Glen Keane (Ep. 25)
BY Future of StoryTelling — November 19, 2020

Legendary animator Glen Keane discusses the art of bringing characters to life and the joy of creating magic in the minds of the audience.



Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher


Additional Links:

      Glen's FoST Film, Step into the Page

      Glen's film with Kobe Bryant, Dear Basketball

      Glen's website




      Charlie Melcher:

      Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling. Welcome back to the FoST podcast. My guest on today's episode is Glen Keane. As lead animator at Walt Disney animation studios, where he worked for nearly 40 years, Glen animated characters for some of the world's most memorable films, including The Little MermaidAladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. His work helped bring about what is commonly referred to as the second golden age at Disney. Since leaving Disney, Glen has pursued a wide range of projects with collaborators as varied as the Paris Opera, Google and basketball legend Kobe Bryant. In 2018, Glen and Kobe won an Academy Award for best animated short film for Dear Basketball, which was Kobe's love letter to the sport as he retired.

      The core of Glen's artistry is his ability to create characters that feel real; that come to life before your eyes, as if at any moment they might jump off the page or out of the screen. Classically trained, Glen likes to work with pencil and paper, but he has also remained a tireless innovator and pioneer in adopting new techniques and technologies to expand the range of his craft.

      Whether hand-animating unforgettable characters for Disney or creating groundbreaking immersive 360 degree mobile experiences with Google, Glen's work demonstrates a core idea of FoST: that new technologies can and should enable, not obscure, the fundamental artistry and humanity of great storytelling. It is my pleasure to welcome my dear friend, Glen Keane, to the Future of StoryTelling podcast.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Glen Keane, it is such an honor to have you on the Future of StoryTelling podcast. Thank you for being here.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Charlie, thank you so much for having me. Any conversation with you is always a delight. I really look forward to this.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I couldn't feel more the same. I mean, every time I get to spend time with you, it's a gift. So thank you for making the time today. I remember the last time that I believe we were together, and it was the evening when we were on stage where I had the incredible honor of interviewing you and Kobe Bryant when you were doing a screening for Academy voters of your film, the animated short that you did with Kobe, Dear Basketball. It was an incredible night just to be there with the two of you and hear you speak about the making of that incredible short film. And I wanted to ask you, how has the experience been since Kobe passed away? And we haven't really talked about that together. What has that loss meant to you?

       

      Glen Keane:

      Yeah, that was the kickoff to 2020 as we know it. A year of the unthinkable. That experience of doing that film was truly a gift. I mean, I really do believe the best things in life are a gift. You don't work for them. They, they're suddenly there. And Kobe calling asking to do Dear Basketball was one of those. So the remarkable thing to me about that film was how prescient it really was. I had no idea that it was going to be a final message of Kobe.

      I was animating the final shot where Kobe is walking off the court into this tunnel. As I animated it, Kobe walks off and disappears into the dark. And I looked at it, I thought, “no, this isn't right.” I reanimated it and I had Kobe walking into the light where he just disappears into the light, and I thought, “wow, this just feels it's about Kobe moving from this life to the next.” And as soon as I heard this about Kobe, I thought of that. And I just thought, “gosh, what an amazing experience it was to know him.”

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      It really does change the way people look at that short film now in light of his having passed. So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the origins of your craft. I know you come from a bit of a family of people who were incredibly talented to express themselves with a pen. And your father Bill Keane was a famous cartoonist. How did your father teach you to be an artist to express yourself? And tell me a little bit about where your passion for being an animator comes from.

       

      Glen Keane:

      I think of myself being planted in the perfect garden. Where you're going to be nurtured. Dad, he would take me with him to the art store when I was little. There was an artist that lived out in the desert. We were out in Scottsdale, Arizona. And there was this little shack way out in the desert. This was a vaudeville actor. He did some of the performance for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Peter Pan. He would do the acting. And he was also the guy in Mary Poppins who fires the cannon on the ship. Don Barclay.

      But more than anything he was an artist, and we'd go out there. It was just me, my dad and Don Barclay. And we'd sit in his little hut. The whole place smelled of oil paints, but I was there with artists. At a certain point around that time dad said, “Glen, I'm a cartoonist, you're an artist.” And I... it encouraged me that much more, how special this was. And I went with all the gusto I had down the path to become an artist.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      So you spent 38 years at Disney. You helped to animate and bring life to some of the most iconic characters of all time, right? Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan and many others. Can you talk about the role of animation in terms of telling stories and bringing characters to life?

