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Interview with Glen Keane, Disney veteran and legendary animation artist (Part 1)

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Glen Keane – the Man, the Legend, the Animator – was in the UK recently to promote his latest masterpiece Duet (an interactive short film commissioned by Google as part of their Advanced Technology Projects). In anticipation of this exciting project’s upcoming release in the coming months, Skwigly took the opportunity to drool over him pathetically talk nonchalantly about how awesome he is.

I’d like to talk about your influences, because I see you as someone who’s really studied artists and drawing from an artistic and historical place, as well as from a theoretical and a technical place. Was this something that you were told to do, or was it more of a natural desire to learn more?

I was raised in a family where my Dad was a cartoonist and I was amazed at how much he loved drawing. As a kid I would watch him draw, and he was never classically trained – he had art books at home but he never went to school, yet he did incredibly beautiful watercolours. There was kind of an appreciation of artists in our home, though Dad was a famous cartoonist in America.

I read an article about Dad once, when he was 18 someone interviewed him and he said he was not an artist, he was a cartoonist. I thought it was an interesting point of view to have, and I noticed that when Dad would talk to me he’d say “Glen, you’re not a cartoonist, you’re an artist”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but when I was about nine he gave me a book called Burne Hogarth‘s Dynamic Anatomy, so I started to really learn figure and drawing. I remember going to school on the bus and kids looking at drawings I was doing, going “Teehee – Keane’s drawing naked guys!” Cos I was, you know, studying anatomy. I thought to myself not everybody thinks like me; I want to be an artist, that’s what I’m going to become.

So when I sent my portfolio to CalArts, it was to go in to the school of painting – I wanted to be a fine artist. And about a month later I found out I was accepted in to the School of Film Graphics, taught by Jules Engel. I didn’t know Jules Engel, didn’t even know what the term Film Graphics meant – this was in 1972 – but it was kind of a fancy way of saying cartoons or animation… But I wanted to be a painter! I called and said “This is a mistake! I want to be a painter, I want to get in to the School of Art” and they said “The only way you’re going to get to come here is through this school of Film Graphics.” I said “Okay…well, can I take a second in painting?” and they said “Yes”.

So I went there, and I’ll never forget just walking in to the animation room A115 at CalArts, and there’s all these students at these desks with these discs, flipping paper – I’d never seen anything like it! As I learned and started to animate my first little bouncing ball, I couldn’t help but put shading on it to make it feel like a dimensional thing. Seeing it move, that it had weight, just captured my imagination; Suddenly the paper surface was gone and I stepped in to a world that reminded me of when I was a kid. But very quickly I realised that for me to do the things that I was imagining doing was going to require me to draw better, so I started studying anatomy in real earnest and found that it was helping me to turn a figure better in space. I realised that if Michaelangelo, Rodin or Degas was alive today, they would want to be animators.

Agreed!

But they would do something different with it than anybody is pushing now. I mean, whatever we’ve done now, they would have done something uniquely artistic and expressionist for them.

So I keep trying to put as much of that classical drawing into everything I do. If I’m drawing the Beast, I’m studying Rodin before doing that. With Ariel, I mean I absolutely love François Boucher – his drawing style, the Rococo style in France was the forerunner to Freddy Moore at Disney; I mean the French curves, that’s all in everything that they do. I realised that all the roots of everything that I love at Disney was actually done by classical artists before, so that’s how I’ve grown, through exposing myself to classical artists.

©Disney

©Disney

I heard you say recently that you feel hand-drawn animation is currently still in the Byzantine era, so what do you think we have to do to move on to the Renaissance, and who do you think is leading that charge?

Well, first of all I think you have to think of yourself differently. We tend to believe the business world’s view of our art form. But that’s really putting the cart before the horse – letting the tail wag the dog. This is an art form where we are the artists, we are the ones that are making it – don’t let somebody else define who you are, what you do and what is possible with this art form. It has to come from the mind of the artist. What would I be talking to you about if this was 500 years ago? I mean, we would talk about building Cathedrals or sculpture or painting frescos, but is this art form of making something move any less of a classical art form than those?

It’s just that so commercialised that we tend to forget that, so I really think it’s about us first. We have to think differently. On Tangled I remember we had done 40% of the animation in about nine months, we had two months left to do 60%. When talking to the crew I said “500 years ago we’d be talking about sculpture and architecture, but today this is our art form. We are born as artists today, and this is your important choice; Are you going to take a shortcut and just do something really formulaic, or are you going to take something really personal inside and put it out there on the screen?” When you have no time, and you are being really challenged, don’t take the shortcut. Do the thing that is really personal, be vulnerable, put yourself out there. That’s our art form. And at the end, you’ll be amazed. None of you will be the artists you are today; you’ll be better, you’ll be stronger, you’ll have grown.

