Glen Keane: From Disney to “Duet”

I was honored to be in the presence of Walt Disney Animation Studios legend, Glen Keane, at an event hosted by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. An event celebrating the art and evolving career of Glen Keane. Glen’s credits include lead animation for some of The Walt Disney Company’s most iconic characters, including Ariel, Beast, Tarzan, and Rapunzel, to name a few. The presentation focused on his early days at Walt Disney Animation up to his current project, “Duet”, a collaborative effort between he and Google Inc.

As you can imagine, with such a high caliber repertoire, quite a few people showed up to see Mr. Keane’s presentation. Including Director Kevin Lima (A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, Enchanted) and Ron Miller, husband of the late Diane Disney Miller, co-founder of the Walt Disney Family Museum, and ex-CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

The stage was set as if to symbolize the evolution of Glen’s artistic life, with an animator’s drafting table on one side and a Mac laptop connected to a flat screen T.V. for the audience to see on the other. After a brief introduction, Glen Keane came out and provided an overview of what he was going to be sharing. Glen spoke of his early days at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Recollecting the Studio as having a very distinct smell of linoleum, cigarettes, scotch, and pencil shavings. Glen also recalled the loud footsteps of Ron Miller, former college football player, coming down the hall. For Glen, the “art” and feeling of those early days at the Studios is very much like being at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Glen then briefly described his current project, “Duet”, which took about 12 months to complete, and screened the short in all of it’s glory.

Once “Duet” was over, Glen stepped up to the drafting table, sat down, pencil in hand, and began to create his first creation for the event, which was Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Watching Glen draw so effortlessly while sharing thoughts on character development was like watching someone reveal a character from behind the curtain. Glen considers himself an actor with a pencil and he believes that the characters exist before he even draws them. Glen repeatedly shared how he likes to live in the skin of his character. As he would continue to draw, the characters would simply “pop out” and he would think to himself, “That’s him! There he is!”

Moving on to drawing Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, he shared how he loves characters who believe that the impossible is possible and he feels that Ariel is a great example of this. He continued to draw Ariel and screened a pencil animation version of “Part Of Your World”, demonstrating the beauty of the art in it’s pure state.

Glen told the audience that drawing is like a seismograph for the soul. Taking something from the inside of you and putting it out there for all to see can make the artist feel vulnerable. Glen learned how to put himself out there from his dad. Sharing memories of his childhood and the ‘The Family Circus’ comic strip that his dad had created. Glen never wants to forget what it’s like to be a kid. As he continued to reminisce of his childhood, he shared a picture of him drawing a nativity scene on a chalkboard at school and remembered how that was the first time that he discovered ‘perspective’. It felt like his hand was actually reaching into the picture. While continuing to share memories of his family, he shared how when he was teaching his son how to draw, he would write down emotions, such as “Happy” and “Sad”, under circles on a piece of paper and asked his son to illustrate the matching emotions in the circles. Glen showed the images his son had illustrated and described drawing as being a method of expressing something from inside for all to feel. Both of Glen’s children, Claire and Max Keane, are both artists and recently contributed to Glen’s latest effort, “Duet”.

While studying at CalArts, Glen’s goal was to work at Walt Disney Animation Studios. One of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, Eric Larson, quickly flipped through Glen’s portfolio, was attracted to a fairly simple image that Glen had designed, and asked for more of that image. As a response, Glen ended up spending some time at Laguna Beach, drawing both men and women, and brought back over 700 drawings to share with Eric. Glen did join the Studios in 1974, worked with animation greats like Ollie Johnston, who became Glen’s mentor, and learned more about the art of animation, such ‘squash – stretch’.

He then began to reminisce of his time with John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios; Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering) and how they worked together to test the combination of computer and 2D animation: computer animated background images with hand drawn animation layered over it. The introduction of computer to animation challenged Glen to become a better artist. Glen screened the early CG animation test that he and John Lasseter worked on for Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”:

Another clip that Glen used to demonstrate this combination of art came from Disney’s 1999 film, “Tarzan”. When Tarzan was aggressively swinging and sliding through the jungle at the end of “Son of Man”, Glen shared how he pictured his son skateboarding:

Glen briefly transitioned over to his love for drawing with charcoal, sharing different pieces of art he had created, including his work on Disney’s “Pocahontas”. Glen was happy when he was able to incorporate his charcoal art into the song, “Colors of the Wind”.

