How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 22, 1990

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Glen Keane, in less than a decade, has risen to be one of the Disney studio's most prominent animators. Achieving early critical notice for his dramatic bear fight in THE FOX AND THE HOUND and his comic characterization of Willie the Giant in MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, Keane has become a highly visible proponent of the Disney school of animation. His latest work includes Ariel in THE LITTLE MERMAID. Keane lectures regularly on the art of animation and has even taught classes at Cal Arts, his alma mater.
We found Keane in one of his unusual "down times" between pictures at one of Disney's Glendale animation facilities. As we talked, we took time out to watch a buffalo head being hung in his office, which he shares with Geefwee Boe Doe, an assistant.

Q: Please give a brief description of your career, including studios that you've worked at and specific productions you've worked on.
GK: Well, actually I never really planned to be in animation. It was something that just sort of happened by accident to me. I wanted to go into painting or illustrating. I just knew that I wanted to draw. I didn't know anything about animation. My portfolio went to California Institute of the Arts to get into their school of painting and somehow or another it got sent to the School of Animation and I was accepted into that. I thought, "Oh well, I'll give that a try."
And then I found out about animation. It was a combination of all the arts together. And there was always this sort of ham side of me that wanted to act and I found out that animation was really answering that desire. I love to draw figures, and realized that animation requires a good understanding of anatomy, figure drawing, and I could use all of that information in animation, plus acting.
I worked for a summer at Filmation where I thought that I learned animation. The next summer I came with my portfolio to Disney to show them what I had learned about (chuckling) animation at Filmation. Eric Larson [one of Disney's nine old men] looked through the portfolio. He paged through all the stuff really quickly; all the animation drawings that I'd labored over. He then said there was really nothing there except one little scribbly sketch that he liked. It had some motion and life to it.
He said, "Do more of this kind of thing and just basically forget all the stuff that you thought you knew when you were at Filmation. We don't really look at that as a benefit for coming here to Disney. We want you to really come in with a clean slate where we can teach you."
So I just sort of stepped back and went to the beach and did a lot of quick sketch drawings. I brought them in and they liked them. I started on a two month training period with other guys at the studio, Ron Clements and Andy Gaskill and John Pomeroy. We just sort of tried to soak in everything that they wanted to teach us. That was in 1974 when I started. It was on the film THE RESCUERS. Now we've just finished the sequel, THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER. Sort of gone full circle for me.
Actually, I've never thought of myself, really, as an animator. I have always thought of myself as an artist who will animate just as long as it challenges me artistically. And whenever it stops really challenging me then I would leave animation. I've also done some commercial animation. My favorite was working for Bob Kurtz on a "Burger 'n Bones" dog food commercial.

Q: You've worked on all the Disney features between THE RESCUERS and RESCUERS DOWN UNDER?
GK: Just about. I can say I worked on all of them but I can't say that all my work is on the screen. I did work in THE SMALL ONE that never got to the screen. I did work in THE BLACK CAULDRON that never got to the screen, but then so did Tim Burton, John Musker and others. It was like two different pictures that we were approaching.

Q: Can you name some of the characters you did animate in some of the features?
GK: Well let's see, in RESCUERS, the first scene I did was Bernard and then I animated Penny mostly with Ollie Johnson. Then after that I guess we went on and did Elliott in PETE'S DRAGON and then it was THE FOX AND THE HOUND. I did Todd and Vixie and the bear and the badger. From that I went and worked on CAULDRON. Nothing I did got in the picture. Next I did MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL where I animated the giant plus some Scrooge and Mickey.
Then I did a little computer test, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. We animated a section to Maurice Sendak's book with Magi, the people who had done the computer graphics in TRON. It combined computer generated backgrounds with hand drawn animation. I did that with John Lassiter. And then after that went on and did THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. Worked on Ratigan, and did some Basil. Actually I had left the studio at that time. During GREAT MOUSE I worked freelance for Disney at home. Then after GREAT MOUSE there was a lull in production so I went over to Chipmunks and did some work with Ross Bagdasarian on THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE. Did "The Girls of Rock 'n Roll" section in that and then I came back [to Disney] onto OLIVER AND COMPANY and worked on Fagan and Sykes and Georgette on the Georgette song ["Perfect Isn't Easy"]. After OLIVER was MERMAID, which is why I came back. I worked on Ariel in that picture and some of Eric. That, to me, was a challenge because they had originally asked me to do Ursula, the villain. I felt like "No, I want to do something different." I needed a challenge and wanted to do something more subtle and Ariel was what really attracted me. After that I started working on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST; going to London and working with a director there. We ended up not going in that direction so I came back to work on RESCUERS DOWN UNDER where I animated this gigantic eagle, Marihoute with a kid named Cody riding on her back. I just finished that and am starting on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, designing Beast and animating him.