       

      Glen Keane:

      From that moment where dad told me I'm an artist, I eventually sent my portfolio to... Well, I didn't actually send it, dad and I drove out when I was 18 to CalArts to drop off my portfolio. I wanted to get in the school of art and I wanted to be a painter, a sculptor, a fine artist. Well, the school was closed that day because it was Easter break. My dad was not a sophisticated artist. He learned how to draw and his craft in world war II as an artist on Stars and Stripes. So he was not sophisticated about art schools. So as we drove around, we're thinking, “Oh, well, what are we going to do?” And there's a student walking across. I could tell the guy was stoned. My dad, instead he rolls down his window and he says, “Oh, excuse me, young man.”

      And I'm thinking, “Dad, what are you doing?” And he says, “Look, the school's closed.” And the kid says, “Yeah man, it's closed.” And he said, “Yes, yes I understand, look.” And he grabs my portfolio and he says, “Would you drop this portfolio off at the art school for my son?” And he gives this guy, all of my original drawings, painting stuff. And the guy says, “Sure man.” And he just walks away and we drove back to Phoenix. I would never do... I would never do that.

      But a month later, I get this acceptance letter from CalArts saying that I was accepted into the school of film graphics. 
      I said, “That idiot dropped it off at the wrong school!” But I discovered now this was the right path. I mean, I felt animation is the ultimate art form, because it's an art form that really in some ways started out for entertaining in a comic way, kids, and it's sort of relegated as not as... it's not a high art form. It's all about bringing this dimensionality that you see in your mind to the screen. And so everything I've done, I've really seen it as a path to fulfill that knighting that my dad gave me, saying, “Glen, I'm a cartoonist, you're an artist.”

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Well, Shakespeare wasn't considered high art in his day either. He was a comedic performer writing these plays, and people were laughing and throwing vegetables, and today we think of it as... you know, it's Shakespeare!

       

      Glen Keane:

      Wow. Yeah. That's pretty amazing. I was talking to my granddaughter. She's 11 years old, and I was quoting Shakespeare to her about all the world's a stage and...

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      ...all the people merely players upon it.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Yeah. And it made me think about the characters that I animate. Those characters are real. I know them. Charlie, even in designing them, there's this weird experience that I have, that the character exists before I draw them. And I would say that that's insane and crazy to think that, but that's been my experience. With the Beast, drawing him, I had hundreds of different versions of him, and people would say, “Is that him?” “No, no it's not him.” Until one day, he arrived. And I looked at him, and he was looking back at me. I was like, “That's him. There he is.”

      I had the same thing with Ariel, with Pocahontas, all these different characters, they become real. And what I was taught by Ollie Johnston, my mentor was, “Glen, don't animate what the character's doing. Animate what the character's thinking and feeling.” And the only way you can do that is to live in their skin and believe in them. I think that's the thread that people connect with, when an animator puts that kind of heart into it.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I remember it with the video that we made Step into the Page that we made with you when you spoke at the Future of StoryTelling Summit. You're describing how you physically embodied the Beast, and when you would draw him. And then we saw you in the video actually drawing him and you can see your shoulders rise up and your jaw get tight and your body, you're almost transforming like the Hulk in front of us as you draw this character. And so I really came to understand how you, how physical that experience is for you.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Oh yeah. I would go home at night and my jaw was hurting and I'm thinking, “Oh, I've got some kind of disease in my jaw. I don't know what it was.” And Linda said, “Well, what are you doing all day?” I said, “Well, I've been animating the Beast, talking like this.” And I realized, that's what it is!

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I also just want to say that you are at the number one of all time greatest moments in the history of Future of StoryTelling Summit for the performance that you gave on our main stage. I don't know if you remember.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Yeah, I do.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I'm sure you do. Why don't you describe it instead of me describing it?

       

      Glen Keane:

      I was describing a dream that I always have about flying. Is this the one you're talking about?

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Yeah. I remember the story was a little girl who wanted to fly. Yeah.

       

      Glen Keane:

