Tangled, indeed. Glen Keane has been on quite a long and difficult journey to make CG animation behave as warmly as hand-drawn. He started his directorial debut seven years ago with an ambitious adaptation of Rapunzel (first called Rapunzel Unbraided then Rapunzel and then Tangled). It was a struggle both artistically and technically, but when Pixar merged with Disney in 2006 and Keane was reunited with his old CalArts pal, John Lasseter, the project finally got greenlit and started showing promise, despite the ongoing challenges. That is until Keane suffered a heart attack two years ago and turned the reins over to Nathan Greno & Byron Howard (Bolt). But Keane stayed on as animation director, and now that Disney's 50th animated feature is finished and awaiting its Nov. 24 release, he spoke to AWN about his experiences.
Bill Desowitz: It was five years ago when we first talked about Rapunzel (now Tangled). What a wild journey. What's it been like?
Glen Keane: Yeah, these films aren't just made by big corporations; they're life and blood stories. And I don't I ever could have contributed what I did to this film without stepping back from the directing. For one thing, I don't think we would've done this film had I not started it. At a certain point, handing it over to Byron and Nathan was really, really wonderful. Both of those guys were so personal -- they just invested themselves in this film, these characters. When they would issue scenes to the animators, they would talk about their own moments in their lives and we'd be in tears; they'd be in tears.
BD: Like what?
GK: Their own experiences growing up and their own childhoods; painful moments; trying to connect with the animators so they drew on their own experiences to make it as real as possible. They really took the reins of the film with passion, and it allowed me to focus on the animation. And because I was working with John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis as this little triumvirate (John's background is in CG but loves hand-drawn; and Clay's background was in hand-drawn but loves CG). I don't know how to animate on CG, but I felt there was something really to pass on.
BD: You said your original goal was to break down the computer and make it more like hand-drawn. Did you accomplish it to your satisfaction?
GK: Yeah, I think we conquered a lot of territory. Can you go further? Yeah. But I have to go back to where that desire for me started, which was with John Lasseter in the '80s looking at Tron. Man, we just felt somehow that we must be able to step into that dimensional world and the computer can do that. But when we did the [30-second test] of Where the Wild Things Are, we could only do the backgrounds in CG; the characters were 2D, and I animated the little dog and Max. We painted the characters that I drew to look like it was done by the computer in hopes that someday the computer could actually do organic, hand-drawn feel characters. And then John left and continued in his path and I stayed at Disney. And eventually we came back and I feel like the way that it was necessary for me to contribute to this film was by drawing over the top of people's work -- actually on a Cintiq. And drawing over people's animation was at first really frustrating because the computer always tries to make everything symmetrical and straight and perfect, and I would draw on top and break that; and try and twist and turn and give a rhythm to it.
BD: So how did it finally work for you and the animators?
GK: It was a technical bent. How hard the animators had to work to put organic feeling into it. And they would show me the work and I'd see it looking so stiff and lifeless. But they would say, "You should've seen it before." And I said, "I understand, but it's not alive." It was the best thing for me not knowing how to animate on the computer.
BD: This goes back to when Ollie Johnston mentored you and was always saying, "What are they thinking?"
GK: Well, I don't know if I ever told you this story or not, but at some point I had done a little Rapunzel test, and I had Ollie come in and I showed it to him. He was in his nineties. I was very conscious of how hard we worked to get it to this point. And I pointed out to Ollie, "Look, she's got freckles and her hair and look at the reflection on her clothes!" And Ollie said, "Oh, Glen, what I was wondering is: What is she thinking?" It was like this slap that I never forgot, so when I was drawing over people's work, I really tried to get into the head of the thinking of the character, and those little subtle things… people think, their head tilts, their shoulders move, observations from real life, things I keep in my sketchbook. Those are the things that I would draw over their work and then the animators would have that at their desks waiting for them so they could apply that to their animation. And John and Clay, because they were so sensitive to what we were trying to do, would follow-up on all of this. I think that was the key thing: the follow-up, which was a huge improvement. At the beginning it took way too long that to happen -- so long that we were not going to finish the movie. I think in May we animated 40% of the movie and it needed to be done by July.
BD: The biggest challenge and breakthrough was the hair, which you spearheaded. What was that experience like?
GK: It's interesting: I had a lecture with the technical crew. I noticed that they were approaching the hair like it was a technical problem. So I decided to speak with them about how hair actually represents an outward manifestation of the character's problem on every movie that I had done: For Ariel, it's floating, it's a reminder she's in another world, but she wants to be part of this world; for Pocahontas, it's always moving with the wind and it's got this spirit and she has to deal with John Smith coming from England and not getting that; For Tarzan, with these dreadlocks, is he an ape man or Lord Greystoke? For the Beast, it was all this fur. And for Rapunzel, this is a story about a girl with enormous potential -- she has something inside her that has to get out. It's physically exploding out of her and is her life force, so the hair has to be compelling. And I did all kinds of drawings: it has to have rhythm and the way it moves; it has to have volume; it has to have twist; the swoop has to have a definitive shape; and there are a lot of artistic choices for a technical crew that had never been challenged that way before. This wasn't just pushing a button and making sim happen; you've got to also artistically position the hair. It was an amazing team to watch grow. I asked Eric Daniels, who worked with me on Long John Silver doing the mechanical arm, to oversee the hair team to bring artistic qualities into that.
BD: What do you think of the finished film?
GK: I guess two things: one was how proud I am of every animator and their work. I thought that computer animation was a much colder, removed art form. And I realized as I was watching the movie, that I could recognize who the animator was behind every shot, by the touch of the animation, the timing, the way the face was shaped, everything -- just like in hand-drawn. The other was the idea that you can start something and really believe that it's your own and at a certain point you realize that this was given to you as a great idea, kind of like that drop at the beginning of the movie that came down. And it's a potential that's shared and I watched the directors take this film and never lose anything but just made it better and stronger. And I'm really proud of how it worked out.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.