Q: What does an animator do?
GK: Let's see, what does an animator do? (Pause) There's so many different ways one can approach that question. Primarily I guess an animator's job in a film is he's the actor. I mean, it just really comes down to, a film is a story and the animator, he's one of the characters in it. He crawls inside to the brain and the personality of that character. He is that character on the screen. Not unlike regular actors.
The only difference is that an actor in theater, TV or in movies gets to use his own body; his hands and expressions. The animator feels those things but the audience doesn't look at him. They look at his drawing, so it's a matter of how well can you draw how you feel? That's really the gift of an animator, is taking his feelings and putting it through his hand and being able to project himself onto the paper.
I guess the challenge that an animator has is to mentally get past the point where he's drawing. He's no longer drawing on the paper. It's not an act of drawing. It's more of a crawling into that page and living in that space that is now a three- dimensional world. So then you can start to draw a character walking away in space and you're not thinking so much of perspectives and all those technical things. Instead you're thinking, how does it feel? How do I feel walking down this meadow and back behind that tree back there and then sliding along the trunk of the tree and resting, looking up at the leaves? How do I feel? Hopefully you get into it, otherwise the animation has a very technical and studied look and it doesn't ring true. But an animator that can really live in the character that he's drawing, his stuff sparks with life. People believe him.

Q:Can you give an example of films that showcase good animation and possibly bad animation?
GK: Can I do it tactfully? That's another question. For one thing I feel that there should be another term used for Saturday morning animation, the kind that you see on TV. It's a whole different thing. It's more formula. These sort of expressions we plug in at this time in the story and it's a formula story told and it's formula drawings and it's not a personal experience of an animator living in that character. I don't consider that the same as what I do. There's different limitations to that and I think it's almost unfair to criticize them too harshly for the restraints that they're under.
I think that as we got into some of the later animated features in the Seventies at Disney, I didn't feel that the animation was being pushed out to new fronts. It was becoming very formulized. They knew how to do certain things and they did it well. They stuck to that.
I think of THE LITTLE MERMAID and Duncan Marjorybank's animation of Sebastian [the crab]. Here's a guy that his own expressions and his own personality came out in that character. You could ask Duncan to make an expression on his own face and you saw it was the exact same thing that the crab was doing. I mean, his whole way of thinking was translating from his head through his hand and into that character. The timing, his thought, everything, he transferred into that character. I thought that the character was completely Duncan. You get another animator and the character would've been completely different. There was no formula to it, and that's a good sign.
The best thing about Disney animation, I feel, is that we try to encourage animators to be themselves in their animation. Sometimes in other animated features, there's a formulized look and each character almost acts the same. You can plug any animator into animating that character, and they're gonna look the same. It shouldn't work that way. Each animator should come up with something completely new, different and personal.

Q: How do you approach animating a new character when you start?
GK: You get done with one feature and you're getting started on a new one and there's sort of a lull. That's exactly what's happening here now. Just trying to relax a little bit from the last picture where you're running a hundred miles an hour trying to get the thing done. Suddenly, now you've got all this time. I take advantage of it to just be free and not let myself get under too much pressure to perform.
My job is now to design the Beast for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is my time for allowing myself to just get inspired. I'll look at films, and go to places where I think that I might get inspired. Like we're going to go to the zoo tomorrow just to draw. So we have this buffalo head and this thing [a wild boar's head] up in here. Hopefully something's going to rub off. And I put pictures around myself, or read different things. I'm just allowing myself any input from any direction. Giving myself as much of a chance as possible to come up with something new and different.
I know I could sit down if I had to and design a Beast. I could do that and it would be fine. It would work and it would animate, but I keep wondering well, am I cheating the audience somehow? Eric Larson was always saying that to me. When I was animating something and he was going over it with me he'd say, "You know, I think you're cheating the audience here," meaning you could've done more. An animator should never cheat the audience. You're the only one that knows that you didn't do everything you could've with it and the audience doesn't know that they've been cheated. I just want to make sure I'm not cheating anybody by taking an easy out.
So I'm looking at a lot of art and getting inspiration from as many angles as possible. It's my first step. Then once I surround myself with that I'll start to draw. I'll come up with some designs and at first the designs are usually very complex and overly analyzed and worked out and they're not too animatable. Then I start moving it around a little bit and the shapes become simpler just because when you constantly have to draw something over and over and over again you're naturally going to come up with a simpler way of drawing a complex shape, unless you're insane and you like pencil mileage that much. So just through that process it simplifies itself.
You try to get a voice to a character that's going to inspire you too. And that has a lot to do with it. Once you match the voice with the design it may change the design quite a bit. Like with Ratigan in THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. Ratigan was a very skinny little character. He was a rat and we had him kind of as a weasly-looking guy. But in design he was too similar to Basil. I was thinking maybe we should be really bigger with him. At that time we were also looking at a film with Vincent Price. It was CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR and listening to his [Vincent's] dialogue, I realized that's the voice for me. He just had this sharp, quick way of speaking and the timing was great. You could tell he enjoyed being a rotten guy. And like Ratigan, he also felt like he was justified in doing whatever he did. Like he was unjustly treated, which is important for a villain. The villain isn't bad just because he's bad, but he's justified. He feels like he's right. I started doing drawings based on that with a much larger, huge rat character and it fit. So then we started heading in that direction; we brought Vincent Price in.
With Ariel, the little mermaid, I started surrounding myself with pictures of different girls who were about that right age. Teen magazines and then also Sherry Stoner, who was doing the live action reference for Ariel and, a picture of my own wife who I had been drawing ever since we've been married. It's really natural to draw her. And all these things just sort of came together to come up with a design that was Ariel. I worked closely with Mark Henn and Philo Barnhart in zeroing in on the final design.

