Glen Keane interview: Tangled, family, Walt Disney, computers and The Snow Queen

Interview Simon Brew 20 Jan 2011 - 17:11

We chat to legendary Disney animator about working on Tangled, getting the measure of hair, whether The Snow Queen stands a chance, and the opportunities computers present…

Last month, we uploaded the first of our two interviews with legendary Disney animator, Glen Keane. You can read the first here, and what you're about to read is what happened when we sat down with him face to face, to chat about his work on Tangled, and animation as a whole...

Just walking along the corridor before we started chatting, I saw a terrific Tangled painting, the one that appears in the film. Is it your daughter who's painted that?

Yes.

That's a lovely piece of work.

Isn't that cool?

So, you've got three generations of Keanes in the same film, effectively. You told us before that you based the baby Rapunzel in the film on drawings of your granddaughter, you've got your daughter's painting, and your own work?

As a matter of fact, there are four generations, because my father, everything that he taught me was constantly passed onto those animators. For me, I think of my dad all the time, and his instruction, and use that constantly for teaching the other animators, encouraging them. Yeah, it's amazing. What a blessing.

Somewhere in the painting she's hidden Matisse, the name of our granddaughter. She hid it in some leaves in the painting in the movie.

Alan Menken says that he's hidden one or two things in the film too. And, with it being the 50th Disney animated film, it was lovely to see tips of the hat to The Little Mermaid, to Hunchback, a bit of Beauty And The Beast. There seems to be a lot of fun and reverence in the movie. Was that always there, when putting Tangled together?

You know, no. I did not try to do something special for the fiftieth film, because I didn't even know it was the fiftieth film until publicity came along and said this is the fiftieth. I was like, "Oh, that's kind of cool."

These things are bigger than any of us when you look at the landscape of timing of big films. New eras in animation happen with a big fairytale. Snow White launched the golden era of animation, Little Mermaid launched this renaissance, and I really hope that with Tangled, we can step into a new era of animation.

I remember talking to Don Hahn about producing Beauty And The Beast and he was very open about how the Disney ‘sweatbox' worked [where everyone gathered together in a room for some dissections of work]. He said on that film that you had an outgoing generation of animators, as well as two comparably young directors, and a lot of new talent coming through. And he said that the sweatbox had to fuse all that together. He described it as "brutal". Were you working with similar practices here, and how has your perspective on the process changed since then?

Well, on this film, there was an extreme honesty that was happening in our dailies room. That's where this film just rose to such an extraordinary level, in that room. You could call it like the sweatbox, but I wouldn't call it that. It was more like a therapy session.

The directors would act out moments from scenes, and the animators would be there. I would be there. The directors would sit behind me, and I'm at a Cintiq, where I could draw. The animators were around me.

So, there was a scene, and you would issue that scene to the animators, and the directors would perform. And sometimes I would do a drawing of what they were doing. And sometimes they would talk very personally about their own lives, opening up their heart. At times there would be tears.

I was amazed at their honesty. They were not just doing a job as animator directors. They were really expressing intimate, personal moments in their life, for people to understand what they were going for. Constantly, I was encouraging the animators to take this as a moment in their life. This is your time as an artist. Take something personal in your life and put it into the screen. And the animators, everybody could speak openly about each other's work, and critique it.

It was sometimes a dog pile mentality. Nobody wanted to be the weak link. Everybody wanted that thing to succeed. Everybody always wanted you to be encouraged to keep going. So, it was - brutal, I wouldn't say. I wouldn't say it was brutal. I'd say it was very honest, and that's where our film got so much better.

You talked before about how you sat at a computer at one point during the production of this film, and tried to animate a single moment. And even The Princess Of The Frog started off with tablets, trying to put images through a computer.

They ended up animating it on paper, and then scanning it. They did try in the beginning to do the whole thing on computer. That was the original approach. Then the rough animation would be cleaned up by CG.

The thing that struck me about it is that computers, if you going to the core of what they're supposed to do, are tools. They're designed to shortcut. Do you think, now, that they're becoming too much of a mental obstacle, though? Especially if a modern animator now has to have two disciplines: to be able to draw, and to be able to operate a computer?

I see it as a viable tool. There are different kinds of artists, and the computer has allowed there to be more kinds, because of their assistance.

But one of our very top animators, a guy named Tony Smeed, he animated the very first scene you see of Rapunzel, where she opens the window, and you see it's all fresh. That guy, he doesn't draw. He would not be an animator if it was not for the computer.

Before this, before he was an animator on a computer, he was a plumber!

That's better paid, isn't it?

[Laughs] Yeah! I hope he's better paid now, though!

But that was so striking to me that, in his hands, he could manipulate and use that computer effortlessly. So, I don't see the computer as being in the way at all. I see it as an opportunity for new artists today to express themselves, just like I can.

