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Glen Keane Talks ‘Duet’ and the Legacy of Disney Animation

The legendary animator discusses Disney legends, creativity versus technology, and his latest interactive hand-drawn short film for Google ATAP.

This past October, I had the honor of introducing Glen Keane’s keynote presentation at the VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy. For almost an hour, he treated the packed auditorium to a funny, inspiring and insightful talk filled with images, clips, stories and wisdom collected from his decades of work as one of Disney’s pre-eminent animators. He also showed his most recent work, a beautifully animated short called Duet, done in conjunction with Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group [ATAP].

While it was tricky condensing the highlights of Glen’s storied career into a short paragraph I would read aloud to the audience, summarizing his impact on the industry was much easier:

“While his individual accomplishments have been truly extraordinary, his mark on not just Disney animation but all animation, the true genius of his talent and the real measure of his humility and humanity lay in the impact he has had literally on generations of artists he has taught, mentored, cajoled, challenged and inspired.

To put Glen’s influence in perspective, when I’ve interviewed many of the new guard of senior animators at Disney, people like Oscar-winner John Kahrs, Klay Katis and Lino DiSalvo, people who you and I recognize as top industry creative masters, they spoke to me in gushing, reverential tones about the impact Glen has had on the very essence of their capabilities. They described how he patiently, day after day, in dailies, over coffee and during countless meals, would help them analyze their work, often drawing directly over it, showing them a slightly better way to frame a pose, to time a move, to sell the illusion of life in their characters. But he always did so in a kind, nurturing and gentle way that you often don’t encounter dealing with a true master in any discipline.

I often marvel at how animation, more than so many industries, reveres rather than jettisons its elders and how even the best artists are always learning and perfecting their craft through the mentorship of veterans that came before them. Glen Keane is a master, a teacher, a mentor and a friend to the entire animation community. He is a legend in the truest sense of the word.”

Getting a chance to talk in-depth with Glen was a career highlight for me. More than any one accomplishment, it’s his passionate love of the artistry of animation that was most compelling for me. It’s infectious. We spoke at length about Duet, his decision to leave Disney after nearly 40 years and how for him, animating never gets as good as the moment his original drawings come to life.

Dan Sarto: So tell me about your latest project.

Glen Keane: I’ve just finished animating a film called Duet, which I did working in conjunction with Google ATAP. It’s an interactive film where you put the camera in the hands of the viewer. They can follow the film [in a virtual world] and make [viewing] choices. It’s a hand-drawn film. There is something wonderful about hand-drawn that I wanted to celebrate with this story.

DS: How did this project come about?

GK: I had been at Disney for 38 years. Sometimes there’s a bell that rings inside of you that calls you to something new. You don’t know what it is. It’s scary. But you have to follow it. And I did. I left Disney.

It’s actually in the step of leaving that other possibilities start to present themselves. You don’t see them before. You have to take the scary step first. This Duet project started to reveal itself through a dinner I had one night down in Venice Beach with my friends John Kahrs [director of the Oscar-winning animated short Paperman], Doug Sweetland [director of the Oscar-nominated animated short Presto] and Rodrigo Blaas [supervising animator on the Oscar-nominated animated short La Luna], just to talk about what we were all working on. Doug was talking about this amazing animation that was on this device that he couldn’t really explain, but that I should really see it. He said, “As a matter of fact, you might be really interested in this.”

Soon I got a call from Regina Dugan, who is heading up this research division, Google ATAP [Advanced Technology and Projects], that has developed a technology that uses accelerometers and gyros to allow you to follow animation in virtual reality. So I took a look at it and my first thought was, “Well, why would I be interested in this tiny little screen when I’ve been working on great big screens?” But as I watched some animation that Jan Pinkava [Oscar-winning director of Gerry’s Game] had done with Doug, I realized I wasn’t just watching a screen but a window into this infinite world, which really is potentially the biggest screen of all.

Regina asked me, “What would you do with this?” Immediately I knew it was an opportunity to do something hand-drawn in a way I’d never seen before. I started developing in my mind a story about two characters you could follow in a progression. I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, so I asked, “Regina, what is it that you want me to do?” She told me, “I want you to do something that is beautiful and emotional.” I said, “OK. What’s the catch? There has to be a catch.” She said, “There is no catch. We want you to push yourself creatively, which will push us technologically.” So, I said, “OK, let’s give it a shot.”

I went up to Lake Arrowhead, where I have a house. I knew Google was going to come down in a month and take a look at what I had to propose. I was working on a number of other ideas as well - I’d been planning out a number of story arcs including something for ATAP. At the end of three weeks, I was totally lost. Everything I was working on felt like an imposed story. I was doing it the way I thought story was supposed to work. But in the end, I was dead in the water.

