Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Artistry of Glen Keane

I've had Disney animation on my mind a lot recently. On Thursday night, the internet caught word that a rare documentary made by Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson called The Sweatbox had made its way to youtube in it's entirety. The film documented what was supposed to be an epic animated film about the Incas, with music by Sting, called Kingdom of the Sun. But, in the middle of production, the half-completed film was overhauled to become the comedic, The Emperor's New Groove. Word is that the heads of Disney were not happy with the way they were portrayed and have made it nearly impossible to see the finished documentary film. In fact, I moved too slowly in getting a chance to see it and now it's been taken off of youtube. I had been really looking forward to Kingdom of the Sun when it had been announced as a project. And was very skeptical of the change. I mean, it had the word 'groove' in the title. I will say that I do find The Emperor's New Groove to be pretty hilarious (Eartha Kitt's line deliveries are genius), despite the awful title. But, I still long to see that sweeping, epic film that was originally planned.

Then Nathaniel over at The Film Experience mentioned the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty in his post on former Disney animator, Tim Burton. That film focuses on the glory years of the late 80s to late 90s when Disney was able to make animation a huge success again. I got to see an advanced screening of that film, back in 2009, at BAM with a Q & A with the filmmakers, producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) and former president of Feature Animation at Disney, Peter Schneider. It's available on Amazon to watch instantly. Hahn and Schneider said that they were surprised what they were able to show in the film because Michael Eisner and Roy Disney don't exactly come across in the best light. I guess maybe they got away with more because they were former employees and knew how it was. It's definitely worth a look if you are at all interested in animation.

But, the thing that made me most nostalgic was the news on Friday that legendary animator Glen Keane was leaving Disney Animation after 37 years. You may not be familiar with his name, but you definitely know his work (and his dad is 'The Family Circus' comic creator, Bil Keane). Over at Cartoon Brew, they have the complete text of the letter he sent out to his co-workers. In honor of what many are calling the end of an era, I wanted to pay tribute to Glen Keane with a look back on the amazing work he's created over the years. He's brought to life some memorable characters that were a huge reason for the success of the Disney Animation Renaissance. They certainly have had an impact on my life and will no doubt live on for generations to come.

Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Pocahantas, Tarzan, and Rapunzel after the jump

Ariel The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Little Mermaid was the movie that started it all. It made Disney Animation relevant again. And the main reason was the huge success of Ariel. Finally, here was a heroine that was feisty, independent, and fully-developed. Unlike the princesses of past films, who came across as a little bland, she didn't stand around waiting to be rescued. In fact, she is the one that rescues Eric from a shipwreck– Snow White would have screamed and cried the whole time (baby). 

Glen worked as the Supervising Animator on Ariel for the film. Her look was apparently modeled after Glen's wife and Alyssa Milano. Her signature red hair was a fight with the studio who wanted her to be blonde, but the red hair stood out more and was easier to darken in scenes. The blue-green color of her tail was designed just for her and is named (naturally), Ariel. 

This movie had a huge impact on me. I was obsessed with Ariel. I remember I was in third grade when I first saw the movie. We very rarely went to the movie theatre when I was a kid, so it was a treat to get to see it. After the film, I was blown away–I knew I wanted to be a Disney animator. I would endlessly draw pictures of Ariel. I had entire sketchbooks full of her. To this day, I can still draw a picture of her from memory. I think The Little Mermaid is really what started my love of film. While I was going to college for animation, it was suddenly hard for me to realize that something that had been my dream for so long wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. I still wanted to tell stories, but I didn't want to be limited to the animated medium or what's perceived as children's movies. But, that film opened my mind to what cinema can do and the influence it can have on your life. That mermaid will always have a special place in my heart.

Best Scene: A Part of Your World
"I heard Part of Your World, Jodi Benson singing that, and it just captivated me. I have to do that. And I went and told those guys, 'I really wanna do Ariel.' And they said, 'Well, I don't know. She's supposed to be a pretty girl. Can you do that?' And I said, 'Look, I have to do Ariel. I mean, I can feel it in my heart." -Glen in Waking Sleeping Beauty

Go ahead, you know you wanna sing along. The sequence was almost cut from the final film when Jeffrey Katzenberg thought it slowed down the story. But, I can't imagine the film without it. It established who Ariel was as a character and is just a beautiful piece of animation.

