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Over the Moon with Glen Keane
An Academy Award-winning director just launched an incredible new animated feature, and we can't wait to talk about it!
Animated movies are a part of the fabric of our creative culture, and our guest today created some truly iconic roles. He's had a hand in crafting the animation industry, and we honestly couldn't wait to pick his brain. As motion designers, we share the same principles and design foundations as our animator family, and it is such a pleasure to dive into this world again.
Did you grow up watching the Disney Renaissance? See if any of these jog your memory: Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocohantas? He’s won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short for his work on Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball, and he's just released a brand new feature, Over The Moon on Netflix! Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only – Mr. Glen Keane!
This is the first movie that’s made us feel the same way we did watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time. And while we loved the never-before-seen worlds and the eye-popping visual design, the two things that really stick with us is how this film wears its heart on its sleeve, and the absolutely wonderful character performances.
Don your helmets and strap in tight. We're rocketing off to the moon with Glen Keane!
Over the Moon with Glen Keane
Motioneers. Today we have a guest that truly needs no introduction, but just let me take you through a list of some of the characters that he's animated. And tell me if you might know who we're so lucky to chat with today. Okay. Are you ready? Here we go. Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocahontas. He's won an Academy Award for the best animated short for his work on Kobe Bryant's Dear Basketball, and our guest is here to talk all about directing the new animated feature Over The Moon for Netflix. Ladies and gentlemen, the one the only Mr. Glen Keane. Glen, thank you so much for spending some time with us. We really appreciate it.
Thanks, Ryan. I'm really fascinated with the idea that you've got a global audience of people that love animation, and I get a chance to talk to them.
Well, they are just as excited to hear from you. I have to say, I've spent some time watching Over The Moon. I'll admit, I actually watched it three times in the last couple of days, and this is honestly the first movie that's made me feel the same way I did when I watched Wizard of Oz for the first time. I'm really just interested to understand what were some of your influences for this film? Before we dive into how it was made, what were you thinking in your mind when you got started on this project?
Well, you can't help but think about other movies that you felt the same way, or that you want the movie to feel like, when you read the script. Of course, a script translating to images, everything has to adapt and transform in some way, but the movies that hit me were, first, Peter Pan, which is my favorite animated movie. It was just so real, and transporting you to this Neverland, and stepping out the window and flying. I have flying dreams. I relate so much to Peter Pan taking Wendy on that journey.
And then Miyazaki's Totoro was such an awesome way of a child's point of view of believing the impossible is possible, and living in this fantasy. And the natural way... He never really took you into a dream world. You were constantly wondering, is this really happening or is this not happening? Absolutely, I loved that movie. And then Wizard of Oz was the other one. And that was the one that kind of scared me a bit, because they made that transition, going from black and white to Technicolor, and I'm thinking, how in the world am I going to do that? To take you somewhere so totally new and different, it'll have the effect of Technicolor, but in something that, at that point, I didn't know. So that was this great challenge.
You definitely found that. I think the first of the movie does such a great job of grounding the viewer in phase reality, but that moment that moonbeam hits, and we see those two lions at the window, and we make our way into Lunara, it has that same feeling. Just that starkness of the moon, and then the explosion of color. I really truly hope that audiences, at some point, we'll get a chance to see this movie in a theater, because I kept on thinking that while I was watching on my TV, just the luminance that would be coming off of the screen when we approach that city, I think you captured that Wizard of Oz moment a hundred percent.
Thanks, Ryan. We did make the movie as a 3D movie, as an Atmos sound, as a gigantic Epic film to see on a huge screen in an audience. But it's also a very intimate, personal, touching story that feels appropriate, that it comes out in the world in people's living rooms where people live.
Can we, if it's okay with you, I'd love to go more into that, because if I asked animated before this interview, if they could name a Glen Keane moment, if it was, I think they would probably call out something like Tarzan surfing through the tree tops, or Beast transformation, or any of your characters belting out a song. But for me, the moments I'm always the most excited about when I know I'm going to see some of your work, it's those moments of quietness, and the stillness, and that the acting choices. I always go back to, there's a moment in Tarzan, where he meets Jane for the first time, and he reaches out, and he touches her hand, and he takes off her glove, and we get this amazing close-up that I've never seen very often in animation, especially 2D animation.
But you see the light behind his eyes. You see his realization that he may not be who he thought he was. In Over The Moon, for all of its grandeur, for all the crazy worlds we go to in the characters, there are so many of those personal small moments. How were you able to get that kind of performance of your animators, especially in 3d, where I don't feel like I've seen those performances? Did you do something differently or did you teach your animators something from 2d that you brought into their work in 3d?
