To celebrate the launch of the BFI’s Disney 50 season, screening all 50 of the studio’s animated features on the big screen throughout 2011, Disney legend Glen Keane was in town to promote their 50th feature, Tangled, alongside the film’s directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno. Keane is responsible for the character design of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, The Beast from Beauty & The Beast, alongside Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocahontas, the list really does go on, and is one of the greatest living animators. Below they talk about their work on what is perhaps the strongest Disney feature since The Lion King.
I wonder if we could just start with talking a little about the genesis of the film? Way back in the 1940s, Disney himself was contemplating the idea of a Rapunzel film and finally, all these years later, it comes to fruition. I know it was a project that Glen was very passionate about and had worked on earlier, then after a health scare you [Greno & Howard] took over before he came back in a different role. Could you perhaps talk a little about the project from that perspective?
Glen : I was working fourteen years ago on Tarzan, and typically as you’re animating, it’s kind of a lonely job, you’re in your office by yourself thinking ‘What am I going to do next?’. There’s something about these characters that have a burning desire inside of them that I’m really attracted to, they believe the impossible is possible and fairytales seem to touch that the most for me, out of all the kinds of stories. This particular story of a girl who’s born from this magical flower and has this gift inside of her that has to be shared, I really related to it. Maybe it’s being an artist at Disney for 36 years, you start to think you’re in a tower sometimes, how do you break out? How do you become yourself? I started to develop it and at a certain point presented it to Michael Eisner and he said ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ I’d done all these drawings but he said ‘There’s one thing Glen, I want you to do it in CG’ and I said ‘Michael, do you like these drawings? Because you can’t do them in CG! You can’t get everything I love about hand-drawn animation in CG!’ and he said ‘But that’s why I want you to do it that way, find a way to take the best of both worlds, put them together.’ I really thought it was a very honest challenge, so I took that and continued to work on it until about 2008 when I had a heart attack and had to step back from it. Fortunately Byron and Nathan were there and I don’t think you can direct a picture without making it your own, and they took the story and started again. I think you’re always building on something that’s there underneath you, but they really took the film and made it as personal as I was making it. I was really thankful that they were there. So I continued on in a role overseeing the animation and if I had been directing, I wouldn’t have been able to spend the time drawing and working with them to bring the things that I think, personally, I can bring to a film. It worked out much better this way.
Byron : Nathan and I have been at Disney for about 15 years and we’d always wanted to work with Glen. He’s the guy, a Disney legend. He designed Ariel and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, so when we had the opportunity to direct the film of course we said yes, but we wanted Glen to be there with us, working with the animators. You see how beautiful the animation is in the film and that’s because Glen’s influence is in there, so every animation session Nathan and I would be there in front of this group of about forty animators acting out the movie scene by scene. He would be Flyn and I would be Rapunzel sometimes, we’d switch back and forth, and the interesting thing was Glen would be there with an electronic drawing tablet called a Syntique and he’d be watching us very quietly when two seconds later there’d be this beautiful drawing of Nathan or myself or one of the other animators as Rapunzel or Flyn. Then the animators would take that back to their desks and make their animations a thousand times better than it was. You can see the results on screen, that collaboration.
Nathan : Everyone in the studio loves Glen, he’s been a mentor for all of us, you can’t put a price on this guy. When he had to step out of his original role and John Lasseter came to us and asked if we’d like to continue with the movie, Byron and I wanted to do it for Glen. Like Glen was saying, you have to bring your own vision to one of these films., you can’t just take what was there and keep going but to Glen’s credit he had a number of great things already in place, so we could see what he had done in different stages of the development process, which was really helpful, we got a lot out of that. Then we started asking ourselves ‘What kind of movie do we want to make?’, we talked about the kind of movies we like, we like hilarious films, we like big action movies, we talked about the kind of Disney movies we liked and we got a little greedy, we wanted all of this stuff in this one movie. The tough part was that we wanted it to be a Disney movie, we wanted it to feel like something that would really sit on the shelf alongside Cinderella and Pinocchio but we wanted it to be a contemporary film as well, so how do you do that? There’s an expectation, it’s a Disney fairytale, there’s something the audience wants when they see one of those movies, so we had to make sure we got that right. When you say you’re going to do contemporary, there have been films like Shrek, I’m not putting down Shrek, but that pokes fun at these kinds of movies, it’s very snarky, but that’s what that movie is. We wanted to do something very sincere, a very real telling of this story, so we were trying to find a balance, looking at films from the 1940s and 1950s that Walt Disney had made and we thought, if we can take that look and all that heart and emotion and put it into a contemporary film, we thought that could be our balance. It’d be CG, so we could take the house style of those other films and through the computer it’d become something fresh and new again. We’re competing against modern movies, we can’t just say ‘Here’s a 1950s tale everybody!’, I don’t think that would play that well.
It’s a huge achievement. I think there’s 46,000 lanterns in one scene, you’ve got to animate the 70ft of hair and make it feel real, 140,000 individual strands of hair which all bend and move in a certain way, it must have been a huge challenge for the animators.
Byron : Glen is obsessed with the hair.
Glen : I am.
Your original vision is hand-drawn, and your tradition is hand-drawn animation, and I know there’s an element of that with the storyboarding and so forth, but how did you find it, moving from one world to another?
