Great animators are also actors, comedians, and scientists. They study the way animals move, the flow of long grass, the grace of scudding clouds, the expressions humans make when they are frustrated, hungry, happy, or in love. And Glen Keane is one of its masters.
In the Disney 2D era he was known for drawing fierce creatures like the the terrifying Bear in “The Fox and the Hound,” Willie the Giant in “Mickey’s Christmas,” and Snidely Whiplash villain Rattigan in “The Great Mouse Detective” — and, the fiercely memorable Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.”
“I was supposed to do Ursula,” he said on the phone. “I loved animating power and strength and weight. I was watching Jodi Benson record with Howard Ashman coaching her, trying to get her to sing from a personal, intimate desire of wanting the impossible, to believe the impossible is possible. As I watched that, I felt, ‘There’s nothing more powerful than that. I have to do that.'”
Keane asked directors Ron Clements and John Musker to let him take on Ariel. “Can you draw a pretty girl?” they asked. “I’d been drawing my wife for 10 years,” he said. “Linda was my inspiration for the design of Ariel. And I started being drawn to main characters that have this fire, this desire, this thing inside that won’t let them quit.”
Keane left Disney in 2012 to start Glen Keane Prods. with producer Gennie Rim, and now he has another yearning young girl, Fei Fei, as the lead character of his feature directorial debut (with co-director John Kahrs) for Netflix, “Over the Moon.” (Keane and the late Kobe Bryant won the animated short Oscar in 2018 with “Dear Basketball.”) “Over the Moon” could earn Netflix its third Oscar nomination for an animated feature, after “I Lost My Body” and “Klaus.” (Check out the American Cinematheque’s virtual retrospective conversation with animators Keane and Sergio Pablos on Saturday, December 5th at 7:30 PM PT.)
Keane’s father was “Family Circus” creator Bil Keane, who encouraged his son to draw, and the younger Keane turned down an athletic college scholarship to enroll at CalArts.
“I never wanted to be an animator,” he said. “I just wanted to be an artist. When I was 18, I got into art school but was sent to the wrong school, the animation school. I had no idea what that was, but I got into it. I see animation as the ultimate art form: drawing and painting and music and dance and filmmaking and culture. Everything you can imagine is put into it.”
When he started working at Disney in 1974, the fabled Nine Old Men who created the groundbreaking Walt Disney classics “Pinocchio” and “Snow White” wanted to pass their skills to a new generation. “I came in as a 20-year-old guy on ‘The Rescuers,'” said Keane. “I’ll never forget walking into the studio Disney built in Burbank, and being hit with the sense of history and art-making. It was in the smell of cigarettes, pencil shavings, and Scotch: artistic incense.”
His first assignment: Little mouse Bernard sweeps the floor of the United Nations building. “I was so nervous,” said Keane. “I thought I would single-handedly destroy the reputation of Disney.” After a couple of weeks struggling with the sweeping action, Keane knocked on Eric Larson’s door.
“I was hoping he would give me some formula on how to do that kind of animation,” said Keane. “Instead he said, ‘What kind of guy is the mouse Bernard? Does he want to do a good job? Of course he does, he wants to get every speck of dust, don’t you think?’ Immediately, I could see that Eric was Bernard at that moment. I understood the meaning of sincerity: You have to believe in the characters you animate and live in their skin. I couldn’t wait to get back to my desk and animate. I have never forgotten that. It was the thing that drives me in everything I do in animation. I live in the skin of the characters.”
Thus, whenever Keane designed a character, whether The Beast or Tarzan, he became that character’s conscience and guide throughout the rest of the movie. Even with a team of people under him, he would animate key moments with that character and lead by example.
That’s how Keane came around to animating brainy young tech whiz Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) in “Over the Moon,” who loses her mother and is driven to build a rocket to the moon to find the Moon Goddess (Phillipa Soo) her mother taught her to believe in. “She is as close to Ariel as any character I’ve ever animated,” Keane said. “In essence, Fei Fei believes the impossible is possible, like Ariel. That fascinated me, that was the driving force.”
Keane landed the gig by giving a talk, about thinking like a child, at the animation film festival Annecy in 2017. “I described everything I love and believe about animation,” he said. “I didn’t know I was auditioning to direct this movie.”
As the animator talked about characters who believe the impossible is possible, Melissa Cobb (who would one day become the head of Netflix’s new animation division), sat next to Peilin Chou, Pearl Studios’ content chief. In development at Pearl was Audrey Wells’ script for “Over the Moon,” which she wrote for her daughter knowing she would die before the movie was finished. Chou reached out to Rim and Keane.
“This was one those things I felt called to do,” Keane said. “I was fascinated by Audrey Wells’ passion to tell a story that was so much bigger than entertainment, which had such a weight to it, in dealing with loss, and doing it from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl. We are going to experience all of this through her. She is the vehicle for taking this journey.”
When Keane read the script, it was not a musical. “It felt like Howard Ashman was in my head as I was reading the moments Audrey had written,” said Keane. “This is a song, a way to advance the story in music in a powerful emotional way. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s music never stopped the story, it always advanced it. In the middle of a song you communicated that story point.”