And we got the animation done, and truly the very best stuff was done in those two months.

I have ideas of movies that I wanna see and do, and there’s a voice in my head that says “No way, there’s a reason that nobody’s doing that, it’s because nobody cares about it”. And I’m thinking “Yeah, but I do.” I think that people are going to connect to your art when you really put yourself out there and are personal, but it has to come from something that you’ve discovered in life, reflected back to the audience; They’re seeing it through your eyes.

Glen Keane's latest project 'Duet' will be released in the coming months

Glen Keane’s latest project Duet will be released as an interactive film for mobile devices in the coming months. Image ©Glen Keane Productions

So is that the future for Glen Keane? Short, personal films?

Well I don’t know – it doesn’t have to be short!

Feature-length personal films?

Personal, yes. Individual and expressing something that I believe is beautiful and emotional. I think that is the path that I want to go. And I feel that Duet is sort of the first fruit that fell from this tree, and there’s something unique in the way of that storytelling that I want to keep pulling on that thread and see what comes next – there are several ideas they’ve got. And they can be long form, or medium form or various different forms and formats; I mean how they’re presented, they can come out in different ways.

So I’m trying not to limit myself to that. It seems that when you’re working in a studio environment, each studio is kind of like a planetary system with the work there. You think differently at every studio, it’s like you breath a different type of oxygen or something. And the ideas at Pixar feel like a house style, and Disney feels like a Disney house style. And they’re wonderful, beautiful films at Dreamworks and every one of them has got something, and it’s not spoken – it just is.

I think sometimes you’ve  got to step out of that atmosphere to find something that’s really personal for yourself, which is what I felt like I needed to do when I left 2 years ago.

As someone who has inspired my generation, the fan hysteria you seem to have found yourself at the centre of must’ve really come to the fore when you resigned. How do you feel about being a sort of celebrity animator? Has it opened doors for you, do you think?

I think that I’m still trying to open some doors, but the doors that I’m really finding are open are the people who are interested in hearing what I have to say, like just talking to you. It’s really nice to have somebody asking me questions about what I think. I’ve always been that way, I’ve never been able to hold whatever it is that I’m learning inside. Even in my early twenties, when I was at Disney and just discovering animation, and I’d learn some something truthful that Ollie Johnston had said, like “No line stands by it’s own, it’s always in relation to another line”. He told me this and he said “Now, you’re not going to understand this, but some day you will” and there was a day that I got it: If I draw a bottom part of a cheek, the top part of the cheek changes, like if you’re picking something up with two hands you are supporting a form in the middle! I started doing lectures about things that I’d discovered with Tex Avery. I mean, I didn’t have any right to be putting myself out as an expert because I wasn’t, I was just sharing what I was discovering. I remember some of the other folks at the studio would say “You know, you shouldn’t be doing that.”

“What?”

“You should’t be telling everybody these things that you’re learning and discovering.”

And I said “Why?”

“Well, you’re going to give away your secrets and then everyone else is going to get better than you and then what’s going to happen? You should really keep that under wraps – just a word to the wise.” And then they’d walk out.

I thought If that’s true, I don’t want to live in that world! It was a lot more fun to keep sharing.

Well, you learned of course from the very best!

Yeah! Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larson were naturally gifted teachers who lived to share at the end of their careers. They were all about passing on the baton. I guess I naturally just saw that as what you do as an artist, you pass it on to someone else. So to your question about notoriety, that’s the wonderful part about it, is that people are actually asking me what I think, what I have to say. And I get to tell them what I think!

Glen Keane at Disney

Glen Keane at Disney

I’ve heard you say before that there’s a sort of scale from Milt Kahl on the very technical, to maybe Frank and Ollie on the very emotional side of the spectrum of animation. So where do you see your own animation style  in that spectrum, and is there something that you would say makes a Glen Keane sequence?

Well, I think I’m learning more about each of those guys; Frank, Ollie and Milt – and I’d have to say that they’re all emotional, but I think they each think very differently, and I know that I think very differently than all four of them.

They envision their animation differently – Milt would see his animation very clearly in his mind, and if you watched him draw you could tell that he saw everything in his head and he was tracing it out as he drew

Was that the drawing, or the whole sequence?

He would work out his thumbnails, and then, when he figured out his thumbnails, it was architecturally designed in his mind; timing wise, drawing wise – everything was figured out. His thumbnails were extensive, so he did struggle with the drawing out at the thumbnail stage.

Ollie thought not so much in movement as in pictures. He’d say “You’ve got to think in terms of a picture that you leave with the audience and that they’ll never forget. You have that short moment in time, what is the picture that you’re going to do? If you just had one drawing, what would it be?”