I had been talking to Gennie Rim [Duet producer], who I’d worked with before, thinking she might produce this film. She always tells me, “You should use your super powers, which is to just draw!” I called my son Max and told him of my frustrations. He said, “Dad, how long has it been since you just animated for the fun of animating?” I thought, maybe ten years? He told me, “There must be a volcano inside you. Even if it’s not useable for anything, just draw. See what comes out.”

It’s funny how somebody sometimes tells you what you really know inside, but, need to hear from someone else. I was hearing this from Gennie and from Max. So I just started drawing. Immediately it was as if someone opened up this well in me.

Animating this baby [in Duet], I knew this was what I wanted to do. I was trying to figure how to show the progression from a cell to a baby when I remembered three years before, I’d come home one night, sat down for some reason and animated a baby floating and moving around in space. My wife had come into the studio and said to me, “What are you doing?” I showed her this baby I was animating. She said, “What did you do that for?” I said, “I have no idea.” That moment in Arrowhead, I realized, I already had the beginning of the film.

Within a few days, we had about 50 seconds to show Regina. She said, “Let’s do this.” We were off and running.

DS: People marvel at the artistry of hand-drawn animation. The work you and your team did on Duet is stunningly beautiful. I see in your film the very essence of what is so magical about hand-drawn animation. It seems so natural. 

GK: I think people take it for granted that they understand what hand-drawn animation is. Most people don’t know how it feels when you animate. I sit at my desk, with just one light on, and start to draw. I don’t have a picture in my head, though some animators do. Then I get a sense of what I want to do. The performance. It’s really a performance art at that moment, that’s happening on the paper.

The lines are like a seismograph of my soul. It’s all happening right there. It never gets better than that moment on my desk. When it’s painted and put up on the screen, it’s never as good as the moment I experienced right then at my desk.

DS: A virtual canvas in virtual reality is quite a change from a paper canvas on an animation disk. This is a whole new world for you. What has been the most challenging part of this new project? Where has it pushed you creatively?

GK: For me, any time technology has crossed my path, it forced me to become a better artist. I’ve never been afraid of technology. When I draw, there is a certain frustration. I want to “feel” the form. I want to put my hands around it…I want to touch it. When I animate, I shade the characters, like in Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, I’m putting shading in. People would say, “Why are you doing that? None of that shading is going to be up there on the screen. You’re wasting your time.” I’d say, “Well, no, I’m not wasting my time. This makes it more real. I don’t care if it’s not going up on the screen.” As I said, it never gets better than at that point.

Dimension and the sculptural drawing quality is how I see animation. So, this technology of an interactive dimensional world just shot lighter fluid on the fire of my desire. “Whoa, I’m actually in a space, the characters are moving and turning, you can go anywhere you want with them.”

With Mia, a character in the film, when she’s pirouetting, she comes up close…now you have a device where you can look at her hands moving away, or her face front on…you can look down at her feet…but it’s all the same drawing. You’re drawing three-point perspective. Where else would I ever get a chance to do that type of thing? This has really opened up the joy of sculptural drawing. If Rodin was alive today, and I could invite him into my studio, he would want to do something to break the boundaries of where we are with animation.

I see where technology is racing ahead. Today, I find myself as an artist looking at my pencil and asking myself, “Why can’t I let go of this?” Artists have expressed themselves for thousands of years with this tool. Are we just going to say, “That time is over now. We don’t need that any more.”? No! There is something about drawing that flows directly from my heart through to my hand. On the other hand, I don’t want the [technology] train to leave without me. I want that train to pull something out of me that I wouldn’t get any other way. I’m hanging onto that, even though I don’t understand it. I’m moving forward with all this technology, trusting that something good is going to happen. I just don’t know what it is.

DS: As the animated feature business moved into CG from a highly automated 2D world, you always brought that “drawn” sensibility to Disney productions. Was making that transition to CG something you willingly embraced? Was it a welcome challenge or necessary evil?

GK: Technology has always shown me the promise of something new and really cool. The first time I did story sketches on The Fox and the Hound – this big bear fight – with charcoal drawings, my intentions were to animate that whole scene in charcoal. I didn’t want it to be cleaned up and painted. Ub Iwerks’ son Don was still at Disney and he suggested we could put it onto photographic cells to actually do it that way. We ended up not having time to do it, but I never lost the notion that someday, that’s what this [feature animation] is going to be. When John Lasseter and I were working on this little Wild Things test, we could do the backgrounds in the computer, but we couldn’t animate the characters in CG. So I animated it using all the perspective from the background John was working out. We painted it to make it look like CG, but I was frustrated because I wanted to animate it in CG. That was another instance where I held out the promise of that happening “someday.”

