Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure to talk with nearly every major influence on Walt Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming 50th animated feature film Tangled — except for one person. That would be the legendary artist Glen Keane, who was originally the co-director for Tangled in its early stages and really pushed the film to meld hand-drawn fluidity with computer animation. Last month, while at the press junket for the film I was able to sit down with Keane to discuss hair, how far computer animation has come, the various roles he played in the film over the years, and the lineage of artists in his family. So hit the jump to check out the full transcript, and stay tuned all week for more on Tangled, which hits theaters on November 24.
Question: In the production notes, I was reading that you and John Lasseter had seen Tron, and that it sparked the idea of what computer animation could be down the line. How interesting is it that coming from there to now with the long process of Tangled, you’re releasing right before Tron: Legacy?
GLEN KEANE: Yea isn’t that…
It’s a big circle, isn’t it?
KEANE: You know, it’s incredible I never connected that until you just said it. [Pause] That is amazing. I have thought a lot about that time that John and I went across the street and saw what they were doing with Tron. We decided we had to come up with some way of doing this; how limited we were at that point to do only the very architectural elements in CG and allow the hand drawn; I animate the character in hand drawn. But the dream was someday to do computer animated characters that had all of the same organic feel as hand drawn. That is the story of this film; for me to be able to draw over top of frame by frame of people’s work. Thanks to John and Clay [Kaytis] and other animation supervisors, they really respected the Disney roots of something I could bring to it and made it possible for me to contribute that way. And how it actually does translate up on the screen as something unique and different. This movie is definitely… I hope you feel that.
KEANE: This movie has a… je ne sais quoi. [Laughs] Something about it; what is that? It’s different! What is it?
It feels like watching a hand-drawn painting, animated. The pastel color scheme is infectious and vivid, but it’s clearly animation. It has different roots; this isn’t normal animation. Yall definitely went a different direction.
KEANE: Yea, there’s an organic quality to the design that the audience feels. I saw the film at the wrap party and I was amazed because every shot that came up, I could see the animator’s face. No matter what character it was, I knew who did what just by the style. I remembered them doing it. But I could see them and it was the same experience I had on all the hand-drawn films. But I didn’t know that that was possible; I thought the hand drawn was so much more expressive for an artist, but I was wrong. In CG, there are so many other artists that can’t draw, but thanks to this medium they found an art form to express themselves in. What I can give is the same things I learned from Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston]. I mean, I was constantly teaching and drawing and just reminding them of the same principles. And they apply; they crossover.
What drew you back to this film and what was it like to be involved in so many areas of the film, almost like a free roamer?
KEANE: Yea, a wider orbit is how I put it. Though it didn’t start off that way. For me, 14 years ago I started working on this story and directed it from 2002 to 2008. I really wanted to see this story about this girl with this amazing potential. That’s what I really wanted to see come out. I really wanted to see hand drawn enter into computer animation. So, in 2008, when I had this heart attack, I stepped back. I gave the role of directing to Byron [Howard] and Nathan [Greno], and taking on the role of executive producer was more of a way of remaining influential on it but I felt like what I really wanted to do was to dive in deeper with animation. So I talked with John and Ed [Catmull] and they agreed that I should oversee animation. But I immediately realized… I didn’t know how to animate on the computer. [Laughs] I tried it for one day on this film. Everyone kept saying that I should learn this, but I didn’t have any time really, to do it, because I was designing characters at the same time and working with the modelers and riggers. There’s so many aspects to CG that take all of your time, but I thought, “Alright, I’ll try!” But it was so… painful. [Groans] I realized how hard these guys have to work. I told them, and I probably made a mistake in saying this, but I said, “You guys work so hard just to come up with something that looks bad!” [Laughs] Then they had that in quotes, so every day on the board there, I saw this phrase. But it’s true! The computer… fights against anything organic and a sensuous kind of feel… rhythm, expression, tilt, flexibility. All of those things don’t naturally come to it. So animators would present something to me and they were happy with it. I’d look at them and say, “But that looks really stiff.” “Yea, but you should have seen it before.” It’s like a frog boiling in water thing. It’s a good thing because I really didn’t animate in the computer I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for that. Instead it was like, “Yea, but we gotta solve that. It’s gotta be like this,” and I would do these drawings. They would go back to their desks with the idea that they have to apply that. The good thing is that John and Clay followed them up. They were like shepherds through this; they knew what I was going for and they would work with those animators to try and get those things in there. So it was very much a little triumvirate that accomplished this. But yes, there was a looseness that I felt. I also did a lot of work on the publicity images and all of that. I think to work on a movie for eight to 10 years is a long time; too long for one film. I really appreciated having others take some of the load.
