAN: How has the Pixar team changed the way things work at Disney?
GLEN: John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have brought with them a refreshing honesty and collaboration that is permeating the studio. They very quickly instituted a story trust made up of directors and heads of story to give honest critiques of each other’s films. To be open to this kind of feedback is both painful and liberating. Our films have made giant strides forward by this process.
BRENDAN: How has the transition from pencil to the Cintiq digital tablet gone for you?
GLEN: I have been doing my storyboards on the Cintiq tablet for Rapunzel. The first thing I noticed is how easy it is to get lost in doing very finished, rendered boards rather than exploring in quick thumbnails the many different approaches one may take to an idea. The computer seems to tempt one to commit too soon to an idea. Maybe it is just my habit but I find that I think better and more creatively on paper. So my solution is to thumbnail and explore on paper, then scan in my rough sketches into the Cintiq. I am now free to move forward knowing I’ve seen the problem from every angle.
BRENDAN: Do you have any routines for uncorking your creativity?
GLEN: Get away. That’s what I need to do when I am stuck. I go for a long walk and refresh my soul. I go to a museum to remind myself that I am an artist and need to think like one. Often the thing that can happen to someone working for a big studio like Disney, or any studio for that matter, is that you can forget why you love this art form. It can quickly become about meeting a production goal. Schedules and deadlines are important, even essential, because they create a fire and heat that seem to force you into your best ideas. However when you feel creatively empty and uninspired, the deadline mentality will say “It’s okay just let it go. So what if it’s not your best work – you’ll get another chance next time. Hand in the scene and at least you can feel good about hitting the numbers.”
I reject this voice and instead do something that feels entirely counter-intuitive. I take that seemingly all too precious time and walk out the door of the studio, hop in my car and drive to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I marvel at the Rodin sculpture at the entrance. I study the Degas pastels and figurines… I start to remember that I am an artist first and animator second.
BRENDAN: Do you plan to work on any personal projects in the future?
GLEN: I want to explore new directions that hand-drawn animation can be moving in; directions that the computer has now made possible.
BRENDAN: How do you feel your work has progressed since you started your career?
GLEN: I am more and more interested in taking my lead from discoveries and observations from real life and letting that inspire my work. Whenever I have done that, I have done my best work. Whenever I try to make my work look and feel like other animation – I fall short.
BRENDAN: Congratulations on winning the Windsor McCay award at the 2007 Annie Awards. What does this award mean to you?
GLEN: One of the most wonderful memories of that night was meeting Windsor McCay’s family. He is such a legend that to meet other McCay’s who were so approachable and genuine I was reminded that animation has always been created not by legends, but by folks just like you and me.
BRENDAN: With all of the Nine Old Men now gone, who do you look to for artistic advice or guidance in your career?
GLEN: Frederic Back has always been a great source of inspiration. I believe his work points to the future of where I hope hand drawn animation can go. Anytime I can spend with him is precious to me.
BRENDAN: For animators, do you recommend watching live-action reference video?
GLEN: Of course. When you study live action frame-by-frame, you see the “secrets” revealed as to why a movement or expression feels the way it does. I am in awe of the world and it’s creatures.
BRENDAN: When you’re animating, how much importance do you put on weight and gravity?
GLEN: If a character lacks weight in how it moves, it lacks credibility. I don’t believe it exists. It becomes just a drawing or a frame of film. As I animate, I have an inner-feel of the weight of the character that I am always very aware of with each step, twist and movement. If, as I animate, the weight of a character feels in any way untrue, all sorts of animation alarm bells sound off in my gut.
BRENDAN: You’ve left a significant mark on the animation industry over the last 30 years. What will the next 30 years look like for you?
GLEN: I want to spend it giving back to others as I have had so many give so generously to me. I want to improve as an artist and find better and more personal ways to express myself in animation.
Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larsen gave so freely to me that I feel not only a debt of gratitude but also a great responsibility to hand the baton on to young animators today. I am still learning, in new ways, principals that I learned from those masters in my early twenties. I find myself saying, “Oh so that’s what Ollie was talking about. Now I get it.” Anytime I get that “now I get it” feeling, I have to find someone to pass it on to.
BRENDAN: Would you ever be open to teaching animation?
GLEN: I have always taught animation at the studio as I work side by side with other animators. At times, I give lectures outside of Disney and someday the idea of teaching animation full time may be what I choose. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that yet.
BRENDAN: You have worked at Disney throughout the majority of your career. Do you ever feel limited, having worked at only one studio?
GLEN: What one might consider as limiting (working at only Walt Disney Animation Studios) has actually been incredibly expanding for me. Because of it’s stature, Disney has attracted so many of the best artists in animation within it’s walls ever since I’ve been here. The animation world is actually a rather small family and so many animators I know at other studios have come from Disney or are going to come here. There is a constant influence from outside of our studio walls. Disney itself is ever evolving and continually re-inventing itself. The studio of today is nothing like it was in the 70’s and nothing like it will be 10 years from now.
BRENDAN: As you survey the animation industry in 2008, are we in a new golden age?
GLEN: It seems to me that a “golden age” starts with a movement to discover and learn. It worked that way when Walt turned Hyperion studios into a veritable animation university complete with animal pens to keep deer for study. The result was Snow White, Bambi and Fantasia. In the seventies, when Disney re-started its training program, there was an influx of new talent, new discoveries and wonderful new films like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Lion King. Branching out from Disney, there are the films of John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Tim Burton.
We need to be stretching out and learning, discovering, trying new things. We cannot rest on where we are. There is always a stronger, more convincing, more personal and expressive way to tell our stories and to animate our characters. If we do that then we can move into another “golden age.”
Lineboil contributor Brendan Burch co-founded and runs Six Point Harness Studios in Los Angeles. Brendan also teaches part time at Cal Arts in the Experimental Animation program.