Ultimately, when I got to Tangled, I didn’t necessarily intend for that to be a CG film. I had done a lot of drawings and showed them to Michael Eisner at the time and he said, “Yah, let’s do this movie. But there’s just one thing. I want you to make it in CG.” I said, “Michael, do you like the drawings?” He said, “I love them.” And I said, “Well, you can’t do that in CG.” Though we’d been making great advances in CG, there was something organic and rhythmic and beautiful with drawings that CG just didn’t have. So he said, “Glen, there’s got to be a way to take what you love in hand-drawn and bring it into CG.” I thought it such an honest challenge, I didn’t want to say “no.” I thought, maybe now is the time.

At that time, when I looked around me at Disney, there was a huge division between hand-drawn and CG [artists]. They didn’t know each other. The programmers didn’t know the animators. The animators didn’t know the programmers. We didn’t talk. You would be standing in an elevator, one group on one side, one group on the other, and no one would say a word. Just a huge silence. Animators were afraid they were going to lose their jobs. I felt sort of like I was a traitor to the hand-drawn side. But I also didn’t understand the CG side. So I felt we needed to find a common ground.

We had a retreat called “The Best of Both Worlds,” where we went to the Huntington Library in Pasadena with both groups. We said, “Let’s forget what is happening today and instead talk about what, in a most ideal world, the perfect medium would be.” We discussed it being a blend of both worlds, where drawing is part of the process and the sculptural quality and dimensional aspect of CG are married together. They’re both involved equally. That’s still the goal to me.

When I see what John did with Paperman, I see those train tracks getting closer and closer. When I see what Patrick Osborne has done with Feast, there is this marriage that is happening and I want to be part of it.

DS: Because CG is so steeped in technology, it requires significant overhead and effort before animation can commence. Have you ever felt that for younger artists not schooled in 2D, the emphasis on CG technology can get in the way of the creative process?

GK: Yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s just a problem for CG. It’s also a problem for hand-drawn. In the beginning, both sides make the same mistake – they think it’s about moving images. It’s about the skills of drawing, of understanding all the principles of animation, like squash and stretch, drag and overlap, anticipation and silhouette. When I was 20 years old, and Eric Larson was explaining arcs to me, how everything moves in a beautiful arc, as this master described all of the principles one by one, I thought, “Come on, you don’t really think about all this stuff? That’s not possible. How can I ever learn this? There are too many things!”

[Lowering his voice to mimic Eric] “Well Glen, let’s just take things one at a time. Ask yourself a question. What moves first?” I was animating a frog coming around a rock. I said, “Well…the frog moves first.” [As Eric] “Well, what part of the frog?” I said, “His head.” Eric said, “Is it his head? Isn’t his hand on the rock? Well how did it get there?” I said, “OK, well then his hand moves first.” “So what part of his hand moves first?” I said, “Umm, it’s just his hand.” Eric said, “It’s his wrist joint. It’s leading.” I said, “Oh. OK.” He continued, “So that means the first part that’s going to touch that rock is the palm of his hand.” I said, “Oh, yah, yah, that’s right.” Then he asked me, “Which finger is going to land first?” I went, “Uh…I guess this one….” He said, “That’s right.”

And he went on to show me every step in the process, going through everything piece by piece, helping me understand how it all flowed. The technicality of it was overwhelming. But with patience, bit by bit I learned it. It became natural and innate. There were things you had to learn like volume. How to draw so that the volume wasn’t changing. Well, CG took care of that. CG replaces certain things that you always had to be thinking of in hand-drawn.

One day on Tangled, I thought, I need to learn to animate on the computer. At least I need to try. I’m supervising them [CG animators] so I need to be able to relate to them. I had my Rapunzel positioned and was going to have her turn around. I thought, “OK, I’ll move the shoulder.” So I tilted her. The first thing I realized was the awkwardness of that pose. When I’m animating, I “feel” the character. When I was animating The Beast [from Beauty and the Beast], I’d go home and my jaw would be so sore. I would wonder why my jaw was so sore. I realized, of course, the Beast is all “grrrrrrrrrargggggrrrrr” all day long. When I tried animate Rapunzel, and I tilted her, my back started hurting, and my neck would bother me. There was all this awkwardness. By the time I finished a pose, I was physically exhausted. I was sore. So I talked to my animators and said, “I tried animating Rapunzel. Now I understand how hard you guys have to work just to make something look bad.” Of course, that’s the quote they put up on the wall in the studio. After that, my respect for the CG animators grew enormously 

The same principles I learned from Frank [Thomas], Ollie [Johnston] and Eric, that’s the baton I pass. Through that whole process [working on Tangled], I was constantly drawing over people’s work, constantly hearing Ollie’s voice in my mind. He’d be saying, “Don’t draw what the character is doing. Draw what the character is thinking.” I would tell people, if you’re going to get into the moment, you have to get into the character’s head. And this is why. And they would get it. It’s wonderful seeing that knowledge transferred, knowing it’s going on down that train track forever.