Rim and Keane found themselves unable to choose between two songwriters: Helen Park (“KPOP”) and the veteran team Chris Curtis & Marjorie Duffield. “We felt we should have them both,” said Keane. “They could work together. That’s not something we normally do, but it turned out well in this case, their music benefited from collaboration. There were so many different kinds of music here.”
Songs like “Rocket to the Moon” and “Mooncakes” helped Keane to bridge the film’s varying emotional tones. “Fei Fei is desiring somehow to see the goddess, she realizes as she sings the song,” said Keane. “And in the ‘Mooncakes’ song we see Fei Fei’s mom actually die. Fei Fei’s loss is so clear.”
Research in Shanghai, as well as producers Chou, Rim, and Janet Yang, songwriter Helen Park, and co-writers Alice Wu and Jennifer Yee McDevitt, helped the caucasian Keane capture the culture. “Everything I smelled and tasted and touched and heard and saw in China became the goal,” he said, “to put that into those moments in the film, when Fei Fei is surrounded by family, the bookends to the movie.”
Nailing the subtleties of Chinese family dynamics was a huge challenge. “Everyone is connected to food,” said Keane. “When a Chinese family is sitting down around a lazy susan in the middle, it’s not about making food so they can get it; it’s about sharing food with each other. Life is shared, family is shared. The importance of the generations in that culture is so clear and powerful. I’m an American wanting to tell a Chinese story who is invited to come into their culture and for their culture to tell their story back to the world. It’s about Fei Fei connecting to audiences all around the world. No one is immune to loss and sorrow.”
Keane’s love of master painters like Miro helped him and production designer Celine Desrumaux conjure the film’s glowing fantasy moonscape. “We had to do the equivalent of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ from to black-and-white to Technicolor,” he said. They built on the reflected light of misty mornings and shining evening gongs, as well as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of Moon album cover, “a prism of white light going to tint the rainbow.”
Even as a director, “I still feel like I’m animating,” Keane said. “I did more drawings in this movie than any hand-drawn movie. I drew every shot, every character design. I was storyboarding constantly through whole film, and did thousands of drawings in the animated section. It was the very last thing we did during the pandemic. I had to get that sequence done.”
At Disney, Keane watched John Lasseter and Brad Bird become filmmakers. “These are folks who lived and breathed to direct,” said Keane. “I had huge admiration for them.” Keane said he never saw himself as a Disney animator and always had one foot out the door, but kept being pulled back in by new challenges, like how to make a 16-year-old girl swim underwater or an ape man fly through the jungle. He was directing “Tangled,” but four changes in management left Keane disenchanted with corporate group-think. After a heart attack, he stepped down.
“It was becoming not the film I imagined it to be,” he said. “My story was coming off too dark. There were elements to it that made Disney nervous. Finally, I just focused on bringing a hand-drawn feel into computer animation.”
In 2012 Keane decided to leave the studio after 37 years after a pivotal conversation with Disney Animation president Ed Catmull, who asked Keane, “What are you looking for?”
“I want to live without walls,” he said. “Studios have big walls.”
First, Keane experimented with Google on a new technology, “a gyroscope system on your phone that animates and never stops following a character over 360 degrees,” for which Keane created the 60 fps ballet short “Duet.”
“It was an incredible amount of data,” he said. “A pencil line is a field of stardust, graphite dust. Every line is new. Google had to really come up with greater systems of storing information. That’s how they were benefiting. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted as long as it was hand-drawn. I spent about a year and half in Mountain View doing that little film.”
Then came “Dear Basketball.” When Kobe Bryant was looking for someone to animate the 2015 poem he wrote for “The Players’ Tribune” to announce his retirement, he drove up to Keane’s tiny Spanish-style studio in West Hollywood. “He had visited the major studios, and loved animation,” said Keane. “This was his plan after finishing his career in basketball. He wanted to do movies. So he pulls up and Vanessa, Natalia, and Gianna all stepped out. He gave me big hug. He’s looking around at the walls, the little sketches and stuff.”
“Perfect,” Bryant said to Keane.
“What? What do you mean?” he said.
“It’s real. It’s real.”
That’s how Keane was able to connect his approach to Bryant’s, he said. “Nothing fancy. We connected going in. It was just the beauty of the drawing and the love of storytelling.”
When it came to animating the final shot of “Dear Basketball” when Kobe walks off the basketball court, Keane animated him walking into a tunnel into the dark, Keane realized, “I can’t have him walk into the dark. I had him walk into the light, glowing around him, and he disappears. It looks like I was animating him dying and moving on to the next life. It was so important that that animation described him not ending something but beginning something wonderful. When he died, I immediately thought of that.”
Keane felt a similar responsibility to “Over the Moon” screenwriter Wells, “to deliver that message and carry it through. This was so much for her daughter to be able to move forward after her mom passed away. These last two films were remarkable experiences for me.”