The Beast Beauty and the Beast (1991)

If The Little Mermaid was the start of the Renaissance, Beauty and the Beast signaled the artistic peak. The film was the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (I feel like Up and Toy Story 3 don't really count. 10 Best Picture Nominees is too many!). Everything about this movie just came together in a brilliant way. Walt had attempted to make a film version of the story many times over the years but could never figure out a way to make it work. It was the film's lyricist, Howard Ashman, whom people credit for making it come together in the way that it did. 

The difficult job of animating the Beast was assigned to Glen, who was the character's supervising animator. The physicality of the character is extremely complex. There's a reason most characters in animation have a simple design–you have to draw them over and over again. The detail of the Beast's face alone is made-up of various animals. Glen went to the zoo and studied silver-back gorillas, bison, and other various animals as research. But, the complexity doesn't just stop with the design. The character of the Beast himself is multidimensional. He's at once powerful and forceful, but he had to have that vulnerability that would make Belle fall in love with him. Animators have been described as actors with a pencil and nowhere is that more apparent in what Glen was able to achieve with the Beast. He somehow found the heart and soul of this character through his animation.

Best Scene: The Transformation 
"...the moment when Beast transforms, because that was so much an expression of my own art and what I felt spiritually is important in my life: a transformation from the inside out and by animating that, I really felt that I was expressing everything about myself." -Glenn in a French interview on what he considers the best sequence he's ever animated. 

This scene really is powerful and beautiful. The artwork could stand on its on in a museum. The drawings of the human hands and feet look like they came from one the old Master's sketchbooks–like an animated DiVinci. And the scene itself is so emotional. I remember my dad once told me it gets him choked-up every time he sees it and my father is not a man who cries. Ever. People don't always consider animation art, but this scene proves it is.

Aladdin Aladdin (1992)

And the hits just keep on coming. Aladdin was the biggest film of 1992, grossing $217 million dollars domestically. After the success of the computer generated background in the ballroom scene of Beauty and the Beast, this film integrated the use of a computers even more. The Cave of Wonders escape sequence, the tiger-faced cave itself, and the magic carpet, which was hand-drawn, but who's detailed pattern was computer generated. The film was a light-hearted romp following the artistic milestone of Beauty, but it's an immensely enjoyable romp. Much of the success is due to Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie, but it wouldn't have worked if we didn't also feel for the titular character.

As the supervising animator for Aladdin, Glen studied Tom Cruise in Top Gun as an inspiration for the character. The slope of Cruise's nose and eyebrows and the charming cockiness of the actor all found their way into the design of the character. Aladdin started off in early drafts as a more boyish 13 year-old. But was changed to 18 and made to be more of a teen heartthrob. After the strong, more modern heroines of Ariel and Belle, the male hero was finally brought up to the times with Aladdin. His ensemble was even influenced by a of-the-moment celebrity. MC Hammer's pants inspired Aladdin's own look.  

Best Scene: One Jump Ahead
"And then there's often the boring hero. The Prince Charming. And no one ever wanted to animate Prince Charming. One of the challenges of Aladdin is how do you avoid falling into the stereotypical, cardboard hero character." Glen on the evolution of Aladdin on The Making of Aladdin Bonus Featue on the DVD

I think this scene really showcases the fluidity of the drawing. The design of the characters was based on Al Hirchfeld's caricatures, composed of swirling lines and stylized poses. It's also our introduction to Aladdin and his devil-may-care attitude. It sets the tone of the film.

Pocahontas Pocahontas (1995)
After the huge financial success of The Lion King the year before, this film was seen as a disappointment. There are some issues with the film (some complained about the historical inaccuracies, but it's a movie. There's always artistic license), but I think it's one of the most visually beautiful animated films. There are some gorgeous images in the film. ('Colors of the Wind' is such a visual feast. The entire song played as the trailer on the VHS of The Lion King. I must have worn out that video playing it over and over again.) The film is also very adult, which is something I think they should have embraced more. (It could have been a lot worse though. In early drafts, all the animals talked and Pocahontas had a talking turkey as a friend.) Despite all the questionable plot points and unnecessary slapstick, the thing that really holds up is the character of Pocahontas.

Pocahontas, like Ariel before, became another obsession with me. The way her hair was constantly blowing in the wind was mesmerizing. It was amazing even at rest. Like when she is looking down at John Smith's hand and tucks her hair behind her ears or when she goes to see Grandmother Willow and runs her fingers through her hair to get it out of her face. There is such beauty in the realness of those moments. That's the genius of Glen Keane. He can take those things that people do in real life and integrate them into an animated character–bringing them to life. You stop thinking about how it's a series of drawings and really invest in the character. Pocahontas is more real and subtle than a lot of flesh and blood actresses.