So his animation was always a boiled-down sauce, like a spaghetti sauce that got really strong into one clear pose or drawing. Milt’s was about dynamic moving shapes, the poses were wonderful and strong, and Frank’s was very intellectual, very psychological – thousands of little busy lines, feeling the form. He could talk in depth about what was going on with the character, and communicate that way. You could see it in his animation, his characters movements are always rolling and turning in complex little arcs.

And me, I have a problem. I don’t see something clearly in my head. So when I was first animating, Eric Larson would say “So Glen, when you start, you see an image clearly in your mind and you draw it.”

I said “Well, um…I don’t see it”

And he’d say “Well sure you do, because you did the drawing!”

And I’d say “Well no, I really don’t!”

I realised that animators are different, they approach it very differently. Recently Gennie Rim (my Producer) and I were having dinner with Ed Catmull, who was talking about a meditation that he was learning from a guy who was teaching him to imagine a sphere. He realised that he couldn’t imagine a sphere – he could mathematically describe a sphere, but he couldn’t imagine the picture of a sphere. And he looked at me and said “I guess you wouldn’t have that problem.”

And I said “That’s exactly my problem! I have that!”

We both looked at each other like “Woah – someone else crazy, like me!!”

But I think that unique limitation brings with it a positive aspect, a door of emotion that you have, to enter your animation. The only way I can enter my animation is to emotionally connect. I have to feel what the character is feeling. It’s kinda nice because it’s a very visceral way of animating, that I feel I connected with the drawings and the drawings connect with people because it’s pretty much like the lines are a seismograph of my soul.

It’s painful to know that you put all of that in your drawing, and your drawings have never been up on the screen. At the end of Fox and the Hound I had all this bear fight stuff – I poured my heart and soul into that – and somebody came in to my office with a little cart, loaded up all the drawings and was starting to wheel it away. I said “Where are you going?”

“We’re going to shred them!”

“What?”

“Well, this is what we’ve always done.” All the artwork that was from Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi has all been shredded!

Isn’t it archived!?

No, that’s the clean up. The original actual animation, the animator’s drawings, have all been destroyed. Because the clean up are the things that are seen up on the screen, that’s where the value is. That artwork was not considered valuable because it was all in service of what was going to be projected.

There’s two different views. There’s a purist view, where everything is serving the screen, what is up on the screen is what counts. That’s a really pure, cinematic view of a filmmaker. That’s secondary for me, it’s really about the art-making that is primary for me.

When Peter Schneider had come in to Disney as head of the animation department, his background was theatre and (this was when Michael Eisner had come in) he had this whole department and he didn’t really know much about animation, but he was fantastic at bringing artists together and getting them to talk. So there was this question, “What do we do with all this artwork? Do we keep shredding it??

And I thought This is our chance. But I was shocked to find that in a room of artists and animators, keeping the original drawings was no big deal. There was a different purists’ view.

To me, it never gets better than that moment when you actually drew it on the paper.

Pocahontas

Pocahontas

So when you’re doing a sequence, what sort of percentage of time do you spend thinking and studying and learning, compared to how long you actually spend drawing it? What’s your process?

At the beginning there’s usually the top surface of an idea. Say Pocahontas: Immediately certain things come to mind, and I picture what I know about Pocahontas, some drawings about native Americans, and I realise that as I try to draw a Native Americna woman, she looks Caucasian, and I’m relying on clothing or something. And very quickly as I start to draw, I realise that my knowledge goes very shallow, so I go out and I start to research.

That means traveling to the place, like for Pocahontas it was to actually go to Jamestown and imagine her meeting John Smith. It was meeting and speaking to Native American people, drawing their faces and immersing myself in their culture; I think that’s what it is, it’s about loving.

To do Rescuers Down Under, Roy Disney had a friend who had golden eagles in Idaho, so I flew up and spent time with the eagles and learned about that – I studied bone structure.

When I went back to Jamestown, I was trying to imagine being John Smith, because I could get in to his head quicker. So I came to a stream in the forest and thought What if this was where Pocahontas came up on a canoe, and they met? I just had to imagine it. And as I’m imagining all this, I heard this voice:

“Excuse me, excuse me?”

So I turned around and there’s this beautiful Indian woman walking up; a Native American. She said “Are you Glen Keane? The animator that’s going to do Pocahontas?”

I said “Well, yeah.”

And then from behind another tree another woman came up and she said, “Well, my name is Shirley Little Dove, and this is my sister Devi White Dove, and we are descended from Pocahontas”

And as they stood there, I mean a I took a picture of both of them, and between their faces was Pocahontas’ face in my mind – I could see her.

They were both beautiful, they had a nobility in the way the stood. All the way through the film I had that photo on my desk there as a reminder of that. Because it was real, I was animating something that I believed. And I think you really have to believe in what you’re animating.

