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Glen Keane Soars in ‘Dear Basketball’

The legendary animator finds his game and garners an Oscar nomination alongside legendary hoopster Kobe Bryant with their animated ‘love letter’ short film tribute to the sport.  

Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant, both unquestionable legends in their respective fields, make an unlikely artistic pair. What started with a poem Bryant penned for his NBA retirement after the 2015-2016 season blossomed into their collaboration, along with famed composer John Williams, on the production of a six-minute Oscar-nominated animated short film, Dear Basketball.

Keane, who spent 37 years at Disney before leaving in 2012, animated classic characters like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast while serving as a mentor to an entire generation of senior studio animation talent. Schooled by Disney Nine Old Men like Marc Davis, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Keane embodies the very essence of the “art” of hand-drawn, 2D animation, bringing the beauty and fluidity of motion to all his projects. Dear Basketball is Keane’s first Oscar nomination (it also won an Annie Award) -- his previous animated short, the Google Spotlight Story Duet (2014), was shortlisted for an Oscar as well as nominated for an Annie Award. With the recent announcement that Keane will helm the Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks) animated feature, Over the Moon, for Netflix, the animator’s individual profile continues to rise.

It should be noted that Keane’s collaboration with Bryant is not without recent controversy. After announcing the film’s selection, the Motion Picture Academy was petitioned to rescind the nomination because of the basketball star’s past accusations of sexual misconduct stemming from a 2003 incident in Colorado. The protest notwithstanding, the film remains one of five that may take home Oscar gold this Sunday evening.

AWN spoke to Keane at the time of the film’s release about his collaboration with the former Los Angeles Laker champion and how they teamed up to produce an animated letter of thanks to the game Bryant expertly mastered and clearly loved.

AWN: Since you left Disney in 2012, you’ve worked on a wide variety of projects, many which involved new tech concepts you’d never even heard of.

Glen Keane: Ollie [Johnston, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men] told me, when I was 25, “Glen, you’re going to do greater things than us some day.” For years and years, I wished he’d never said that. Who’s going to do greater than Pinocchio? After I left Disney and got to Google, a young woman contacted me and said, “Would you be interested in doing a talk with me to apply the Disney principles to user interface design?” “Well [laughs]…what’s user interface design?” She said, “Well it’s when you go onto a cellphone and you touch it and you put in the wrong code and it goes ding-ding-ding, like that. It communicates, tells you ‘No, that’s wrong.’” These were [cellphone] designers using principles of design. But, her thought was, “Every little element you put on the phone is an actor on a stage. How can you use Disney principles for that?” I said, “Wow, I would love to do that!” Immediately I remembered Ollie’s words. I realized he wasn’t talking about greater in quality, he was talking about greater in application.

AWN: A broader horizon of different things.

GK: Since I left Disney, it’s been different organizations asking me to come in and be “me” with them. Like Google, or the Paris Ballet [the short Nephtali], or Riot Games, or Kobe Bryant. I love the fact that I really have no idea about the fields I’m stepping into, and that I have to learn. Every time I do one of these I feel like I’m 20 years old again! I have no idea what I’m doing. I told Kobe, “You’ve got the worst basketball player on earth animating you.” He said, “That’s okay.” So, I learned about basketball by studying him. I think I could shoot a pretty good shot now.

AWN: You think you got game now?

GK: I think I kinda do. I know exactly the angle of your elbow…where it’s supposed to be above your head…give it spin as you’re pushing off…I learned so much from studying him.

AWN: Kobe was always known for his relentless and disciplined approach to all things basketball. Kind of like how you approach animation…

GK: That’s what made him great.

AWN: How did you guys come together on this project? How did this all start?

GK: I have this thing with sports. I wanted to play football [when I was young]. I’m a very physical person. I think…I know that I have the greatest, the longest file of injuries at Disney of any employee. I do. Stitches and broken bones. We’d play volleyball, I’d get injured. We had races down the hallway, I went through a wall. Got stitches diving away from people shooting rubber bands, hitting the corner of my animation desk on my cheek. I think I got injured more in animation that I would have in a football career.

AWN: Didn’t realize animation was such a contact sport.

GK: It is. It is. Everything’s a contact sport for me. That’s why I was a terrible basketball player. I would tackle people…instead of using…

AWN: Finesse.

GK: Well, with Kobe, I learned there is amazing fluidity in his movement. So, after doing Duet, Karen Dufilho, my executive producer up at Google, was contacted by Kobe. He had seen the film. And, he’s a big fan of animation. When he was approaching his retirement, he was thinking, “I want to tell stories. I want to tell stories in animation. And the first thing I want to do is write ‘Dear Basketball,’ which is a thank you letter. But, but I want it to be something that not just kids, but everybody, can see.” Learn from his journey, and maybe apply it to themselves. He wished that he’d had that when he was a kid.

