Disney legend Glen Keane interview: Tangled, computer animation, his heart attack, and Ollie Johnston

Interview Simon Brew 22 Nov 2010 - 15:14

As Tangled arrives in US cinemas, we spend some time with one of Disney’s most legendary animators, Mr Glen Keane…

Round-table interviews notoriously can go one of a few ways. If you’re lucky, and we’ve had more positive experiences than not, then the flow of conversation is aided by the contribution of lots of minds in the same room. On the other hand, it can lead to very a disjointed discussion.

On this occasion? Everything went tremendously. For Glen Keane is one of Disney’s legendary animators, with his work on Ariel in The Little Mermaid, the Beast in Beauty And The Beast, on Tarzan, Aladdin, Treasure Planet and more standing tall. And when he spoke, we wisely just listened, and let a true animation great tell his tales.

We were lucky enough to get some individual time with Glen afterwards, too, and we’ll run that piece closer to the UK release of Tangled at the end of January. But as the film is readied for its US rollout later this week, we invited you to spend some time with Mr Glen Keane...

Do you see the world in a different way from people who are not sketching all the time? Is there a special thing in you?

It’s developed in me. I do. I do see things. If you have a chance to see my show in Paris, which is running through January [details at the bottom], it’s a little retrospective of my 36 years of animation drawings.

But then it’s all the things from my sketch books. My sketch books and the figure drawings are the source for everything I’ve ever animated. It’s all these observations. The little things that make a huge difference. You don’t see it unless you are drawing it, and you have to draw it. In order to draw it, you have to have observed it. You can see it, or you can really see it.

I see myself as an artist first. I’ve never thought of myself as a Disney animator. I never wanted to be a Disney animator. I put my portfolio in at CalArts to become a sculptor, a painter, and it was sent to the school of animation by accident, and it was accepted. So I always felt like maybe some day I’ll get to follow this path.

It’s why I’m so excited that about this show. I’ve never had a gallery show, and you’ve never even seen any of my drawings up on the screen. Everything is always cleaned up or interpreted by somebody else. There’s a longing to express yourself artistically that continues to drive me. I always feel like I’ve got one foot in Disney, and one foot out of the door. I’ve never felt like a Disney guy.

At the same time, looking back on your career, do you look back in frustration? That it put you off your artistic self?

You know, there is a need in me to do something personal. There has to be.

This is what I was challenging the animators with constantly on this film. I’d say this is your moment on Earth to be an artist. You were born at this time. You could have been born at the Renaissance and we’d have been talking about sculpture. Today we’re talking about animation. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t every bit the artist that one of those men back in the Renaissance would have been.

This is your moment. So you take the moment, and find something real personal, and put yourself into it. Don’t put yourself into past Disney movies. Don’t copy anything. Make it personal and real. And I say that with conviction to them because it’s exactly how I’ve approached everything that I’ve done, and it’s the only reason I could work at Disney for 36 years.

I know that there’s people who possibly work at studios for a long time and they lose themselves. They become, I don’t know, a formula of some sort. A caricature of themselves. And I really don’t want that.

There’s a scene in Tangled that’s very close to one that you’ve drawn in the past [this is the spoiler-free version of the question!]. Did you find at that stage, given what you’ve just said, that you had to take a step back from that particular part of the film?

I have to step back. I had to walk that line constantly, because I was drawing over every shot on the movie on a Cintiq. In our dailies, we’d get everyone together and I’d have a Cintiq tablet, and I’d draw over the top, and try and push the pose, or suggest an attitude. Take that idea. But I really used the model that was taught to me by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

They always really respected me. Even though I was only 20 years old. I was ready to throw everything I did out, but they never did that. They’d say “I really like that, I like what you’re doing here Glen. If you just turned that head a little bit more in silhouette, you’ll see the attitude a little more clearly. Those are the things I tried to do with the animators today. To help them tell their idea more clearly.

The thing that happens with the computer is that it’s always seducing you to buy into ‘less than’. It’s seducing you to fall in love with a nicely rendered form. And the shading that is done so nicely on that shoulder. But who cares that the shoulder is pushed here [motions away], and it’s anatomically impossible! Look at the way the wrinkle falls on that dress! It’s like, grrrr! I’d look at that, and in the beginning I was so frustrated, seeing what the animators were presenting to me. It was horrible!