      I love flying dreams. As I was talking with the audience, I was describing this but I was doing it while I was drawing this little girl. And flying always happens for me in the dreams where you have to lean forward to the point you're about to fall over. Then it's, you have to commit to it. And as I did that, I did this drawing of this little girl. And as she then floats up into the air, I'm drawing her flying in the air, and she's with these birds, and I'm just telling the story. And you're seeing it dimensionally happen, and people can be seeing what I'm imagining because I'm drawing it. And then there's this moment where she wonders, “Wait, I can't fly. What am I doing?” And she falls back down and lands onto the bed and wakes up.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      And so just to, so that our listeners understand, you were in a VIVE headset, and you were drawing with Tilt Brush, and on the big screen behind you—you're on the main stage—on the big screen behind you, we could see what you saw in your VR headset. And so you're drawing this story of this little girl and her learning to fly in real time. What we see is you drawing. So it actually looks, you're drawing her life size, and we're watching this girl and you're telling the story and there's this beautiful music. And she takes off, and she flies, and she lands back on earth, and the story is sort of over and you're facing the audience with your VR headset on, and then you do a 360 on stage. You just sort of turn all the way around. And what we see on the screen is the entire story floating in space around you. And when that was revealed, the entire audience was stunned. They literally, you could hear their jaws drop to the floor. You were surrounded by the story. And it was this incredibly beautiful moment about how these tools could be used to communicate a new kind of story. To tell a story in a new way. This was literally the opposite of the flatland of a printed page. This was a story that was filling if you will, the space of the theater.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Charlie, I got to tell you that at that moment, what I was feeling was this tremendous sense of rightness of the choice that I had made when I was going to leave Disney. I mean, I loved being at Disney. I was there for nearly 40 years. At a certain point, you just sense, I've got to step away from the comfortable thing or else the new thing isn't going to happen. And then my wife was saying, “Well, Glen, if you left Disney, what would you do, where would you go?” I said, “Hey-

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I think she was scared.

       

      Glen Keane:

      “I don't know, Google?” She said, “Google, they don't animate.” I said, “No, but wouldn't it be wonderful to take the things that I've learned and apply it to something new?” Sure enough, first thing that happens after I left Disney, Google happened to call, and I did this animation and it was there that I met the amazing folks who created Tilt Brush. And as I'm on stage there at FoST, I thought, “This is what I was talking about.”

      What you've created in FoST is a pathway for all of these different disciplines to come together and cross paths there. And I was so happy that I landed in the middle of that that day.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I think it was incredibly brave for you to leave Disney. I mean, think about it. You were at the top of your game. You were incredibly well-respected. You were a mentor to so many. It's Disney—when you made a character, the whole world got to see it. And you walked away from that to take creative risks.

      And I think about the incredible success you've had since you left. I mean, whether it was 
      Duet that you did with Google, it was the Dear Basketball with Kobe, for which you guys did win the Academy Award—congratulations, it was a really exciting moment to see you both on stage there holding up your Oscars—and now to having made your first animated feature post-Disney, this new film that's coming out, Over the Moon, that you've just done with Netflix. So tell us a little bit about the origins of that. Where did that idea come from?

       

      Glen Keane:

      Well, it started with Janet Yang who did Joy Luck Club. She knew this story about the goddess that lives on the dark side of the moon and everybody in China knows the story of Chang'e. That's the goddess and Hou Yi, her lover. When they look at the moon, they don't see the man on the moon, which personally, I never could see the man on the moon. They see a rabbit on the moon with a mortar and pestle. He's a magic rabbit and he's creating a potion. A potion that will cause you, let you live forever, which is the story of Chang'e and Hou Yi, were going to live forever by taking these immortality pills.

      Janet thought this would be a wonderful story about a little girl that believes this story so much, that she's going to build a rocket to the moon. It's this wonderful story of healing, a lot of comedy, eight songs in it. It's a wonderful musical. We finished and it's opening up on Netflix, October 23rd.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I was just blown away by how breathtakingly beautiful it is, and also how original and creative. I mean that whole world of the dark side of the moon, I just can't get over. Where did that come from? That is so not like anything else. And you worked in a tradition. There is a thing, a Disney style, a Disney look. And this has nothing to do with that. I mean, the dark side of the moon is just truly original. I mean, it's a crazy fantasy, right? This idea that a little girl can build a rocket and go to the moon. And yet you make it so believable. Where does that come from?

       

      Glen Keane:

      Well, I mean, Audrey wrote the script. I was flying to China, reading through the script and that's where I started doing lots of little drawings on the edges of the page and thinking about how I'm going to do this story. Suddenly I realized, “Wait a second, I get this. This, building this rocket.” And I remembered when I was seven years old for my seventh birthday, I had a bunch of my friends over at my house. And my dad walks into the living room where we all were. And he says, “So I have a surprise for you.” I was like, “Yeah, everybody's excited.” And he said, “I have a friend who works at NASA, and they have invented a new rocket ship, and he let me borrow it. And it's actually sitting in the backyard.” We're like, “What?” And he says, “Yeah, and I was wondering if you would like to take a ride.” Yeah. Whoa. I was so excited. And he said, “But, it's a top secret rocket ship. So you can't see it, but I can blindfold you and you can take a ride on it.”