Q:On an average daily routine what do you do in the studio?
GK: Okay, let's go past the point where we've already done our design and we've gotten our layouts and are going ahead and animating. I get in about nine o'clock in the morning and get a cup of coffee and sit down and usually, at the beginning of the week, figure out what it is that I want to get done. I'll take a scene and think it should take about a day and a half to animate this scene. I know that by the end of that day and a half or that second day I'd better be done with this thing.
Usually at that time that's when the telephone rings and there's some meeting that's called. That goes to about ten o'clock, then at ten o'clock I decide I better get to work and start to draw and then there's a knock at the door. It's a trainee who wants to show me their work. So I go over their work. And then we have lunch. Then around one o'clock I better get working and I spend about fifteen minutes and the directors call. There's a meeting over the layouts. About three o'clock I get to start drawing on the scene and then it gets to be 5:30, 6:00 and I have a decision to make. Is my family more important than my animation? So I leave to go home.
I come back the next day and I know this is the day I said I was going to have my scene done. Same thing starts off. Finally I just skip lunch and I stay in. I know I can get a good unbroken hour of work in at lunch time. I animate through the thing as fast as I possibly can. I use a fat, thick pencil and this actually works out well because the speed that I feel like I'm forced to animate makes me not become overly analytical in my work. I just sort of dive into it and draw it as fast as I can. I try not to get caught up in the details. I dash through the scene and rough it out in what I call a scribble test. If I can just get it scribbled, by that deadline I've given myself, then I'll feel good. It's really just getting it moving. And any one of those drawings may look terrible to somebody else; to me they look nice because they capture the feeling that I'm looking for. An audience would not necessarily relate to those drawings much but in motion on the screen you get an acting scene across.
I shoot it and I'll show it to the directors, and get their input on it. Usually they feel pretty good about it, and I'll send it out and go on to my next scene for the next day and try to do the same thing and the same cycle goes over again. Get a couple scenes animated in a week or a long scene, whatever. Then after that, eventually, I've got to go back into those really quick little scribbles and tie them down into something my assistants can follow to do the inbetweens and the clean up.
I've got to make it very decisive. What exactly do I want those eyes to be doing there? I can't just scribble it like this, I've got to make it more clear. What I like to do, if I'm working on a sequence where there's a whole lot of scenes, is try to rough through as much of it as I possibly can. Scribble 'em all down so I can tell the continuity and the acting in the scenes. Then we can judge it by stepping back and see if it's all working together as a whole rather than getting caught up in one little tiny part of it and spending all my energy on a three foot scene when there's two hundred feet to do around it. And then we can make some changes on if it's too slow at this point or too fast, and go back and adjust it. Anyway, that's kind of my approach.

Q: How much freedom are you usually given on a production, as an animator?
GK: I guess it depends on how confident the director is on the sequence that you're working on. If the director feels really confident that this is just what he wants then you're not given that much freedom, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because instead of freedom you're given direction. In other cases the director doesn't really know exactly what he wants. You're given a lot of freedom but, that means sometimes you're not given much direction either. And you're required to come up with that yourself. Most of the time for me personally, I get a lot of freedom on what I do.
I'll often storyboard it myself. Something will have already been storyboarded, but I'll look at it and I'll listen to the soundtrack and think "Gee, what if we did it this way" or "maybe we're missing something here." I'll run it past the directors and they'll agree or they'll disagree. If they say "no," I'll go with it the way it's boarded and approach it that way. If they agree with what I'm saying then I'll go through and I'll board it out and take it from there and start working with the layout guys. It all depends.