Was there ever a back story for Mother Gothel’s tower?
KEANE: We had talked about it being a kingdom that was there, there were ruins around the area. The only thing that remained was this tower. There had been a landslide that caused a little tunnel that goes through the area. We had designed a lot of ruins in the area, but since we didn’t go into that, we took it out so it’s not begging the question. Now it just stands there. Except maybe it demanded something for you.
What was it like having your daughter, Claire, provide artwork on the film? I mean, your father was a newspaper comic artist, so there is a lineage coming around there. Do you think she is going to follow in those footsteps?
KEANE: Well, for my dad, he based his whole comic strip on his own family. I’ve taken that very much into all the characters that I’ve worked on. Ariel was very much my wife, and designing Ariel was based on drawing her. Tarzan was my son doing his skateboarding; we were in Paris at the time and he was sliding down the Trocadéro and it was like, “OK, Tarzan should be a tree surfer not a guy swinging on vines.” Each of the characters reflects somebody in my own family. The Beast is me. [Laughs]. With Rapunzel, right off the bat I started thinking about my daughter Claire. When she was a little kid she always wanted to paint the walls and the ceiling, she was just explosive. Constantly clashing with my wife, too. Right off the bat I started talking about Rapunzel as irrepressible: uncontainable. Even just the story; take a person that has this supernatural gift and put her in a tight tower and she’s got to get out. Claire is like that. She had gone to Paris Art School and I loved her style of artwork; she came in and was just a natural fit for painting Rapunzel’s artistic expression on the walls. She’s going to continue going down that path and my son is also an artist. He doesn’t work at Disney; he prefers to have something more on his own outside doing commercials. Who knows where it’s going to go. Maybe our granddaughter is going to keep doing that.
All of your characters seem to revolve around hair. Have you ever had long hair?
KEANE: [Laughs] Yea, I did, actually at one time, a lot of it. Real big, red hair. But there was a point on the movie where the hair, obviously, if it doesn’t work, the movie is not going to work. We had a whole crew of technical guys who were doing simulation and they were approaching it as a technical thing. I realized that it was not going to work. This is a character; we have to think of this hair as a character itself. So I had a lecture and I went through the importance of hair for me. On each of the characters that I’ve done, the hair represents the crisis of that character in the film. For Ariel, she’s this girl underwater and you constantly see this hair floating. It’s always a reminder that this girl lives in another world but she wants to be a part of that world. For Pocahontas, there is always a wind moving her hair. It’s like a spirit, and her struggle is, “Can I take John Smith and get him to see with new eyes the colors of the wind?” For The Beast, it’s fur! It’s a constant reminder, “I’m a beast. How can I transform?” For Tarzan, he’s a similar kind of beast in a way, but it’s the dreadlocks. “Am I Lord Greystoke or am I king of the apes?” For Rapunzel, it’s this constant reminder that she has this gift. She has a destiny, a purpose. The more you hold her back, the more her hair grows. If she had not been kept in the tower, I don’t think she would have had that long hair. It’s part of her problem; there it is. Always a reminder. So I talked about that and how every shot of the hair has to have rhythm. It has to have twist, volume, this little swoop. It’s just like how Ariel has her swoop, Rapunzel’s got hers. We have to have that just right. We built a team of people; Eric Daniels had done Long John Silver’s arm in Treasure Planet, and he was overseeing the artistic and creative side of the hair because we need somebody to remind those technical artists that this was a character. They were controlling 150,000 hairs, so hopefully it worked for you.
Speaking with Glen was a pleasure and you can see how much enthusiasm he has for his art and passion. Stay tuned throughout the week for more interviews and my review, and you can also check out my video interview with Tangled directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno right here and watch some clips here. Tangled opens in 3D and 2D on November 24th.