I love to animate characters who believe the impossible is possible. They’ve got this burning desire inside of them. I’ve got to connect inside with them.

For Tarzan I went to Africa with my son Max, and I went in to the jungles and I tried to imagine If I was Tarzan and I had to grow up here in the jungle, what would I have been like? How do you survive? The courage it must take! And I started watching Max skateboarding and started thinking of him as a tree surfer, and I wondered about moss on the trees. I thought Could you actually slide on a tree?

Glen_Keane

©Disney

So, Max and I climbed up in to a tree, and sure enough, there’s moss and vines hanging there.

With Rapunzel, my daughter Claire, ever since she was little wanted to paint the ceilings and her walls. But she was only six years old and my wife Lynda said “There’s no way we’re going to let a six-year-old loose in the house with wet paint”. But when it came time to think about who was going to do Rapunzel’s art, I asked Claire to come in – she’d just graduated from Art School in Paris, and just crawled into the skin of that character and was Rapunzel.

It’s a way of thinking. I guess my Dad based his comic characters on his own family, so it’s natural that people that you love enter in to your work. I mean, Ariel is designed after my wife.

You’re obviously very famous for what you can do with a pencil, but you seem to be someone that has always either pushed – or at least embraced – technology. Is that something that you see as important going forwards? Also, your first Directorial effort was a CGI film, so, why did you make that decision to make it CGI?

Well, the fact is that technology has crossed my path consistently throughout my career, from doing the first computer animation with John Lasseter (Where The Wild Things Are), and even before that on Fox and the Hound. After doing all this charcoal drawing, I wanted that to be up on the screen, I did not want it to be cleaned up and painted traditionally. I was hunting around for a way to do it, and ran in to the Head of Research Don Iwerks (son of Ub Iwerks).

He said “Well, you know I’m thinking about another process of photographic cels, where you can actually photograph the artwork and it’ll be on the cel and you just paint the back of that, and we can have your charcoal drawings up on the screen.”

“Woah! Yeah, let’s do it!” But we ran out of time.

Great ideas don’t die, they just go underground. Like a river, that just ran out of water. But it’s still flowing, and it’s come up again now, for me and Duet. The whole look is all about celebrating line and drawing up on the screen. It’s such a rewarding, satisfying thing. That was technology crossing my path, but it always forces me to draw better, to think of myself more as an artist.

Tangled (©2010 Disney)

Tangled (©2010 Disney)

The Wild Things test was about drawing dimensionally in space. Tarzan is moving dimensionally in a world that we’re sculpting. We’re painting the trees, the forms – he was in a solid, dimensional environment that I can imagine myself in. Treasure Planet;  Silver had a CG arm actually attached to the drawings, and with Rapunzel, when I presented all the drawings to Michael Eisner, he said “Yes I love this, we should do this, but I want you to do it in CG.”

I said “Well Michael, do you like the drawings?”

He said “I love em!”

I said “But you can’t do that in CG”. At that time, I didn’t see that it could be done

Whenabouts are we talking?

This was 2001. And he said “Yeah but, there must be some way to take what you love in hand drawn, and put it in CG.”

And I thought it was maybe a naïve remark, but a very honest and pure challenge. I thought How can I just say no to that? I don’t even know what I’m saying no to!

So I tried to find a way to bring what I love about hand drawing over. It really brought up a lot of interesting things, like “What is drawing?”, “What am I giving up?”

Michelangelo said “Design, or as it is called by another name; drawing, is the root, fountainhead, and substance of all architecture, painting, sculpture, and science. Let he who has attained this, know that he possesses a great treasure.”

[To be able to draw] is a treasure. But I don’t even understand it, it just happens. I thought What do I actually look at when I draw? I started looking at what my eyes saw, and the first thing I noticed was that I don’t look at the line. If you ever watch yourself draw, you don’t look at the line you’re drawing, you look next to the line. You are actually looking at the form that the line is describing. If it’s a face you may draw an edge on one side, and then you’ll draw the other side of the face. It’s just like Ollie’s comment – “No line exists on it’s own, every line relates to another”. The lines are holding the form inside.

I realised that it’s really sculptural drawing that I want to do. I want to sculpt with my drawing in space. CG can be sculptural drawing. It needs to be. And that’s kinda been my goal, it’s those two train tracks that are coming together. It think Paperman is getting close to that. And I want to keep moving towards that, finding a way to bring drawing and sculpture and CG together so they’re helping to define that form. That’s the future, that’s where I see us going.

Keep your eyes on Skwigly (and your ears on future episodes of the Skwigly Podcast) for more insight from the legendary Glen Keane as well more info on his upcoming project Duet closer to its release. In the meantime you can learn more from our recent coverage of Glen’s appearance at this year’s Encounters Festival in Bristol.

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