Ryan, I'm so happy to hear you say these things, because that certainly was the major challenge besides creating that Wizard of Oz, black and white to Technicolor moment. What's the equivalent? The other major mountain peak, and the higher peak to attain, was this animating the point of discovery. That's what I wanted this to be about. Fei Fei is a thinking, super smart girl, but there's also this faith in her to see what others don't see. And there're these moments of realization. It's those moments that I really wanted to spend, and any time something was happening in Fei Fei's heart, I had to be on her and we had to be able to see it. But how do you bring that out?
I remember animating Pocahontas looking at John Smith for the first time. And there's just the most subtle, delicate little movements of her head, and her lower eyelids. And I remember practicing that. How subtle of a movement can I make and still have the audience see? So at breakfast table, Linda, my wife, sitting across the way and I'm thinking, okay, I'm just going to move my lower eyelid. A teeny tiny little bit. And she says, "Why are you making that face?" It's like, "Aha, I [crosstalk 00:06:27].
You found it.
So I knew this was going to be the key. And in order to do that, you have to build and design all of the weaponry in her face to communicate those emotions, the micro-expressions. And it's like building a Lamborghini that is all this beauty under the hood. And the power of it is going to be given into the hands of animators. I did more drawing though, in this movie, than I did in Pocahontas or Little Mermaid, or any of those, by constantly showing what it was we needed to have designed into this character, from rigging, to modeling, to animation.
There's one particular shot in the movie when people see it, and since you've seen it three times, you probably know what it is. There's a moment where Fei Fei sees her dad. There's a woman that is... This is after Fei Fei's mom has passed away, and Mrs. Zhong is there, and is somebody that her dad is considering marrying, and she knocks over these red dates and they all fall on the ground. Everybody is kneeling down, picking them up, and Fei Fei is doing that, and then Fei Fei sees her dad touch her hand as she's holding the bowl. And there's romance in that touch. It's very gentle. It's just, he keeps his hand there too long for Fei Fei, and faith sees that, and we cut to Fei Fei's face, and it's just her eyes getting wider. And then the corners of her mouth drop, and tensions kind of like, it's literally, in talking to the animator, you are animating Fei Fei's world turning upside down right now. We are seeing it. The only way you can do that is in the expression, the emotion.
And last year I showed this at CTN Animation Conference here, and it was all animation people in the audience. And I described the importance of animating the moment of discovery, and then showed this shot. No music, or no continuity. It's just that shot. And when it was playing, the entire audience was silent, and then they gasped. They went, "Gasp," and then applause. And it was just the most wonderful celebration of the power of animation, of an animator. This girl who animated this shot is Asian and related so deeply to Fei Fei, and what she was feeling. It was a great victory for me about what this film was going to be able to accomplish.
That had to be so rewarding. I feel like, for as much animation as we've all made, and for as much animation that's out there, I still feel like the power of animation is still so untapped. And we're just starting to cross that bridge, whether it's the world of visual development. I know Sergio Pablos talks about this all the time, about how all this visual development gets made. And then the films, when they come out the other end of production, they kind of just look like everything. But I think with his Klaus, and Spiderverse, and now Over The Moon, just in terms of the visual stylization, we get away from the chasing photo realism. But I think, even more importantly, this searching for these performance moments is the really big hurdle, especially in America. American animation, feature film animation, it's that hurdle we still haven't totally crossed over, but I felt that.
I have to tell you, there were at least three or four performance moments that I gasped at. That I was just like, we haven't seen this in animation yet. And there's a great visual develop moments of, of course, seeing Lunara. I have to say, there's two songs in your film that I think they're probably two of the best musical sequences I've seen in a very long time. Ultra Luminary, and, I don't want to spoil it too much for people, but there's a fight scene over a ping pong table in zero gravity that you would never imagine would be in the middle of this movie, that the song is wonderful, but just as an animator, for those listening to us right now, that there's a lot of people motivated to try to get to that point where they can get there.
And I wanted to ask you, because obviously, your draftsmanship is legendary. Your animation in 2D animation is legendary, but we have a lot of people trained in 3d animation that haven't had those experiences. That are desperate to hear more of this. And I wonder, through your time directing animation for something like Tangled, and now this entire film, are there any tips that you could give our 3d animators that they could learn from? That experience that you see younger 3d animators repeating over and over that they may be able to take from this from some of your experience?
Well, I went up to Vancouver, where Sony Imageworks, that's where we had our team of animators. And I went up there many times, but started with some lectures about what was the foundation of animating a film for me anyway, what was going to be most important to me. One of the things that I talked a lot about was golden poses. And how you need to really, really work at strengthening a pose so it feels so right, so true, that when you look at it, if you only had one image to put in that shot, what would it be? That animation is not about moving drawings, or moving images. It's about an image that will move an audience. And it takes work, it takes sensitivity, it really takes living in the skin and feeling exactly what your character is feeling. If you don't live it, no matter what you do, it will have a hollow ring to it.