DS: Looking back at your career, we can see not just the fantastic characters and films you’ve animated, but from a historical perspective, how those characters have touched people’s lives and the position they hold within the legacy of Disney animation. When you were working on films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, did you have any sense how special and beloved those films were destined to become? How they could stand proudly beside any films ever done at the studio?

GK: What I had the sense of was this. These characters [that he himself had worked on] were living and breathing. I identified with them. I knew how they felt. There was something about looking at characters like Alice, Cinderella or Peter Pan, characters that I hadn’t animated, that filled me with a tremendous sense of awe. I was always amazed at what they [the Disney masters] did. Ollie would say, “Glen, you’re going to do greater things than us some day.” Well, I’m still waiting for that to happen.

I couldn’t even relate to doing something as great as them. I never even attempted to imagine that Ariel would be comparable to them. It was just me – a young guy trying to figure it out.  I remember being with Frank and Ollie in Westwood, just after the screening of The Little Mermaid. We were standing on the corner and I said, “So, what did you think?” Ollie said [mimicking Ollie], “Well, we wouldn’t have done it that way.” So I said, “Well, what do you mean?” He continued, “There were times there when she just wasn’t very appealing. Some pretty ugly expressions.” I thought, “Wow.” Then I realized, “Yah.” It was a conscious choice. I told him, “You’re right. Whenever we had a choice between going ‘pretty’ and going ‘real,’ we chose real.” If you scrunch your face, it might not be the prettiest expression, but it’s real. You’d never put it on a poster, but mixed in with the sauce of the scene, it makes it snap. I realized at that moment that they had been animating in a different era, with different tastes. Ariel was in my time. This is who she is. Let’s not pretend someone is always pretty. This is a real teenage girl with frustrations, anger and all those sorts of emotions.

That was an important moment for me. For me to come away from that encounter and not feel insulted but feel encouraged, that I’d made a conscious choice [in how I animated Ariel], I felt empowered. Making things great doesn’t necessarily mean making things better than they did, but making things that are true to who we are. That’s a path I’ve always pursued.

DS: Praising you as a legendary animator, in a sense, by focusing on your storied career, draws attention away from the great work you continue to do today. Like Duet. But looking back over your career, is there any one thing, one film, one character that has given you the most personal sense of satisfaction?

GK: It’s kind of a funny thing, the personal sense of satisfaction that you get from being invisible. When I’m around animation people, they know who I am. But, among normal people, they don’t know who the heck I am. I learned about that in a hard way – the value of being invisible. I was trying to get into Disneyland with some friends who were visiting. I was going to impress them by going up to the front of the line and getting in with my Silver Pass. I get to the front of the line and went, “Shoot, I don’t have my pass!” I figured, I’ll just talk my way in. I said, “Hey, look. I don’t have my silver pass. Here’s my Disney ID. I work at the studio in animation. Can we come in?” The guard said, “No, I can’t do that.” I said to him, “Well, you got a compute there. You know who I am. You can check to see that I have a Silver Pass.” He said, “Naw, I can’t do that.” I said to myself, “No, don’t do this” but I had to do it; I said, “Look, did you see The Little Mermaid? Did you see Beauty and the Beast? Aladdin? I did those.” He looked at me and said, “I don’t care who you are. You’re going to get back into the line like everyone else!”

So now I’m embarrassed in front of my friends. I went to the back of the line, waited in line, bought tickets and by the time I got into the park, I was angry. My friends went on a ride and I sat down on a bench, just trying to cool off. And sure enough, here comes The Beast walking over. He sits down on the bench next to me. I thought, “Isn’t this ironic.” I looked over at him and said, “Hi Beast.”

Then this little girl comes running over, jumps up and gives The Beast great big hug and a kiss. And I immediately remembered when I was designing him, I thought, “He’s too ugly. Nobody is going to believe Belle could love him. This movie isn’t going to work.” And here is this little girl, completely embracing and believing in this character. I have never felt so wonderfully invisible as I did at that moment. To that little girl, The Beast was real. I realized, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about me at all.

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

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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