We had this quote board, and I said “you guys work so long just to make something look bad”, so they had that up on a quote board. So I’m, oh gosh, I’d better be careful what I say!

What I’m trying to say is that I know you have to work so long and so hard just to get it to a level that’s even mediocre. But we can’t stop there. You have to be so convinced inside about something that you believe, that you will say no to the computer, that’s not what I want. Yes, I could do that, but this I what I want, I have to go to the end and get that. So how do we get that? That’s where I’d start to do the drawings, and push the shoulder.

See, the computer always tries to do everything symmetrical. Asymmetry is beauty. Symmetry is cold, and lifeless.

I was constantly drawing the directors as they would act and perform, so I could show the animator before they went to animate it what to shoot for, a lot of it was doing sketching beforehand. Giving them that goal, so that they could push and push beyond what was accepted.

I remember even for me I had to learn that lesson. Back in 2005, when I was working on a first little animated test, I invited Ollie Johnston, who was my mentor, to the studio.

At that point he was, like, 92 years old. He couldn’t walk any more, so I wheeled him in. He couldn’t draw any more. He was beginning to get pretty feeble. He could talk clearly about animation, that was about all. It was like his life was reduced to the principles of animation. It was incredible. He’d still remember things that we’d talked about, years ago, as a animator. That was his world.

And I showed Ollie a scene of Tangled. I was pointing it out. I said “Ollie, look”, and it was a little scene of her holding a squirrel, that was in the movie at this point. I said “look, freckles!” We’ve never had freckles on a character before! “Look at the satin on her dress, we’ve never been able to do that, the light reflecting on it”.

Ollie said, “Well, Glen. What I was wondering is, what is she thinking about?”

It was like, gah, yes. Who cares about all of the icing on the cake, if the cake isn’t tasty, if it doesn’t have butter and eggs? No one’s going to want to eat it. That was the drive throughout this whole process. Have a goal that’s worth fighting for. If you don’t, the computer is like a used car salesman. It’ll always make you walk off the lot with something you don’t want. Every week we had lectures and challenges to the animators.

The amazing thing was that in May, this year, we were only at 40% finished in our animation. We had to have 60% of the movie by the middle of July. And it was impossible. And it was all of the most subtle, difficult, stuff.

I remember telling [the animators], “look, we have an impossible amount of work to do, none of you will be the animators you are now by the end of the film, you will have grown. You will have animated scenes that you can’t even imagine that you did. And I can’t tell you how you will do them. But you will do them, and there’s just something that is happening right now, and I call it collective learning.”

It’s all of this preparation that went so slow, so painful at the beginning.

People were second guessing now, they would predict what I would draw beforehand, and they would do it. And I found I wasn’t doing those drawings any more. I was doing less and less drawing. My drawings are different now, they’re very specific about acting choices.

We actually finished the movie on time. I was truly dumfounded by that.

How much did you have to get use to the computer? Was it a hard process for you?

I tried animating one day on the computer. I thought okay, I’ll learn to animate on the computer. I animated a little scene of Rapunzel. Well, I was trying to do it anyway. It was so difficult.

When I draw, I feel what I draw. I’m making the same face, my body, the attitude, everything. I feel it. I was trying to manipulate this character, and she was in such awkward positions. And I knew all the pain that they went through to get to that level that I was criticising.

I realised I don’t have time to learn this. I thought if I become soft, and too sympathetic to their suffering, I will give them too much freedom. And it was good for me to step back and be the coach on the sidelines, and not on the field for this film. It was important that I did not animate with the computer.

What are your thoughts on the changing of the 2D world to the 3D world throughout your career?

I feel like, there was a pathway that happened on Pocahontas for me. That I could see a whole other future, but I continued. I thought okay, I’m going to go back to that some day.

It’s actually the only moment in my 36 years of Disney where you see my drawings up on the screen. All the others are somebody’s clean-up of my drawings. But it’s in Pocahontas, in Colors Of The Wind, and it’s the charcoal drawings that I did.

And we used the computer to paint it, but keeping the charcoal lines in. I thought, that’s how I want to use the computer. I want to find a way to really celebrate drawing. To really value the energy of a line. A line to me is like a seismograph of an earthquake, that measures emotion. And when you clean it up, you take so much out. That’s another direction that we can go because of the computer.

