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Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Your Favorite Disney Characters, From the Guy Who Drew Them

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Your Favorite Disney Characters, From the Guy Who Drew Them

READ MORE: Walt Disney Night on TCM—with Me

Artist and animator Glen Keane began his decades-long career at Disney Animation in 1974, beginning with “The Rescuers” and “The Fox and the Hound.” He was the main animator on some of the beloved characters that come from the so-called Disney Rennaissance of the 1990s, which included films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Then, in 2012, Keane resigned from Disney and set out on new animation adventures. “I am convinced that animation really is the ultimate art form of our time with endless new territories to explore,” he said in his resignation letter. “I can’t resist its siren call to step out and discover them.” 

And discover them he did. Keane’s 2014 short film “Duet,” was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short, and is now heading into new territory. Later this spring, Google will make the short available on Android smartphones in a completely new viewing experience, one that is difficult to describe, but breathtaking to watch. The original short (posted above) is a beautifully hand-drawn 2D film. But Google’s “Duet” is an interactive experience, where your smartphone is the movie screen, and what you see is no longer confined to a stationary screen. If you move your phone in one direction, the story will follow those characters; move it in another, and the story goes another way. The animation exists all around you in a three-dimensional space, and you become the director of what you see. 

“Duet” is the first hand-drawn film animated at 60 frames per second; more than double that of the 24 frames per second Keane used when he was at Disney. “I spent 40 years animating at 24, how do you make that jump?” Keane said when we sat down with him in February. “But I remember the old guys who had done ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Snow White,’ on all their desks they had metronomes. And for them 24 frames was just as weird as 60 for me.” During our chat, in addition to digging into “Duet,” Keane revealed some insights into some of our (particularly this writer’s) favorite Disney films. Here are some details you might never have known about some of your favorite Disney characters.

READ MORE: What Will Win for Best Animated Short?

Ariel, from “The Little Mermaid” (1989)

“Ariel’s longing for this world that’s beyond her, that’s impossible,” Keane said. “I really related to her, of any of the characters I’d done, I’d say I’m Ariel. I love characters that believe the impossible is possible, that have this burning desire inside of them and you animate that. Here’s this girl, she’s breathing water, she’s underwater but she’s going to walk on land and there’s that guy and he represents that world that she wants to be part of; I love that.” 

For Ariel, Keane looked no further than his own wife. “Originally I was supposed to do Ursula in that movie, and then I heard Jodi Benson sing ‘Part of Your World’ and I said, I have to do that character. When I found out, the director said, ‘Actually, we wrote that character thinking of you, not for you to animate it but just you, as your personality’. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to draw her’, and they said, ‘Well, can you draw a pretty girl? You’ve just done Ratigan and a giant and a bear, a fox and a hound.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been drawing my wife since we were married. I think I can do this.’ And Linda had very much the look of Ariel. I pretty much designed Ariel’s face based on her. There were other people too that were influenced into that character design but primarily Linda.”

Marahute the eagle, from “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990)

“I never wanted to be an animator. I just wanted to be an artist, and I do see myself as an artist first and an animator second. My portfolio was sent to the wrong school, and I was accepted into animation. I really wanted to be a painter, a sculptor. But I discovered that animation is the ultimate renaissance art form of today and will demand everything that you can put into it. When it came time to do ‘Rescuers,’ I’d never drawn a bird before. I didn’t know how to draw a bird; they were mysteries to me. Roy Disney had a friend who had six golden eagles up in Idaho, so I flew up and spent time with this guy, Morley Nelson, and by osmosis just soaked in this man’s love of eagles.”

After “The Little Mermaid” used it for its closing scene, “The Rescuers Down Under” was the first full animated film to use the new CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) program. “I came back home and started to study the bone structure of birds and found out that basically they have the same bone structure as you and I. They have arms and elbows, they have a wrist, their primaries are the same as our fingers except five of them, even the feathers are made of the same material as fingernails. I realized all of the comparative anatomy of a bird and even I would have my wife lie on the floor and videotape me flapping my arms. I’d transpose that into the eagle and it was just this wonderful discovery of the things that you don’t know how to do. Picasso said, ‘I am always doing those things I don’t know how to do in order that I may learn how to do them.’ I took that as a great challenge, just to learn to fly. I always have flying dreams, too.”

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The Beast, from “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)

“For ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Jeffrey Katzenberg would not let me meet Robby Benson [who voiced the Beast] because Robby was kind of a heartthrob at that time,” Keane said. “He said, ‘No, I don’t want you to meet him because you’re going to design the Beast looking like Robby and he can’t look like Robby.’ I said, ‘Oh, come on, Jeffrey, I think I know this,’ but no, I couldn’t meet him till after the film was done.”

As a result, Keane modeled the Beast after himself. “I had a really bad temper when I was a kid. I’d throw stuff around and I was impatient,” he said. “I remember breaking some stuff in my room one day because I couldn’t build this model that I wanted. My mom, she’d always diffuse it. So when it came to animating this impetuous, spoiled brat inside a beast, I just knew what that was like. Learning to control that takes enormous character strength, to control a temper, and you animate that from the inside out. This transformation was very much a spiritual transformation, which is what I went through in my own life. You put that into the characters that you animate.”

