The Oscar-winning director discusses his beautiful and charming animated musical tale about a smart young girl’s determination to prove the existence of a legendary Moon Goddess, out today on Netflix
In Glen Keane’s long-awaited animated musical adventure, Over the Moon, a bright young girl fueled with determination and a passion for science, Fei Fei, builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the legendary Chinese Moon Goddess, Chang’e. After an impossible journey, she ends up in a whimsical land of fantastical creatures. Directed by Keane, animated at Sony Pictures Imageworks and produced by Gennie Rim and Peilin Chou for Shanghai-based Pearl Studios, Over the Moon is a musical adventure about moving forward, embracing the unexpected, and believing the impossible is possible. And, it has a rabbit in a space suit. Nuff said!
Keane, a legendary name in the animation world, who spent decades as an animator, animation supervisor, director and mentor to thousands at Walt Disney Animation, is best known as the person attached to the magical hand that created so many iconic animated characters; his talks about flipping sheets of paper back and forth to see Ariel or The Beast first come to life are mesmerizing. The director has worked on a number of high-profile animated short film projects since leaving Disney in March of 2012, including the innovative Google Spotlight Story, Duet, and his high-profile 2017 Oscar-winning film, Dear Basketball, shared with his project collaborator, the late basketball star Kobe Bryant.
But his greatest labor of love, available for audiences today on Netflix after years of production, is Over the Moon. From a story brought to life by the late screenwriter, Audrey Wells, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2018, Keane and his trusted producing team of Rim (producer on Duet and Dear Basketball) and Chou (producer on Pearl’s first big animated feature, Abominable), along with the mid-production addition of Oscar-winning Paperman director John Kahrs, have deftly woven an engaging tale that ably traverses both Chinese and Western cultures, a familiar tale of determination and resolve, of belief in oneself in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds.
Earlier this week, I spoke to the director about his film, of embracing and celebrating Chinese culture, and of telling the story of another compelling animated character, like Ariel and The Beast, who ultimately finds success and joy in a world filled with magical possibilities.
Dan Sarto: Your film is finally here! You’ve been doing quite a bit of promotion for months now. You must be ready to take a break.
Glen Keane: I don’t get tired talking about this film. It's one thing to talk about a film you're not invested in. But this is like talking about your kids; you never get tired of it.
DS: It's funny you say that because the other day we published a big feature about the new animated preschool series, Trash Truck, created by your son Max, who’s also the showrunner. And you do a voice on the show, as does your grandson, Henry.
GK: That's a great tie-in! Yes. It's exactly the feeling. A good four years ago I think, Max told Gennie Rim and I about putting my grandson, Henry, Max's little boy, to bed, but Henry was obsessed with trash trucks and wouldn't go to sleep. So, Max tells him this story about, "There was a little boy named Hank." Which is what he would call Henry. "And his best friend was a trash truck." And eventually Henry falls asleep, but Max just couldn't stop telling the stories. He wrote it all down and told us the next morning at FOOD Lab in West Hollywood and we both said, "We got to produce that." But it's taken four years from then till now.
DS: This is your first big animated feature at the helm. Are you excited? Are you anxious? Are you ready? What are your thoughts with the film finally coming out?
GK: Well, you work so hard for years to get your film to the screen. Ultimately, we were our toughest critics. You put the film out there, and hopefully, people love it the way I do. But I got to tell you, I've never worked on a film that I'm more proud of, that's more beautiful, or more subtle in the animation performances. The songs, they're wonderful, emotional, fun, joyful. There are so many wonderful things about this film, and I'm putting it out there trusting that people are going to see it the way I see it. I had a friend a few years back say, "Glen, do you think you love people through your animation?" I said, "No, I don't think so because I get obsessed with my animation and I have to push it away to spend time with my family, who I do love. So, it's more of a competition." He said, "You know, you should really rethink that. Because, it's in your animation that you've touched people, and it's a way for you to love them."
