Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking" - An interview with Glen Keane

A legendary figure among Disney animators, Glen Keane began working at the studio in the 1970s, where he learned his trade from Walt's original artists. He has subsequently been responsible for some of the most iconic Disney characters of the modern era, with Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan all coming to life under his pen. Now Keane has helped bring Rapunzel to cinemas in Disney's Tangled, and when he came to London last week to promote the film, I had the opportunity to talk to him about it.

I wanted to ask you about your background with this film because you've been involved with it for a long time. Could you talk about how it has evolved from the time you first began working on it in 2002?

I actually started it in '96, so it has been 14 years on this film. It was while I was working on Tarzan, and when you're animating you're always thinking about what's next. I was thinking about this story that had always fascinated me, the story of this girl with this potential inside of her, born from a magical flower and with this creative gift. I started to develop it, I did drawings, I did an enormous amount of work from '96 all the way up to 2002, while I was doing Tarzan and Treasure Planet, and then 2002 was when I started work on it full time. I did a whole presentation for Michael Eisner and told him that I wanted to do this movie, and he said, "Yes, let's do it! But Glen, I want you to do it on a computer." I said to him, "Michael, don't you like these drawings?" and he said, "I love them," so I said, "But you can't do that on a computer!" He said, "Glen, I don't want you to leave behind what you love in hand-drawn, but I want you to find a way to bring that into the computer." I mean, he may not have been saying that for artistic reasons, it may have been because Shrek just made a bunch of money [laughs], but nevertheless, I felt that the challenge was honest, and I can't really say no to that. Every time the computer has crossed paths with me, I felt like it forced me to draw more in dimensions, to draw better. John Lasseter and I actually started the first computer animations in the mid-80s with the Wild Things test after seeing Tron. He animated the backgrounds and I did the characters by hand, because the computer couldn't do organic forms at that point. I realised that now I had to stop saying that a computer can't do what the hand can do, and instead I needed to start asking "Why?" What is it specifically that I don't like about the computer, and how can I change that? What tools do we need?

So we started off on this adventure and I realised the studio was pretty much split. There was a group of CG artists and hand-drawn artists, and they weren't really talking. So we had a retreat called The Best of Both Worlds where we bought both groups together and we realised that there were a lot of things that computer animation just wasn't doing, because it had never been asked to. For example, the computer does things perfectly symmetrical. Symmetry is easy, and typically the way you would design a CG character is that you would model half of it and duplicate it. It's done and it's perfect, but what you've done is you've created create this robot and everyone goes, "Ew, something's weird." With Rapunzel I did an enormous amount of drawings and I wanted to keep a sense of asymmetry in her. I read a book about feminine beauty and it said the key to beauty is strangeness in a woman's face. There needs to be something slightly off, some element; it might be her nose, her lip, her tooth, or one eye higher than the other, but something. Even in Rapunzel's teeth, the way she talks, there's something a little bit wonky in the placement of her teeth, and things like that were designed so that she was more real, true and appealing. We also had the characters breathe more so they weren't just CG figures, they were actually... [takes deep breath]...they have lungs inside them. There were so many different things like that and we started developing them and...I'm sure I've gotten so far off your question [laughs].

Don't worry, that's fine. How was it when you came back to the project in a different capacity then? Did it allow you to have a fresh perspective on the film you'd worked on for so long?

Yeah. In 2008, I had a heart attack and I stepped back. For six months, I took off and I just spent time with the family. My daughter had a daughter, so we have a granddaughter, and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. My first day back at work was difficult because something I had been driving for so long was now in somebody else's hands, and that's never easy. You watch somebody else make their own choices and Byron and Nathan needed to make it their own, to direct a film you have to make it your own. One of the first things I noticed was that the dog was gone and a horse was there, and I said, "You took the dog out! That was my family dog, I loved that dog!" [laughs] Then I realised that they had replaced it with a horse but now the horse was acting like a dog, and it was even better. They were adding things but the structure and architecture was still there, and all the elements I loved were deep-rooted. The ideas all have their roots in the original fairytale, so I learned that in a new role I could just focus on what I did best, drawing and animating. I could take all of the principles I had been taught by Frank Thompson, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson and the nine old men of Disney, and I could spend my time teaching. In dailies, when we worked with the animators it was like passing the baton onto a new generation.

That's why it still retains that classic Disney feel.