You won't know it, but you'll wonder why did my shot just kind of go on by? What is it that makes it grab somebody? And it's that, "Oh, I know that feeling." And there's so much of it that's actually hitting somebody subconsciously, but how hard do you need to work to get those little things in there? Early on I was talking to Sacha Kapijimpanga about the... And I probably just butchered his last name. Sorry about that. The head of animation up at Sony. And he and I were talking about having an actress come in to play the role of Fei Fei. We had the voice actress Cathy Ang, which was phenomenal. She gave such foundation, and heart, and emotion, but then to have an actress act it out so we would have a common touchpoint for all the animators. And he said, Oh, Glen, please no. Can we not do that? Can we have the animators themselves shoot themselves and play that out?"
And I thought, "Well, what about the consistency of the performance?" She said, "I think more important than that is that the animators feel what is going through the character. And the only way that they can do that is by really acting those moments out and living it." And I just, "Man, Sacha, you are so right. Yeah, let's do this." We could cut together a live action version of this movie with the animators filming themselves. It would be crazy for you to see who is behind which shot. Big six and a half foot guy that's being little Gobi. They're just hilarious. But that was such an incredible insight that Sacha gave to me and I embraced. And it really paid off in this movie.
Thank you so much. That answers so many of the questions I've always wondered on a project this scale, when you have, your crew is massive, and your animation team. I think I counted over a hundred animators, and I've always wondered that, in the difference... 2D animation, for our listeners who may not know, a lot of times there was a supervising animator that kind of led the performance and drove that performance. And a lot of times in 3d production, an animator will touch many characters. And that's always been a little bit confusing to me, and almost a little bit heart-wrenching, because it felt sometimes like that performance wasn't an authored performance, because it was shared across so many people. But I think that's such a great insight.
Were you doing a lot of draw overs on top of animators dailies? I know you mentioned that in the beginning stages, and your credits are kind of amazing for this film. I think you're listed as director, EP, character designer, story artist, and I'm betting that you were doing some of that beautiful 2D animation in the opening a sequence, but were you doing draw overs for your animators to help kind of guide them or tie those performances together a little bit?
Yeah. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I did more drawing in this movie than I did in Little Mermaid, or Aladdin, or any other.
And I could draw over top of their animation here in Hollywood, even though they're up there, and they could watch it. And all the animators had it on their monitors at the same time. So everybody could be watching [crosstalk 00:16:22] what was going on. And some places... Well, Dave Smith, just a genius head of visual effects. So gracious, constant guide for me throughout this whole movie about technology and how we could do, and what we could do. And he really adapted a system that was like the equivalent of a positioning your seat in the car so that you can actually drive in a comfortable way. He made this super uncomfortable for me, where I could draw with the right kind of pencil line on the screen.
And there'd be like a shot of Gobi. I remember the first shot. Gobi, this little glowy green character from the moon. And he was running down the side of a lunar hill, and it felt like he was an earth animal. Something was missing. And you can't just say, Oh, make it bouncier, make it funnier, make it quirky. Who knows what you're going to get with that? And you've got to be very specific, because this film is racing along to this finish line. So you're hoping, okay, next time they're going to hit it, but it's so far off, how do I get there? So I could actually scribble my animation over top of their work, frame, by frame, by frame, and click to the next frame, next frame. And then they've got the whole thing animating there. And it was such a fluid way of communicating that. So yeah, drawing is my best tool for communicating.
That had to be such a joy as an animator to experience that. I think I remember that shot because, if I remember correctly, it's a top-down view and he's coming down a dune, but then you have this great cutaway where it's kind of locked off, almost like flat looking straight across the moon. And I remember they're bouncing almost in zero gravity in it. That shot, when I saw it, it really stuck with me, because I have to say, obviously, amazing draftsman, great animator, you've directed a lot of things, but I was really blown away by your camera work in this film.
Especially that first third. There was so much restraint and control. That you were down at Fei Fei's level, the camera really didn't move wildly. I thought that did a great job of setting up the insane action that we get in the second, and the third of the film. I was amazed that for someone who's a first time director that you're able to have that kind of camera language. Did you have a favorite shot, or a sequence that, as you're watching, show up in dailies or final renders? Were you surprised by how any shots or sequences flowed together?
Yeah. The family dinner scenes were so important that it had to feel natural. And I had great people around me from John Bermudes, and John Kahrs who thought cinematically, and I could do story sketches, and they were constantly... They have such great background in cinematic language that I leaned heavily on my team around me. And let me just say how vital and important it is, a producer who knows what you need. We all have strengths, and we all have those areas that like, "Oh, I wish I had more knowledge of how to deliver." And I can give a direction of, "I want this to feel very natural and unimposing in this family scene. It can't be too active." Those kinds of things. And then somebody else can say, "Okay, I know what that means." And then they deliver it. And my producer, Gennie Rim, was phenomenal in building a team of the right kind of people around me. I just want to say how vital it is to have that kind of a producer.