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There have been a number of folks on the Web -- myself included -- who have said some pretty nasty things about Glen Keane over the past year or so. Going on and on about how this master Disney animator had supposedly turned his back on his craft. Abandoning traditional animation in favor of CG.
Photo by Nancy Stadler
But after listening to Glen talk at last week's "Legacy of Disney Animation" special session of SIGGRAPH 2005, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe we haven't all been a bit too hard on Mr. Keane. Maybe this really wasn't a case of Glen giving up on traditional animation. But -- rather -- Keane finally admitting that he has always had a keen interest in working in computer animation.
In fact, to hear Glen reflect on his career to date, you'd realize that this master animator has been trying to do something significant with CG since the early 1980s.
"I remember when John Lasseter and I were working on 'The Fox and the Hound,' " Glen recalled." And we got to see 'Tron.' And it was like every scene in that picture was a multi-plane shot. Where the camera moved and created depth up there on the screen, but everything still stayed in perspective."
"I remember that John and I went back to our office at Feature that afternoon feeling totally depressed, " Keane continued. "We said to ourselves: Those guys working on 'Tron' get to work on cool stuff. So how can we get to work on cool stuff too?"John & Glen's opportunity to " ... work on cool stuff" finally came when these two still-newbie animators convinced then-Disney studio head Ron Miller to allow them to begin development of an animated featurette.
Ah, but not just any animated featurette. This film was going to be based on Maurice Sendak's much beloved children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are." More to the point, the featurette that Lasseter and Keane wanted to create would place traditionally animated characters on top of computer generated backgrounds.
Intrigued by this idea, Ron gave John & Glen enough funding for a 90-second test. Keane handled the traditionally animated portion of the project, while Lasseter created the CG backgrounds and mapped out all of the camera moves.
The end result was stunning. This minute-and-a-half of the proposed film truly wowed Miller. The only problem was ...The projected cost of completing "Where the Wild Things Are" was high. So high that there was just no way that the Mouse would ever recover the money that it was going to have to spend in order to complete a featurette based on this Caldecott Medal-winning book.
Which is why Ron reluctantly tabled the "Wild Things" project. And Glen went back to working on traditional animation at Disney Studios. And John ... Well, as Keane put it at last week's "Legacy" presentation "... Lasseter went off and did a few things and nobody's ever heard from him again."
Anyway ... Even though Glen didn't get to complete "Where the Wild Things Are" back in 1982, he couldn't help but notice that computer animation was continuing to encroach on traditional animation's turf. As Keane continued to build his rep as one of the very best animators working at Walt Disney Studios, he found himself continually being assigned these scenes where his characters would have to work with CG. Ratigan's battle with Basil inside Big Ben's clockworks in "<The Great Mouse Detective." Sykes's computer-generated limos in "Oliver & Company." That CAPS-coloring test scene that management slipped into "The Little Mermaid." The ballroom sequence in "Beauty & the Beast."
Glen didn't mind. In fact, he relished the challenge of making his traditionally animated characters fit in seamlessly in these CG-generated environments.
"People were always asking me 'Why are you putting shadows & shading on the characters that you draw? Don't you know that the people in clean-up are just going to take them out?,' " Keane explained. "I'd say in response: 'I have to draw those shadows. Because that's how I see my characters: dimensionally."
With each new traditionally animated film that Glen worked on, it seemed like the computer kept getting closer (I.E. The leaves that swirled around "Pocahontas") and closer (I.E. The "Deep Canvas" tree trunks & limbs that "Tarzan" would surf down). Until finally with "Treasure Planet," Keane was finally assigned a character that actually straddled the traditionally animated & computer animated world: Long John Silver, the paunchy old pirate who literally was half man and half machine.
In spite of all this, Glen still says that he was shocked that -- when he finished pitching an animated feature based on the classic fairy tale, "Rapunzel," to Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Feature Animation head David Stainton -- the two execs said: "We'd love to make that movie, Glen. And we'd love for you to direct it. But here's the thing, Glen. We want you to make it in CG."
"That they'd ask me to make it a computer animated film ... I hadn't expected that," Keane continued. "After all, I was the guy who kept saying 'I'll kill any person that tries to take a pencil out of my hand.' Now I have to eat those words."