Yeah, there were these lessons. When I would go into Ollie's office in my early 20's, he would say things and I realised that I was hearing stuff no one else in the world was hearing, and the reason he was telling me wasn't just to be nice, he was giving me something that I needed to pass on. I would go back to my room and write it down because there were some profound ideas, and I found myself repeating them to this group, because they were so clear. I would say, "Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking," and it makes a world of difference, because suddenly it's not just a robotic action, it's an emotion that's happening up on the screen. Another one is, "Look for the golden poses, look for the golden moments, and spend time on that," craft that pose as if it was a painting in the Louvre and you only had one image to tell the whole story, sculpt that, don't move them all over the place. We were really teaching people to value a pose and have confidence, don't feel you have to move everything, spend time on the subtle things. Most of the artists were from other studios and they didn't know the Disney heritage, but they needed to know the roots that they were now part of, so I was constantly passing those things on and felt like that was my role. Stepping back from directing really gave me something I wouldn't have been able to do if I had been the director.

You have been responsible for so many iconic Disney characters. When you're designing one for the first time, do you have a particular way in? Is there an aspect of them that you try to capture first, so the rest of them will fall into place?

I have this strange belief that the character exists before I draw them, like it's already there. Everyone has heard about Michelangelo sculpting and releasing the figure inside the marble, and it's bizarre but it's true. It has been that case for every character I have designed, there's a moment when I recognise them and say, "Oh, there you are." I did hundreds, thousands of drawings of Rapunzel, but none of them were her, and hearing Mandy's voice helps too. She's adding something that gives it a certain irrepressible nature, and then the design locks in and you say, "There she is!" I also base it on people I know, it's not just out of my head. In this case, a big part of Rapunzel was my daughter Claire. I remember when she was a little kid and she always wanted to paint the walls and ceiling in her bedroom, she was an uncontainable little ball of creative energy, and constantly clashing with my wife Linda; "No Claire, you're not going to paint the walls." By the time I was doing this movie, Claire was going to art school and had become a really talented painter, so I hired her to create the look of Rapunzel's room. There was a lot of Claire in Rapunzel, and I think there's a lot of me in that character too – of course, I'm not a girl – but the qualities I really admire in Rapunzel are her irrepressibility, a desire to share the gift she has got with other people. To me it's a spiritual thing, that's why you want to do a story. I believe we have something to give to others and I connect with that.

Have you had to adapt your style in the age of 3D animation?

Not really. I think of drawing as sculptural drawing, so I've always thought in terms of 3D. Having it be 3D with the glasses is just a step closer to the way I do it. I love the idea of having this character in space and it doesn't need to be gimmicky or anything, although there are a few places where we take advantage of it, when we throw the hair straight towards the audience or the lanterns float out into the audience and the kids reach out to touch them. Those elements are fun, but the best thing is that Rapunzel feels like she's in space, in this environment, the tower is real, and we don't want the 3D to overpower the character.

How do you feel about the future of 2D animation? When films like The Princess and the Frog don't do as well as expected, it seems people are very quick to write off that art form. Do you think 2D still has a place alongside 3D CGI animations?

Well, I know Ron and John are working on another hand-drawn film right now, but that isn't to say that there aren't new directions for hand-drawn to go in as well. I think the traditional look of hand-drawn Disney animation is a medium in itself, just like CG animation, but that traditional Disney look is there because of the technical limitations of having paint on cells, and we don't have to do that anymore. When you draw, there's an energy in that drawing, and the computer can celebrate hand-drawn animation and help it be free on the screen. I'd love to see us use more of that.

Finally, you mentioned that you worked with John Lasseter in the 80's. Now he's back overseeing the entire animation operation at Disney. From a filmmaker's perspective, what impact has his presence made on the studio?

John has really brought his love of hand-drawn with him, because those are his roots. It's nice to see someone come back to the studio with that and honestly give people a choice. On his first day at work he came down to my office and said, "Glen, there's nothing more important at the studio than this movie, but you have a decision to make. Do you want to do it hand-drawn or CG?" If he had asked me three years earlier I would have said hand-drawn for sure, but now I had this goal and I really believed there was something to strive for and I wanted to do it CG. It was really wonderful to have that support all the way through the film because we were constantly reinventing and challenging the way things were done at Pixar. We wanted to do them in new ways down here and he wasn't saying, "Well, no, we always do it this way," he was allowing us to reinvent an approach for CG animation in our own studio. Allowing Disney to just be Disney was a really important step for him.