Q: What has been one of your favorite characters to animate, and why?
GK: Usually the last character that I just animated has always been my favorite one. I've always felt that way on everything I've worked on. But if I step back a little bit and look at it, each character has got a unique thing. The eagle, in RESCUERS DOWN UNDER has taught me that real life is as entertaining as anything that I can think of in my imagination. Capturing how an eagle flies is really rewarding if you can make it feel real. Ariel is really rewarding in that I got to capture subtle expressions and feelings on her. I'd have to say that is what I liked the most about her. Ratigan, I just loved to hate that guy. He's such a jerk, and so much personality that it kind of screamed to come out. A villain, to me, always has this power that's just demanding to come out and you want to animate it out of there. And the bear in THE FOX AND THE HOUND. There's this fierce rage that you wanted to animate. I couldn't draw it big enough, mean enough. Willie the Giant, in MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, to me, was my son, an 18 month old baby with a big giant body that I really enjoyed doing. Just this real naive, innocent big guy. My favorite, I don't know.

Q:Have you had a character that you did not really enjoy animating?
GK: Well, I guess Elliot the dragon, in PETE'S DRAGON. I never really got into him as a character. Fagan. I enjoyed him but I always had a basic disagreement with the approach on design. I wanted him to be a short, fat little guy and instead he was a tall, skinny guy. I enjoyed animating him but I don't think I ever got into that character as much as I would've liked to, not that I didn't try. Eric in MERMAID. I would've liked him to have more depth of character. Instead he was kind of a standard prince. I wanted to do more with him. But the decision was made that you don't want to start building the story around Eric; the story was really Ariel's. It's difficult to come up with somebody really interesting and unique when you don't want to expand that character.

Q: Which project do you feel most proud to have been associated with?
GK: Well, it's probably LITTLE MERMAID. I think that was because it was the first time that I thought we were doing a project that we were potentially breaking through the barrier where we had just never gotten past before. It was the first picture I think we got the monkey off of our back; the stigma of tring to live up to a tradition. We really broke out into something of our own.

Q: Is there a film that you've worked on that you weren't really pleased with the final results. Even though it may have been successful, you personally felt it didn't live up to expectations?
GK: Each film will fall short of it's potential to one degree or another. I've got to focus on my part of that picture. Did I do my best? Even if a picture turns out to be a dog, if I did my best, I can still feel proud.

Q: If you were to be starting today trying to become an animator, what do you think you would need to do?
GK: Well, if I was just starting as an animator I would take drawing really seriously. A lot more seriously than probably a lot of other animators would say, but that's me; that's how I approach it. I guess there's different schools to animation. There's maybe a school that says if you just animate very simple shapes then it's more the acting involved and you don't need to get involved in the anatomy. To me, I feel like if you're going to really push into where I think acting needs to go, and we're going to really compete with live action, then our acting needs to go to levels where you're really dealing with subtle, deeper human emotions. The only way you can really capture that, besides being in touch with your own heart in your acting, is to be able to draw how you feel. It requires a real understanding of anatomy and to be able to draw really well, to communicate.
So I would draw and draw and draw as much as I can the people around me, capturing attitudes, look for the subtle things that interest you and draw those. The way a little girl sits with the legs crossed is really entertaining. It doesn't need to be a gag or a joke, it's just looking for those real things, developing an eye for observation. Seeing it and being able to draw it. Get a lot of sketch books. Do quick sketch trying to capture action. Study live action films. I'd say learn the techniques that the old animators did but don't approach it as a formula. Don't get fooled into thinking this is the way to do a walk; this is the way to do a run, a take. Study and discover a new way.
I remember we were up at Cal Arts one time when somebody asked me, how many different takes are there in animation? And I was thinking, "how many different takes *are* there?" I stopped and said, "where is this question coming from?" I mean, how many different takes are there? "What is a take," I asked? The student said, "I don't know? what do you mean?" I answered, "What **is** a take? It's just an animation term. We assume it means something, but what does it mean?" A take is a reaction. As many emotions as there are in human nature, that's as many takes as you can have, and how each person is, they're going to react a little different. There is no limit to the number of takes. You just need to analyze it. Get into that unique character and animate that.
Animation people, especially students, are constantly trying to compartmentalize it and break it down into "there are this many approaches to doing things." That is very limiting. We have a world of life to discover. Every person and living thing is unique. An animator needs to see that uniqueness and reflect it back to the audience in his work.

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