Glen was understandably reluctant to make his directorial debut on a CG film. An animation format that -- in spite of his many years of experience of dealing with CG elements in Disney pictures -- Keane still didn't think that he knew enough about. But then CG Supervisor Kevin Geiger sat down with the veteran animator and laid the challenge out in terms that Glen could grasp and appreciate.
"Kevin said 'If you can do all the things that you do while drawing without using a pencil, are you in?'," Keane explained. "And I said 'Yes.'"
So -- with that goal in mind -- Glen decided to create a test for Disney Feature Animation's CG team. He would first traditionally draw a female ballerina going through a brief dance routine. Then Keane would work with WDFA computer animation technicians to see if it was possible to replicate that figure's movements in CG.
"I was looking to see if they could copy the fluid movement of a human ballerina. And they actually did that," Glen said. "Once I saw that test, I knew that producing 'Rapunzel' the way that I originally envisioned the picture was now possible in CG."
You see, in order for Disney Feature Animation to deliver on Keane's vision for "Rapunzel," the look of this film has to be lush. For Glen wants this story to be told in the classic way.
"I found my inspiration for the look of this film in a painting called 'The Swing,'" Keane continued. "It was painted by a French Rocco artist named Jean-Honore Fragonard. Just look at how rich this imagery is. It's like there's butter between the brush strokes."
Glen challenged "Rapunzel" art director Lisa Keane to come up with a look that was at least as rich as the world suggested in Fragonard's painting. And wonder of wonders, Lisa was actually able to pull that off in a CG format.
With these big steps forward, Glen was now able to start moving "Rapunzel Unbraided" in the direction that he wanted. Which was a Disney CG feature that -- while it still had all the strengths & virtues that a traditionally animated film had -- still looked and felt like nothing that Disney Feature Animation had ever done before."
" 'Rapunzel Unbraided' has to be a film of astonishing beauty," Keane stated. "It's the story of a girl who is swept up to fulfill the destiny of another. And -- in doing this -- she discovers her own."
As part of his SIGGRAPH 2005 presentation, Glen acknowledged that a lot of work still has to be done. And indeed -- if the blog item that CartoonBrew.com linked to yesterday is true -- "Rapunzel Unbraided" still has a significant number of story problems to overcome.
But -- that said -- Kleane looks forward to the next few years. When the team that he's been building can learn from everything that the Disney animators who have been working on "Chicken Little," "A Day with Wilbur Robinson" and "American Dog" have learned. And then make "Rapunzel Unbraided" the best possible picture it can be.
"I have to admit that there are days that I feel like I'm in kindergarten again," Glen concluded. "And that can be a little scary. But I have also learned that fear can be healthy. And that frustration can be good."
And after telling the crowd at SIGGRAPH 2005 that he didn't want " ... the limitations of the media to dictate what should and should not be done" in CG, Glen Keane concluded his portion of the "Legacy of Disney Animation" presentation. And the stage was then swarmed by animation fans. Some as high profile as "Madagascar" character animator Cassidy Curtis ...
... who each wanted their moment with this animation master.
You know what struck me the most about Glen Keane. How down to earth the guy was. I mean, literally.
To explain: Here's a shot of Glen on his knees on stage in West Hall A. Keane did that so that he could then see eye-to-eye with the animation students & professionals who were coming up to talk with him. I don't know why. But I was kind of moved to see a guy like Glen -- a man who's arguably animation's version of a rock star -- getting down on his knees just so that he could talk with this crowd at SIGGRAPH.
Obviously, it's way too early to start talking about whether "Rapunzel Unbraided" will actually be a good movie or not. But based on the images that I saw at the WDFA booth on the exhibition floor and after listening to Glen Keane's portion of the "Legacy of Disney Animation" special session at SIGGRAPH 2005 ... I have renewed hope for this project.
More to the point, I'm now willing to cut Mr. Keane some slack. I mean, if Glen's willing to move this far outside of his comfort zone in order to try and make a great CG film, I think that -- at the very least -- I can lighten up on the whole "turned his back on traditional animation" crap. And hopefully persuade a few other animation fans to do the same.