And if there was ever film that was true about, this is the film. Touching people, connecting to people. Even in the fact that it's streaming into people's living rooms, in their homes, which is where their lives happen. This film is all about experiencing the difficult things in life, yet finding joy as you go live it. So, that's how I'm seeing this film; it’s a chance for me to reach out, and hopefully touch people around the world.
DS: How did this film get its start?
GK: Well, the film started with Janet Yang, who did Joy Luck Club. She started with the legend of Chang'e, and the idea that a 12-year-old girl builds a rocket to the dark side of the moon to prove that the goddess is real. That was the important seed of the idea. That was passed on to Audrey [Wells], who went to China, spent time there, and wrote a story that was so personal and universal. There is no culture that is not touched by the loss of the ones we love. It's a universal challenge that we all go through. So, the story deals with an issue that's not Chinese, it's human [the loss of parent]. It was very important for me to approach this not as an American telling a story about China back to the world, but to embed myself in China and tell that story back to the world; going to China, spending time there, working with Chinese artists, and telling a story together.
Picasso said, "I'm always doing that which I don't know how to do, in order that I may learn how to do it." That was the case here. I did not assume that I knew China. I assumed that I didn’t even know what I didn't know. And sure enough, in my very first conversation with the Chinese designers there at Pearl [Studios], we were sitting around a conference room table and I said, "Well, tell me a little bit about yourselves, your path, getting to Pearl Studios." And I expected them to talk about the art schools and... the way we would talk about our professional journey here in America. The first person said, "Well, I'm from the Northern province in China. And our special noodle is a long flat noodle." And I'm thinking, "Why is he talking about noodles?" And then someone said, "Well, I'm from the South. And ours is more of a shorter, rounder, kind of a noodle." And each one talked about their noodles before their art or their path. And I didn't understand it.
But we started to spend more time there, and actually spent time in a Chinese family's home, with the big round table and Lazy Susan, where food was such a deep part of the traditions of the culture. Food identified who you were. So, I started to marinate myself in the Chinese culture; we spent time in this little tiny town called Wuzhen. It's like a little mini Venice with bridges, like we show in the movie. And I very quickly felt like everything I saw, everything I smelled, I tasted, I touched, I heard, this is what the beginning of the movie is going to be. This is what the end of the movie is going to be. What we’re experiencing here.
Celine Desrumaux, my production designer, as we were walking around the town, taking in the food, which was everywhere, said, "Glen, look at the white walls." And I said, "Yeah. They're white." "No. They are not white, they're blue and pink and red and brown." She was pointing out how the light reflected on the stucco and the tile, here and there, and how this was so beautiful. There was the light coming in through the many bakery shops and reflecting on the moon cakes. These became the things that we were going to really celebrate, the look and the feel, as well as the deep traditions.
There's a moment in the film where Fei Fei gets a gift from Mrs. Zhong. She doesn't like Mrs. Zhong at all. And I was thinking, in America, how would a 12-year-old accept a gift from somebody she doesn’t like? Even though she'd try to cover it a little bit, you'd know she didn’t like that person. So, talking with the Chinese team, they said, "No, it's very important that she’s 100% respectful. Not give any clue to what she's feeling because the depth of tradition needs to be respected." Respect for one’s culture.
So, we animated her bowing, as they described. And to the same group of artists, I asked, "So, what do you think?" It was like, "No. No, that's not right." I said, "What did we do wrong?" They said, "Well, you have her bow too far. That's like an older person bows. A 12-year-old would give a very subtle, but just as sincere, small bow. So, we went back and redid it and that's how it is in the movie. Of course, then there's the shot after, where Fei Fei slams the door, and you see how she's really feeling. But those roots go so deep, and in America, we just don't have that. We have hundreds of years of tradition; in China, they have thousands of years.
DS: You spent decades as the 2D animation master at Disney. With Tangled, you moved into 3D, and since, have done both 2D and 3D projects. What do you bring from the 2D world that helps make better 3D animators?