      So one by one, we all went out. And you step outside, you can hear ground control, “We're going to get ready for liftoff here,” and you climb up. Dad says, “Now it's an open air cockpit here, because we're not going up into space, we're just going to fly around the desert a little bit. Just a quick trip so we can get back and get all your friends on this trip.” And so finally the countdown, you know, “three, two, one.” And the whole thing, the rocket starts shaking, and you go up into the air and you can feel the wind blowing in your hair. And you're flying across the desert and fly all the way back, and you land, and you're unstrapped, and you're just breathless with this amazing trip you've been on.

      And as you're stepping down from the rocket, the blindfold is removed and you see my mom and my dad with a lawn chair and a fan and a little short wave radio to make it sound like it was ground control. And there was our swimming pool. It all happened in my mind. In my imagination.

      That's what I get to do with the audience. They're going to sit down, whether it's in the living room or the theater and they're going to, in a sense, I'm going to blindfold them and they're going to see, in their imagination, Fei Fei building this rocket and going to the moon, to Lunaria, and you're going to believe it. It's absolutely the most wonderful thing to lean into your imagination. And don't back away from it. I mean, don't second guess it. Go for it.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Is there anything that you can share about tapping into that six-year-old, your inner child, to help enable your art form?

       

      Glen Keane:

      I find that when I'm doing something that I really am not equipped for, that I really don't know much about that's the best place. That's the time to communicate something new. When you communicate from the point of discovery, there is great power to that. There is a natural fear we have as creators that we all have one thing in common. If anybody knew how much we're faking it, we'd be booted out of here. All of us. Everybody has this in common. You've got to lean into this thing, like Picasso said, “I'm always doing that which I don't know how to do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” And if you don't know how to do it, that's okay. It never arrives. The little click of the idea never comes until it's almost too late. It's always at the almost-too-late moment.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      So Audrey Wells wrote this movie. Shortly after she started, she was diagnosed with cancer and that she would likely not live to see it released or finished. What was the responsibility? What, how did you feel about having to help tell this story for her?

       

      Glen Keane:

      Yeah, I mean, the amazing thing is that the last two projects have been that. Somebody's, in a sense, final message. Kobe didn't know it was, Audrey did. And at the beginning, I did not know she had that hanging over her head as she was writing this. But it was also a creative driver for her, to send this message to her daughter. Audrey said, all of her stories are about healing. This one takes you at a certain moment in the film into the chamber of exquisite sadness. And she described it as exquisite sadness. It's a unusual way of putting it. In those two words that she describes is hope. It's exquisite because it's through that pain, that sadness, that those tears of sorrow can so easily become tears of joy. And that is really the journey that we take the audience on in this film.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I heard recently an old expression that there are three kinds of death. There's the death when your heart stops, there's the death when your organs stop, which can be a few minutes later. And then there's the death when you're forgotten. When people no longer speak of you. And we've been talking about you with your last two projects being ones that help to extend the lives of the people that you collaborated with. They have that way of being a memorial or a remembrance or something that will hopefully live forever. I wonder how you think about that for your own work, for you personally? What is the thing that you want to be remembered for?

       

      Glen Keane:

      I mean, I really take each day by faith. And really leave it in God's hands about what next is coming for me. At Glen Keane Productions, we have three words that describe the things that we want to do. Good, true and beautiful. That's the fruit. That's the fruit that I want, whatever this tree is of Glen Keane's life, to taste like. To experience, whether it's talking to me on the street or working with me on a film or having me as a dad or a husband or a grandfather. I want that to be good, true and beautiful.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Thank you, Glen. It's always such an honor to speak with you and I always learn so much. You are as a person, as an artist, you are spreading love and healing out there for so, so many.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Thank you, Charlie.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Bless you. Thank you.

       

      Glen Keane:

      Yeah, boy. What a pleasure to be able to chat with you and have it be so personal but to be able to share it at the same time. Thank you for what you do with FoST. What an amazing group. Who would have ever thought? Keep doing it. Lean into it. Wow. I can't wait for the day where everybody can be together again, though, in-person. Nothing's better than that.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Me too. What a treat to spend time with Glen. You can see his incredible creativity at work in his new film, Over the Moon, available now on Netflix. In addition, you have to watch the short film that FoST created with Glen entitled, Step into the Page. You can find a link to that video as well as further information about Glen by visiting this episode's page on our website at www.fost.org or by following the link in this episode's description.

      Thank you for listening to the Future of StoryTelling podcast. If you haven't already, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, give us a review and share it with others. My sincere thanks to Glen for this wonderful conversation and to our talented production partner, Charts & Leisure. I hope you'll join us in a couple of weeks for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, be strong, and story on.