So, he came over to our little studio in Hollywood. He had been visiting Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and various other companies and I thought, “Well, this is not going to go well.” Our tiny little studio is just a little 1920s house in Hollywood…

AWN: You’re not the Nike of animation…

GK: No! We had storyboards in our little dining room area and backgrounds in the back bedrooms…then a limo comes up, he gets out with his wife and two daughters. My wife is there. So is my son Max [Keane, the film’s production designer] and our producer, Gennie Rim. So, Kobe walks in and the first thing he says…I’m thinking to myself, “He’s probably thinking…”

AWN: What am I doing here?

GK: …Yeah. “This is not Disney!” He steps in, he looks around, almost bumping his head on the low ceiling and says, “This is perfect, this is perfect.” Afterwards I said, “What did you mean?” He said, “There are drawings on the wall. This is real. I really want to do this in a place that feels very real and handcrafted. Yours [your studio] just felt like a graphite on your fingers kind of place. That’s what I really want…for this to be handcrafted. Just like basketball is for me.”

We talked for four hours. Kobe and I really connected on music. When I’ve animated, I’ve animated to Beethoven. Beast’s transformation was all to Beethoven’s Ninth. Kobe is fascinated with Beethoven’s Fifth. He described how in one of the championship games, he played all through it with Beethoven’s Fifth in his head, the whole structure of it, the pacing, working to the Fifth.

I thought, “What?” This was a whole different person than I pictured. He’s very quiet, soft spoken, but intense. That mamba face is so natural, when it comes from intensity. But, he can’t really make it if you ask him to. It’s gotta come from something rising up inside him. That really spoke to me because as much as I can, I’m eternally trying to animate the desire inside. I’ve said before, I love to animate characters that believe the impossible…is possible. Like Ariel. A mermaid falls in love with a guy with two feet who breathes air. I like that.

I very much believe the impossible is possible. With Kobe, that desire was there. And, he worked really hard. At the core was this spark of, “This is gonna happen.” But, it’s not just there because of the hours, it’s because he believed he could do it. That’s what made him stay and put in all those hours.

For me, Dear Basketball was the most difficult animation I have ever done by far. I realized, as I was animating it, this couldn’t be a cartoon version of Kobe. It had to be Kobe’s real face. As I was trying to reduce that down into simple lines to draw, I realized, “Wow, I have to describe his face in lighting. It’s truly a sculptural drawing here.” I was animating moments of him and something was wrong with the drawing. I was looking back at some footage of him at rest, for a moment, and his face was glistening with sweat. I’m like, “Oh man, he’s playing, he’s working hard. He’s got to be sweating.” This little unspoken thing, if it’s not there, it looks like he just got out of his car and walked up to play.

How do you animate sweat coming down somebody’s face? As I’m doing this I’m thinking, “I’m insane. Why would anybody do this?” There’s got to be a way. But, I found a way of showing sweat by putting a soft layer of graphite on a separate sheet over my drawing. We would reverse that, so black became white, just a soft glistening. If you look at people’s sweat, when it drops down, it leaves a little dark trail on the skin. Then, where the little bead of sweat is, there’s a highlight. So, I took my eraser and hit this little highlight.

AWN: Would producing this short in CG have “felt” the same or had the same impact?

GK: Well the thing is, you would take it for granted. There’s something wonderful about live-action film. You see everything. Our mind has a way of zeroing in on the important essence -- the better you are at seeing, in some ways, the less you see and the more you see. You focus on certain details. CG tends to erase that. It shows you everything – it doesn’t have the focus that hand-drawn has. So, I was concerned. If this is going to be a very realistic animation, why not just do it in live-action? Is it better to do it in CG? Well, the CG would have felt like, “I really want to see it in live-action.”

With hand-drawn, I’ve always felt that drawing was like a seismograph of your soul, where the lines registers an emotion and a feeling. Somebody showed me a drawing yesterday by Mark Davis [also one of Disney’s Nine Old Men]. It was a gorgeous drawing and instantly, as soon as I saw it, I knew, “Oh, that’s Mark Davis.” The lines, careful, but confident, just like Mark Davis studies. There was real intelligence to those lines. These are things that I know because I knew him and his work.

There’s a power to drawing. I always try to animate from a sense of, “How do I feel?” How did I feel being Beast? I knew, because I had a terrible temper as a kid. Animate that, from that point. With Ariel, it was this desire. This fire inside of you. Animating that, I know how that feels. How do I feel being Kobe? With Kobe, surprisingly, it was being a magician. Frank [Thomas, another of Disney’s Nine Old Men] and Ollie wrote a book, “The Illusion of Life.” I realized that Kobe is an illusionist. I watched some of his highlights. There was this joy, this fun, with every shot. All these players coming at him, knowing exactly where he was going with that ball. But, he could put it in that basket because as he was taking the shot, he was not going to do what they thought he was going to do. He did something they didn’t expect.

[Talking excitedly] As he’s rising up, they’re waiting...they’re waiting for him to show what he’s going to do. Kobe’s feet are off the ground now. They commit, they leap, everybody’s off the ground, Kobe’s in the air…I’m stop framing through all of this stuff…I’m animating from it…Kobe’s in the air, their hands are coming up and suddenly, he throws his legs around and in mid-flight, somehow changes direction…it’s physically impossible…. I didn’t know how this could happen, but he kicks his feet around and his hips follow and his body and shoulders move laterally in space and suddenly, the ball goes to the other side of the basket where nobody is and he tosses it in. Shot, after shot, after shot.