Glen jumped over to sharing the history of the character Rapunzel, told the story of how he showed his character design to then CEO, Michael Eisner, in the early stages of development, and how Michael liked the concept but asked for it to be in CG. Glen showed us the movement of the 2D version of Rapunzel and compared it to the CG movement. Glen is known for making silly faces while he is animating and we caught a good glimpse of that during the comparison.

One of Glen’s favorite quotes came from Ollie Johnston – “Glen, don’t animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking.”

After the release of the brilliant Academy Award winning short, “Paperman” by John Kahrs, which is another beautiful example of both 2D and CG coming together, Glen was motivated to try something new. To head down a new path.

Glen shared the following quote as his inspiration to try something new:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” – Goethe

This new path would require Glen to leave Disney.

Glen asked himself, “How can I leave Disney?”

He convinced himself that you don’t ever really leave Disney. You take everything that is wonderful with you.

He then found himself at Google and was asked to create something beautiful, which lead to the production of “Duet”. “Duet” is a love story between Mia and Tosh, who cross paths with each other, on multiple occasions, from infancy to adulthood. The breakthrough with “Duet” is that it puts the camera into the hands of the audience. Beginning from infancy, the individual can follow the life of either Mia or Tosh at any given time.

Regarding the production of “Duet”, Glen’s grandson was the inspiration for the baby at the beginning of the film. He studied his granddaughter skipping so that he could properly illustrate that natural movement and had to learn how to do a pirouette. He showed clips from both “Duet” and his personal family recordings for comparison. During one of the clips, we saw the character Tosh run through fields and seamlessly transition to climbing up a tree. Glen thought back on that sequence and shared how sometimes, a character tells you what he wants to do.

Glen had spent 40 years thinking and animating in 24 frames per second for his work at Disney, now he had to think in 60 frames per second. (To help him accomplish this, he went back to the traditional method of using a metronome.) He recalled the combined sounds of his flipping through papers and the typing of the keyboards as the team worked together to complete the project. Another important element of “Duet”, and in Glen’s description, just as important, is the music. Glen feels like the music is the other half of “Duet”.

As if this project wasn’t challenging enough for him, he also shared how he chose to animate the water by hand and by choice. A simple and short element of the film but incredibly remarkable to see the talent of his hands.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Pablo Picasso

Glen shared this inspiring Picasso quote with us just before demonstrating “Duet” on an Android device and projecting it through the flat screen T.V. I had seen the short before but not on an Android. To say it is amazing would be an understatement. It blew me away and I look forward to its soon to come release on the iOS platform.

The Q/A session began with a question from myself, asking whether or not there are or will be other artists contributing to this new form of animation to help it continue. Glen is the primary artist today and hopes to continue to contribute until he is physically unable to do so. I believe it was Ron Miller’s daughter who asked if we are seeing an increase in hand drawn animation to which Glen responded that hand drawn animation will continue because of the help of computers. An audience member asked what Glen likes to draw to make him happy. Glen loves to draw dancers, his grandchildren, and people that he loves, like his wife.

Glen was then asked how 2D works to deliver the 3D world that we see in “Duet”. Glen stated that he had to illustrate a 3 point perspective to deliver depth. A group of San Jose State animation students asked how it was to transition from The Little Mermaid to Tangled. Glen personally found it very difficult to “feel” the character through CG when it just flows for him in 2D. He knows great CG animators who are able to “feel” the character in CG.

A young girl asked Glen how he drew so fast. Glen compared it to how the child’s father, Scot Stafford (music for “Duet”) develops and orchestrates music. Glen shared that he would like to explore “Duet” in a longer form when asked what was next for him. One last question asked if his goal of combining both 2D and CG to accomplish something more sculptural was achieved to which Glen responded, “not yet.”

Before wrapping up his presentation, Glen offered to draw one last character and asked if there were any requests. As if to symbolize his final signature at Walt Disney Animation Studios, he drew a character who was inspired by someone he loves, his daughter Claire Keane, who was his inspiration for Rapunzel from Disney’s 2010 release, Tangled.