GK: There are so many things. For me, I've never drawn on any movie more than I did on this one. Every shot has drawings that I made over the acting. Every character design, the storyboards… I storyboarded sections of the movie. It was my way of communicating. Even with Guo Pei, the Chinese costume designer, who spoke no English. I speak no Chinese, but we spoke “drawing.” And for hours, I could draw back and forth, and she would show me the way she wanted the silk fabric to move by her gestures [with his hands flowing]... her movements were imprinted in my mind. I would draw over top of the animation on the drapery in Chang’e’s Chamber of Exclusive Sadness, the way it needed to move based on Guo’s hand movements.
Drawing is such a deep part of the Chinese culture. Going to the big Chinese art museum in Shanghai, I was looking at the drawings of trees, these beautiful, like 20-foot-long parchments. And I said, "Well, that's really cool." And I was told, "But you couldn't do trees until you first mastered what we have in the other room over there. Go see that first.” And that room was just calligraphy. An artist had to first learn the calligraphy strokes, which stroke came first, what direction it went, the thick and the thin, and then graduated to nature. So, I started practicing calligraphy and nature drawing. All of that was as a setup for animating that little bit of hand-drawn animation in The Legend of Chang’e segment, the backstory, which was very important to establish.
In the film, this is culturally who you identify with as Chang'e, as a way of planting the flag for the Chinese. For the public and in the rest of the world, this is the first time they're really seeing Chang'e. It’s very important for me that I connected with the Chinese view of the goddess. Draw a graphic statement. Because we were going to Lunaria and turn her completely upside down, do a nuclear version of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Then, we had the responsibility of turning her back again, not just into who she was, but someone richer, who has learned to love and has a new way to move forward.
These were things that really came from drawing. The design of the character, for me, is really the secondary element. The first is that spark. Characters that believe the impossible is possible. That thing that was in Ariel's eyes, the thing that is personified in Fei Fei. And in an amazing way, the thing that I saw in Kobe [Bryant, his collaborator on the Oscar-winning short, Dear Basketball]. Kobe's great skill was not his athletic ability. It was first, his hunger to learn, his intelligence. And second, to believe the impossible was possible, that at 1.7 seconds he could get the ball and still win the championship.
Fei Fei, as a character, embodied those skills. Those were skills we would be animating in her. She’s a girl who's incredibly smart. She's great in math and science and physics and technology. But, she's also got her mom's faith to see what others don't see, and to believe the impossible is possible.
Throughout this film, wherever I had a choice, I would always put the camera where you could really see the point of discovery in Fei Fei's face. That's the joy I’ve had all the way through my career. And this film would is reaching the mountain peak of doing that with this character, Fei Fei. She's the ultimate version of that faith and intelligent that I’ve animated in all these different characters.
DS: What was it like working again with John Kahrs?
GK: We together on Tangled and Paperman. I helped him with the beginning of his short. I did a little experimental animation as we developed the look, but it was really John's genius in that. It's been a reciprocal relationship between the two of us. I remember on Tangled, I would do drawings, and try to figure out how you capture the feeling of that drawing in CG. And he would see something I was doing intuitively and say, "Why are you doing that? Why did you do that?" Say for example [showing sketch], here's a sketch of Fei Fei, and the eyelash shoots off in this direction. And he'd say, "Why did you draw the eyelashes that way? In one drawing they're tilted this way, the next one, they're going that way." And I’d said, "Well, it's because I'm throwing a look. The eyelash helps throw that direction." And he said, "Well, we could do that geometrically. We can create the geometry of an eyelash so it shifts like that." And to me, that was really cool."
So, he was constantly encouraging me to embrace the things that I was doing in my drawing, and believe that if you can specify why you do it, somebody will be able to write the code, they will be able to rig it, so you can do that in CG. So, what we did with Tangled at the beginning, we went a lot further with in Over the Moon.
Halfway through Over the Moon, I realized I needed somebody alongside me that understood me, that I trusted, that would be an incredible plus for the film. We had 120 animators, twice what we had on Tangled. That's a lot of baby chicks to feed. So, he came on. It was so good to have his presence. John is also incredibly gifted in his sense of cinematics. So, in a lot of ways, when you have people that you really value, that you trust, the film gets better than if you had just done it completely on your own.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.