But there are limitations. There are things that I cannot do with this pencil here. If I do 24 drawings a second and I put shading on there, it just kind of boils. But with the computer, you can control that. We could do so much more.

There's another whole approach to animation if you respect the line using the computer. And that doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue down the path of Tangled. I'm just seeing two different lines, I think.

The subtle challenge, I thought, with Tangled was keeping the consistency of the length of Rapunzel's hair. I'm no expert, but it strikes me as something that's much easier when the hair is tumbling down the tower. Yet, when it's all bunched up, it has to keep that feeling of length. Was that the most difficult challenge here?

If we could show you the outtakes! It's shocking. We had moment s- If the hair doesn't work, the film doesn't work. And we had moments where we thought that this is never going to work. How in the world - ?

And at moments like that, I would look at these guys, Steve Goldberg, and Eric Daniels, who were technical guys overseeing hair. And I would look at them and say, "Are they scared? No, they didn't seem scared. Okay, good!"

Because what I saw was when Rapunzel turned her head, instead of her going in this beautiful little arc, it went spring, all over the place, like you dropped a bunch of marbles on a stone floor, and it scattered everywhere. How are we going to control this? 140,000 hairs, and each one is like a cat with its own mind, going its own way?

And there's a collected weight to consider, presumably?

Yeah, it's 40 pounds. That's what we figured. It was really important to create just the right weight. We broke that 140,000 down into 47 tubes, to control that. The animators animated those things sometimes, and other times we would use a simulation, to be able to control it.

But it was always with principals of animation. You realise that the only way we could solve this problem of bringing hand-drawn into CG was to identify the problem. You can't just say hand-drawn looks better, make it like hand-drawn. It's like, specifically, exactly, what are you talking about?

And that's what I was getting from people. The CG folks, the software people, they were saying, "I don't understand, what's different. What do you want? What are you looking for?"

Okay, these are the principals. We've got to have, in the hair, we've got to have rhythm, number one. I did a drawing of what I saw as rhythm, and suddenly they got it. It's got to have twist, so that the front side turns to the back side. Oh, okay. It's got to have weight, volume, so that it curves out and down, like it's got a heaviness to it. And you see the little light bulbs going. As soon as you gave them specific problems, they were solving them.

Asymmetry is the key to beauty, and the computer does everything symmetrical. It's dead and lifeless. We have to find ways to put asymmetry in that, and suddenly, everything was becoming really clear.

Problems were like a game where the little head would pop up, and you'd fire it and shoot it down.

I have to ask, is there any hope for The Snow Queen at all, do you think?

Oh, yeah, oh yeah. I believe that there is. I believe that our future has to include great, classic fairytales. The Snow Queen is a wonderful story. Its root goes way, way deep, Frighteningly deep.

It's interesting. The stories that Walt solved were the more solvable ones. The more difficult ones.

Beauty And The Beast?

Beauty And The Beast and Rapunzel. I remember Joe Grant, head of story at Snow White, he was still alive at Disney and I was asking him, "Did you ever work on Rapunzel?" He said, "Yeah, we did. But we couldn't figure it.  We just set it aside. "

So, the ones that have not been done, it's not because they're not better, it's they're deeper. There's something profound. And maybe the time for those stories is a new generation, with new messages to tell.

It's interesting. The assumption on something like Rapunzel is that it's a technological problem that it's not been made before.

No, we could have done it hand-drawn, too. I really do believe that these films have these moments in history.

Finally, you're working with a group of people now, and urging them to find their own identity. And yet, you're there with the wonderful characters you've brought to the screen in the past. You're the person, I'd imagine, why many of them took the course at CalArts at one point and ended up in front of you. How do you manage any reverence coming your way from that? Because, from where I sit, that must be a consideration in the making of the film, that they look at you, in the same way you looked up at the Ollie Johnstons?

Well, there's the management in my own ego that my wife seems to manage really well. [laughs] I go home and realise that anything anyone has said to me at work means absolutely nothing to her! The fact is do I love her? Am I willing to give up what's important to me in order to care for her?

Every day, I take a walk, about an hour walk. And I try to remember as much as I can that what I'm given was given. I didn't plan on being born in a family with a dad who's an artist. I was given that. I didn't plan on becoming an animator. My portfolio was sent by accident. I was given that. I didn't plan on getting to Disney at just the moment that old men who had worked with Walt were looking for some blank slate artist to come in, like me, and teach. I was given that. All these characters, I was given so much.

I have to remind myself that I have this one verse in my mind that I always remember, and it's "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights." And that is the drop at the beginning of this movie. It's that source, and I'm not the source of that. He is. I keep remembering that.

I take a walk each day, and think about those things. That keeps it in perspective for me, because I'm like anybody else. You can get a really huge ego and start thinking you're something wonderful, but like I said, my wife is really great at popping bubbles!

Glen Keane, thank you very much.

Tangled arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 28th January.

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