Aladdin, from “Aladdin” (1992)

“For Aladdin, who’s grown up on the street, there’s no way possible for him to rise above that but he believes it’s possible. For Beast, he believes that somebody could look under his skin and see something worth loving. I think I’m an idealist,” said Keane.

Aladdin was a character that turned out with a remarkable resemblance to his voice actor, Scott Weinger. “Sometimes the characters, the voice of the characters – when you meet somebody, like if you talk to somebody on the phone, you have that picture in your mind of what they’re going to look like. And then you see them, and you go, whoa, that’s not at all like them. And I find that for me, it’s helpful if I don’t know who the actor’s voice is, who the actor is at the beginning. I’m just letting the voice be that character for me. The voice is so important because by the time I’m done with the film I know that person’s voice better than they do. I know every inhale and lip smack and it’s all so analyzed and studied. There’s this weird thing where I believe the character exists before I’ve drawn them because that’s the experience I’ve had.”

Pocahontas, from “Pocahontas” (1995)

“Pocahontas was a wonderful new challenge because this was a historical person,” said Keane. “I went to Jamestown and I remember walking out in the woods trying to imagine, maybe it was right here that John Smith met Pocahontas. I read about all of his accounts of her. And as I was out there I heard this, ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ and I turn around and these two American Indian women are coming up to me. ‘Are you Mr. Keane? The animator who’s going to do Pocahontas?’ and I said, ‘Yes’. ‘Oh. Well my name is Shirley Turtledove, this is my sister Debbie Whitedove, we are descendants of Pocahontas.’ They were beautiful women, one was an airline stewardess, the other — I think she was a teacher, a very spiritual kind of a woman. They both stood with such nobility and I took a picture of them and somewhere in between them I saw Pocahontas, and I kept their photo on my desk as I was working on that character. That was very difficult because of the subtlety of the acting in that film, the design of her face in a lot of ways was based on Superman’s shield, the high cheekbones angling out. You try to find something to communicate to the others on your crew who are all going to have to learn how to draw that character.”

Tarzan, from Tarzan (1999)

“We lived in Paris and I was looking at other Tarzan videos and old movies and him swinging on the vine and I tried that, animating Tarzan swinging on a vine and it just looked boring, very passive. You’re not doing anything, you’re just hanging onto a rope. But every night I’d come home, there’d be [my son] Max with his bloody knees and he was skateboarding at the Trocadero in Paris and he was watching all these extreme sports.

“I started thinking, when I read Edgar Rice Burrows, he describes a Tarzan that is like a wild man, just leaping from branches and described somebody that the adrenaline had to be pumping through this guy, and I thought, he’s an extreme sports guy. What if he’s a tree surfer instead of swinging on the vines? That was based on my son’s skateboarding and so Max and I went to Africa and I studied the mountain gorillas there and understood Tarzan’s world and realized that there was enough moss that you really could slide down on those branches. So my first animation of Tarzan was to I think the Ventures song, ‘Wipeout.’ But it was all about surfing music. So I animated Tarzan surfing and showed that to the directors and they were like, ‘Whoa! Yes, this is our new Tarzan!’

READ MORE: Immersed in Movies: Glen Keane Begins Again with the Oscar-Contending ‘Duet’

Rapunzel, from “Tangled” (2010)

“I find that anytime a computer crosses my path it challenges me to be a better artist. With ‘Tangled,’ originally it was going to be hand-drawn, but Michael Eisner asked if I could take what I love about hand-drawn and put it into CG. That was when the film was called ‘Rapunzel.’ Eventually Eisner left, John Lasseter came in and we continued with the computer animation and actually John Lasseter and I did the first computer animation test together in 1982 for ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ so it was wonderful to connect again with him and do something together. Then after ‘Tangled,’ I felt like there’s something else calling, and I didn’t know quite what it was. To leave Disney and have that be this opportunity with Google, it was really pretty wonderful.” Which leads to…

“Duet” (2014)

“It’s so inspired by my family,” Keane said. “The little boy Tosh, the little girl Mia, is a direct animation of my own grandkids. Watching Matisse, our little granddaughter, I asked her to skip for me so I studied how that moved, what a skip is which is pretty amazing; it’s not a walk, it’s not a run, it’s not a hop, it’s a combination of all of them with joy as its motivation and there she was doing it. So I was animating her, and she’s always wanted to be a dancer. Animating the desire of that; watching our grandkids crawl and grow up it was right from the start.

“When Regina Dugan, the head of ATAP, Google’s research group asked me, ‘What would you do with this?’ immediately I imagined these two babies crawling to meet. Their paths were meant to be together but they’re going in opposite directions, and that you could follow them — one or the other. Then as they grew up they continue to cross and eventually, the question is, when do those two paths become one? In terms of just a graphic, visual statement that’s what the story is, but it was very much about my own family, which I learned from my dad. You base your artwork on people you love. He based his comic strip ‘The Family Circus’ on us as kids so it was the most natural thing in the world for me to do the same, which I’ve done anyway through my own work. Ariel was my wife Linda, Beast was me, Tarzan was my son Max, and Rapunzel was my daughter Claire, and this film also Max was the production designer on it and my daughter Claire did the color for the film. So it was very much a family, personal project.”

READ MORE: MoMA On April 6th: An Evening with Glen Keane and John Canemaker

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