What I’ve spent my time doing is taking what I like about hand-drawn, and putting it into the computer. I’d like to take some time and take what the computer can do, and put that into hand-drawn. That’d be another whole look for a movie. I don’t know what it’d look like, but that’s what I’d like to pursue.

What’s the most important part of creating the character? Maybe the eyes?

If you’re going to make a mistake, don’t make it in the eyes. Because everybody’s looking at the eyes.

If you’re driving through an intersection, it’s incredible. I can tell as I’m driving past at 50mph if somebody glances at me. We are zeroed in on [eyes]. That is the focus of attention for the animation. It’s actually a triangle of emotion, with the brow. We spend a lot of time with the muscles in the brow.

In Tangled, with Flynn, Mother Gothel, you see these little dents, these muscles. When Rapunzel is singing, her eyebrows go down. It was important to see that she’s pulling this power from inside. It’s not just the power of the words that’s making her glow, it’s something from inside. So when it’s cut, and she’s in such pain there, the pump is pulling from the heart, which brings the tear, and it’s still got that magic.

What has your experience with Disney in drawing again and again done to your artistry? When, for instance, you draw a child on a bench, you’re expressing through your art what you’re seeing and feeling. But during your years at Disney, you draw again and again and again until you get something that’s presentable on the big screen? So what’s that done to your artistry?

You’ll notice that the things I draw on, or I notice, or observe, are the things that I value. The things that I value are the things that make us uniquely us, as an individual. I love to do a drawing of a child sitting on a chair. I’ve never seen a two children sit on the chair the same. The way one dangles her foot, they’re always moving and changing so many times. Usually I’ll have about ten different versions, because they’re moving all around.

Whereas a couple, in the way they lean against each other, with the head on each other, it’s this affection between two people. I love these moments that are so sincere and real in life. You’ll see all of that in my drawings on the wall, and hopefully you’ll see that that’s the thing I draw on in my animation.

If I’m drawing a ballet dancer, there’s a rhythm to the way her body goes, that when Arial is swimming, when I did that drawing of that dancer, I wasn’t thinking of her. But when I’m animating Ariel, there’s a bell that goes off inside me, that says yes, it’s true, it’s right. And if that bell doesn’t go off, I keep drawing. But what is it that rings the bell? And it’s the source of those sketches. That’s my treasure chest I keep going to.

What do you take from animation into your drawing, though?

Everything. Animating to me is sculpture. I call my animation drawings sculptural drawing. That is fully realised in a sense in the CG animation of this film. You could physically put the camera anywhere around these characters. And for me, when I’m animating by hand, I’m shading my drawings. People always say why are you shading your drawings, that’s so stupid? People are going to clean it up, nobody’s going to see your shading. I’m like, well because, I don’t know why. It’s more believable and dimensional. I like it more, I believe it more.

Are you already involved in new projects?

Not yet. It’s in the cooker!

Is it true that Disney has rules that you can’t work too long, and for too many hours, because you get burned out?

That’s not true. We are encouraged to draw and draw. What do I do with my time off? I draw for pleasure. When I’m not being paid to draw, I draw.

There was one point I did stop drawing. I had a heart attack in 2008 on this movie, and I stepped back from directing. Which is why I’m not directing the film. And I focused on the animation. Which I’m really glad, because I’d never have been able to put all those things I’m talking about into this film.

For those six months, I did not draw. I specifically held back. I took that out of my life. I wanted to let the land rest. Just stop. Just be thankful for the gift of life. And just be thankful. And that’s what I would do. I’d walk. I thought of this verse that says ‘every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights’. And I thought, you know, for six months I can stop, and the gift will be there when I pick it up again.

My first day back at work was to design baby Rapunzel. And my daughter had just had a baby. I said bring her in! I’m holding my granddaughter in one arm, and I’m designing baby Rapunzel.

So that’s the baby in the movie, that’s my granddaughter. What a wonderful way to start drawing again.

Glen Keane, thank you very much.

Tangled is released this week in the US, and in the UK on Friday 28th January 2011.

For more on Glen Keane’s show, take a look here.

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