Glen : It’s interesting, you have to put down your pencil in a way. I haven’t been animating myself, I don’t know how to animate on the computer. I had two guys who were phenomenal animators by my side, John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis, and we kind of filled in the gaps where each of us was weak. They were the guys who really found tools for me to participate, so I could actually contribute. There’s something that’s really unusual when you draw, it’s intuitive and the computer is not intuitive at all. The way you would design a face in a computer animated film, you’d design half of it and you’d hit duplicate and the second half is exactly like the first half. There’s no human being whose right side of their face looks like the left side of their face, if you do you’re a robot, you’d immediately be repulsed by someone you’d meet who looked like that. Now, every CG film, that’s how characters are designed, except this one. We never hit that duplicate button, we sculpted one side and we sculpted the other side, her teeth are just a little bit wonky, one eye is often just a little bit bigger than the other, there’s an imperfection that we’re drawn to. I remember reading a book once called Feminine Beauty which analysed what attracts us to a beautiful woman, it mentioned a strangeness, something just a little off that we put a lot of effort into. I remember something that Byron and Nathan were pushing constantly was ‘breathing’, a sense that the character’s living, it adds a lot to your acceptance of these characters as real.
Byron : In terms of the hair, it looks amazing and natural on screen but that was seven years in development. We had this team of very brilliant mathematicians and tech guys who were figuring this stuff out. Even as late as last year it just wasn’t working, we’d have scenes that were going terribly, terribly wrong with Rapunzel’s hair, her ‘bad hair days’, and we sat down with our guys and said ‘We have to make this work, otherwise we’re not going to be able to finish the film’. No one had done this before, even on Monsters Inc. which was a number of years ago, fur was a brand new thing for CG, which was remarkable at the time but even now you’ll see a lot of CG films where characters have short, bobbed hair that doesn’t intersect with the shoulders because it’s just so incredibly difficult. You have to take into account the 140,000 strands, individual objects that are colliding with the shoulders and have to look natural, they have to be art directed by Glen’s drawings. Not only do they have to look natural and shiny, they have to look natural when we have her do these wild things with it, she’s got to lasso Flyn, she’s got to tie him up, swing from it, she’s got to go underwater, which you’re never supposed to do with CG hair, it’s totally taboo. This is the cutting edge of hair technology, seriously, anything you wanna know about hair…
Glen : In the computer, the simple things are extremely difficult and the seemingly difficult, complex things are really easy. If you wanted to build New York City and have it explode, in the computer it’s no problem, the software people say ‘Yeah, we can do that’, but if you want Rapunzel to touch her hair suddenly it’s ‘No! Do not touch her hair!’ This is an eighteen year old girl! She thinks by touching her hair! We had to really overcome that challenge.
One thing I think has become incredibly important, and one of the reason Disney films have been so successful, is that you really work hard to hone the story down first, before you get anywhere near ‘novelty voice casting’. It seems the same with Tangled, could you talk a little about that process?
Nathan : Story really has to come first. Even if you have amazing animation or amazing effects, if your story isn’t working, your audience isn’t going to invest in the film, they check out. There’s something that I learned before I got into the directing side of things, I had twelve or thirteen years of being in the story department and I’d been on films in the past where I’d get sequences and I’d think ‘I really don’t want to board this one, why’d I get stuck with this?’. I’d always do my best, give it 110 per cent but there was a philosophy which we brought to our story room that, we’d tell our artists when we’re beating out the story, trying to figure out what this movie’s about, that if you ever get a sequence that you don’t want to do then there’s something wrong with the movie, there’s something wrong with hat sequence and we should sit back and re-examine it instead of just moving forward with something that’s already broken. From the get-go your sequence has to be super strong then that will turn into great layout which will then turn into great animation. We’ve been on movies in the past where the director will say ‘Well, we’ll fix it in animation’ but no, you’ll plus it in animation. We do these screenings for our crew where it’s all storyboard, with us doing the acting, and if we can make our crew cry or laugh with us doing our hammy acting, you know it’s going to be better every step of the way.
I know, Glen, you’re in town with your wife Linda, and I was struck by the similarities between her and the character of Ariel in The Little Mermaid whom you designed, and that your family have featured in some way in many of your character designs. Could you talk a little about that?
Glen : My dad is a cartoonist who based his cartoon strips on his own family, so it’s natural for me to do the same. On The Little Mermaid, when it came time to design Ariel, the directors asked me ‘Can you draw a pretty girl?’ and I said I’d been drawing my wife for ten years at that point, so I naturally designed Ariel to look like her…
She is in fact a real mermaid, no?
Glen : That’s right, maybe the shells are a little smaller than Ariel’s… Sorry Linda… You know, every animator drew the shells according to his preference and they change size quite often if you watch carefully. My son Max, when it came time to do Tarzan, was constantly skateboarding everywhere. I’d just been animating Tarzan swinging on a vine and it had felt really boring and passive, but when I saw my son doing these extreme sports, I thought ‘Man, that’s so much more interesting. What if Tarzan was a tree surfer?’. That whole influence went into the character. Early on with Rapunzel, I thought ‘Who do I know who has that creativity?’ and I remembered my daughter when she was a little kid asking my wife if she could paint the ceiling, my wife wouldn’t let her but by the time we got to making this film, my daughter was graduating from art school in Paris so we hired her, an when you see Rapunzel paint on the walls, that’s actually my daughter Claire’s painting.