And all it takes is just a tick of hesitation and he’s beat you to the basket. A little movement of his hand, somebody pauses just enough and then Kobe jumps…they are just that fraction of a second late and in that opening you’ll see Kobe sink the basket. He’s an illusionist.

AWN: In addition to working with Kobe, you brought in the famous John Williams to compose the music. How did you all work together?

GK: Very quickly, we knew what the film’s style was going to be because of our conversations with Kobe. He said, “I want this to push the art of hand-drawn forward.” And with Max, it’s wonderful to have somebody there that really understands you like your son does. He loves the rough drawings. He’s seen my drawings his whole life. So, he took them off the page and lifted them up in space, giving them dimension. He and I started playing around with a look and found something we really liked. Sent Kobe images and he felt, “Yeah, this is right. I love this.” There was a lot of texting going on. We had several meetings at his place in Newport Beach, or he came up at our place. One of the wonderful things about Kobe, he got back to us instantly. I mean, within five seconds, texting, every time, responding right away. So, we always had our answers very quickly.

I had to go to France for a bit, and Max said, “I’m just gonna play around with how I think you would illustrate this letter.” I had my own ideas and said, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine. When we get back together, we’ll see where we’re at.” I’d been thinking about what I would do, and when I got back to L.A., I saw Max had taken the letter and interpreted it quite differently than I was planning. I had been looking past the words Kobe was using and was trying to describe his desire and the arc of his career. I was looking at really big themes. Max was listening, very specifically, to what Kobe was really saying, like taking his dad’s tube socks, describing how you roll them up…and I realized, why didn’t I see that? It was so obvious.

When Max and I got together the next time with Kobe, just to talk about what we were going to do, Kobe zeroed in totally on the details. The details were so incredibly important to him. So, we filmed him rolling up the socks. Max was right. I needed to bring this down to a very granular, detailed level. These little things were very important to Kobe. The posters on the wall are the posters that Kobe had on his wall as a kid. Where the basket was, how the chairs were setup [in his bedroom]…there was something really wonderful about those kind of details that made you realize, this is real! There’s a shot where little Kobe’s standing on a basketball court and behind him is an Italian city, because he grew up in Italy!

Once I finally understood that, then pretty much the whole storyboard happened in a day, where I wrote out the text of the letter, with little scribbles, and started to draw out what was going to happen. That was 99% of what we actually did on the film.

I drew that up, and Max took it and cut it together with John Williams’ score from Empire of the Sun. When John Williams came in and saw the edit, he said, “I really like that.” Max said, “Yeah it’s your music!” John said, “I like the storytelling, the way these moments build. I think I know what I need to do with this.” When John wrote the music, first he wrote a version that was very big, powerful. But then he said, “No…I need to take the choral out. This needs to be more understated.” Kobe’s delivery was incredibly understated. John’s score also needed to be understated. This is not about celebrating the glory of Kobe Bryant. It’s about communicating a child’s dream.

So, John finished the score on a Saturday. The following Wednesday, we got together and I noticed that John was acting like a little kid. He’s 85 years old and he gives Kobe a big hug, energetically shakes my hand like he’s 20 years old. What’s going on? The we see, he’s got an 80-piece orchestra that he’s been doing Star Wars with and he’s sliding Dear Basketball into the middle of that. He stands up, Kobe’s sitting next to me, and I suddenly realize, John’s never heard the music before! He’s going to hear it for the first time. He personally wrote the music for every instrument, 80 of them.

He lifts his arms, then he’s on the downbeat, hearing everything for the first time. It was so amazing. Kobe puts his head on my shoulder…it was so beautiful. As soon as John finishes, he turns around to us and says, “It’s going to get better, I promise.” What an incredibly wonderful thing to work together with those two greats.

AWN: How did Kobe react when he watched the final film for the first time?

GK: He slammed his head on the table. Bang! He kept his head down on the table, just shaking it. Then he looked at me. His eyes were kind of glistening and he was just, he was speechless. He kind of shook his head. “I love it. I love it.” It was really a sincere moment.

That was him up on the screen. You know, it’s scary. He was very vulnerable to have written the letter. People can interpret a lot of reasons why he did it. At a certain point [during the production], Kobe called with cold feet, said, “Look, I think we should do this without my narration. I think we should take my narration out of it. Just use your imagination and John’s music.” I said, “Kobe, no, no. It has to be you. The only reason I’m doing this is because of your words. They have to be there. Your delivery is very understated. It needs to be this way. We gotta keep it in.” He said, “Okay.”

I could tell he didn’t like the sound of his voice. He was feeling self-conscious. He was feeling vulnerable. But when he saw the whole thing come together, he felt there was an honesty to it, a sincerity that didn’t come out as self-aggrandizement. It came out as a six-year old kid’s dream. 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.