Best Scene: The Waterfall meeting
"I've always been telling people that animation is not about moving drawings, it's about drawings that move people. In that scene, the movement of her head is just so incredibly delicate and tiny. She just drops her head slightly and the head and the movement of her hair is describing her spirit. There were just these very very difficult things to put across and it worked. I was just so happy with what happened."-Glen in that same interview on Pocahontas and John Smith's meeting

So much animation is about big movements and cartoonish humor. It's so amazing that the filmmakers believed in the stillness of this scene. The only movement is the seductive flow of her hair, but her face practically doesn't move. But, instead of being blank there's such nuance behind her eyes. As if you can see her thinking. 

Tarzan Tarzan (1999)

The oft-filmed Edgar Rice Burroughs tale of the man raised by apes was really the last success of the Disney Renaissance and the beginning of the end for hand-drawn animation. The rise of Pixar began the decile of 2D animation. The computer had been used as a tool in earlier films, but at the making of this film was a a fully integrated part of the movie. The entire backgrounds were done with CGI with a new technology called Deep Canvas that incorporated a painterly quality to the digital images. The two mediums don't always meld well in this film. A lot of the times the characters seem to be floating in space and the computer imagery looks a little jarring next to the characters. I could also do without the easy-listening sounds of Phil Collins that were used in the film. But, for a story that has been done countless times, there was something fresh to it. 

Glenn did a lot of research in developing this character. As a man who has had no contact with the human world, Tarzan does things and gestures unlike any man. His body and muscles would have developed differently since he was using them in a way that an everyday man would not. But, perhaps the best thing that Glen did was make Tarzan like a X-Games athlete. While doing his research, Glen noticed the skateboarding and surfing videos that his son would watch. The fearlessness with which they performed tricks inspired Glen to develop into the way Tarzan flew through the trees. He even added dreadlocks to the character's look to go with his skateboarding persona. 

Best Scene: Surfing the Trees
"So I started thinking of Tarzan as this kind of person. What if, instead of jumping on vines, he was a kind of surfer, surfing on the branches. This idea of him as a surfing guy, a surfer in the trees came and started animating him as if he was a snowboarder and he was sliding down the branches. It really opened it up." -Glen on Tarzan's moves

Real life men swinging through trees isn't always that graceful (or realistic) looking. Tree-surfing was such an ingenious way for Tarzan to move and something that could only be done with animation. There really is such a thrill when we finally see him do it. (It happens at about the 2:19 mark in the clip. 

Tangled (2010)

Rapunzal Tangled was in production for so long and revamped so many times, I wondered if it was ever going to see the light of day. The final film is wonderful (I really do love it. I have a digital copy on my iphone and watch it on drunken nights waiting for the subway) and was a box office success. I do have two problems with it: it should be named Rapunzel and it should be a hand-drawn film. After The Princess and the Frog didn't do as well at the box office as was hoped, Disney thought it would be a good idea to drop the princess angle and settled on the annoying title of Tangled. (They're at it again with their future-planned adaption of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen into the generic, Frozen. Sometimes Disney needs to be saved from itself.) They also seem to think that no one wants to see 2D animation anymore. As beautiful as the film is, the human characters in CG just don't have that flow, elegance, and grace that is achieved with hand-drawing. Despite all the advances that have been made, human characters still look odd and their clothes move as if they were made of hard plastic. 

For the first time, Glen was at the helm of this film. He began work as the director from 2002 until 2008, when he had a heart attack and had to drop out as the director. He is still the executive producer on the film and worked as the animating director. The finished film wouldn't be what it is without his guiding hand. He worked closely with software developers to create the look of the film. He wanted it to look like a CGI version of hand-drawn animation. And as someone who doesn't animate on the computer, he fought to have the elegance of hand-drawn animation integrated into the CGI. 

Best Scene: The Flying Lanterns
"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 in that 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 hair has to have rhythm."- Glen on how the hair influenced the character in an interview at Collider

Every year, to celebrate the birthday of the lost princess, the King, Queen, and the entire kingdom release thousands of paper lanterns into the night sky. Rapunzel can see them from her tower and knows that they must be connected to her in some way. This scene, out of all the scenes in the movie, comes closest to achieving the beauty of hand-drawn animation. It is just a euphoric moment that shows the magic that animated movies can create.

Thanks, Glen Keane for bringing these moments to life. 

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