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The Once and Future Keane: Glen Keane looks back on animating Ariel, announces his own production company

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The Once and Future Keane: Glen Keane looks back on animating Ariel, announces his own production company

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In case you haven't already noticed, we're right in the middle of The Walt Disney Company's full-court promotional press for "The Little Mermaid" (which is available for the first time on Blu-ray combo pack and HD Digital starting next Tuesday, October 1st).

So on the East Coast of the country this past Saturday, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment staged a special screening of this beloved animated classic at NYC's Walter Reade Theater where Jodi Benson (voice of Ariel), Samuel Wright (voice of Sebastian) and Ron Clements (writer/producer) all strolled down the blue carpet.

(L to R) Samuel Wright, Jodi Benson and Ron
Clements. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Meanwhile, out on the West Coast of the country, the El Capitan Theatre is getting ready to celebrate the Diamond Edition in-home release of this 1989 Walt Disney Animation Studios production by offering a limited edition, hand-painted 12 field cel which features Ariel.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And while it's fine that this Ron Clements & John Musker movie is once again in the spotlight and people are once again praising Howard Ashman & Alan Menken's Oscar-winning score, I think it's important to remember that if it weren't for the extraordinary work that Glen Keane & his team of animators did on "The Little Mermaid," it's doubtful that any of animation fans would ever fallen in love with the character of Ariel.

Back last month, I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Glen at the D23 EXPO just before he went onstage at the Anaheim Arena to receive his Disney Legend award. And at that time, I mentioned to Keane that I had always been impressed with the work that he & his team had done on "The Little Mermaid." That Ariel had been such a break-through character for Walt Disney Animation Studios because she was an 16 year-old girl who actually looked & moved like a 16 year-old girl. And the guy positively beamed when I passed along that compliment.

"That's great to hear. Because with every character that I've ever drawn, I have wanted to prove to the audience that they were real. That these characters are not just drawings," Glen explained. "This is why I always shaded my animation drawings. Because I want you to feel like you could actually put your hands around these characters."

Copyright 2013 Brigantine Media. All rights reserved

Mind you, Keane didn't personally animate every scene featuring Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." But as Steve Hickner points out in his terrific new book, "Animating Your Career " (Brigantine Media, August 2013), Glen made sure that the scenes that he did personally animated really counted.

"And how did Keane select the scenes that he'd personally animate?," you ask. As Steve explained ...

Some films, such as "The Little Mermaid," have about fifteen sequences, while other films, such as "Bee Movie ," have over forty sequences. Each sequence is subsequently divided into discrete shots. Some of these shots last less than a second, while others might be over a minute long. The average eighty-minute animated film is compromised of about 1,300 individual shots. While every shot in the film is important, some of the shots require special attention as defining moments.

Glen Keane working on the title character of "The Little Mermaid" back in 1988.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights

Even though an animator will work on a film for perhaps a year and a half to two years, he/she will only be able to animate a small portion. An artist could make a decision to focus on the details of the story and animated every shot for just one sequence in the movie, but his impact as a key animator on the film would be localized to a small portion of the story. The big impact animators, like Glen Keane, know how to make their work count so the audience feels their presence in the film. Keane selects what he feels are the most essential parts of the whole story and focuses his attention on them. But how does Keane make his choices?

When Keane starts a film, the first and most important decision he will make will be in choosing which character he will focus on to animate. On "The Little Mermaid," Keane decided to spend his time on the lead character, Ariel. He knew that Ariel provided him with two distinct challenges: sometimes she would be a mermaid and swim like a fish, and other times, she would be a human and walk on talk feet.

After choosing the character, he next decided on which particular sequences were most important to him. One of the sequences that Keane chose to animate was the section of the story where Ariel declares her wishes in the song, "Part of Your World."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

By evaluating every shot in the movie and pinpointing which ones merited his personal attention, Keane influenced the handling of the character Ariel in the entire movie. Keane's impact on the movie radiated outward like a pebble that is dropped into a pond -- from the specific (a shot) to the general (the entire movie).

And Keane then  backed up what Hickner had written in "Animating Your Career" when he & I talked in August. Glen went into great detail about the sculptural animation that he had done at the very start of "Part of Your World."

Take another look at the very start at that musical number. Right after Ariel finishes singing "Wouldn't you think that I'm the girl who has everything," we then begin to turn this character in space. Now you have to remember that this is the early, early days of CG. So when Ariel's singing "Look at this trove, treasures untold. How many wonders can one cavern hold?" and the camera seems to be spinning around her, that's not actually a CG camera move. That scene is all done with hand-drawn animation which took forever to get right.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But in the end, all of that extra effort was worth it. Because it's this moment in that movie where the audience stops thinking of Ariel as an animated character. As some drawing. It's this exact moment -- thanks to Howard & Alan's beautiful song and the talented people who cleaned up my rough animation drawings & then painted those cels -- that the audience starts thinking of Ariel as this real, living thing. A girl who's dreaming of something more. And since so many of us feel just like that, we dream of something more, that's when the audience falls in love with this character.

And speaking of something more, it saddened a lot of people last March when Keane announced that he was leaving Walt Disney Animation Studios. Effectively stepping away from his home for the past 38 years. And many animation fans wondered what Glen would wind up doing next after he exited the Mouse Factory.

Well, when Keane and I talk last month, he revealed that ... 

Photo by Jim Hill

I'm just about to start a little company. Glen Keane Productions. I'm starting very small with animation, drawings and the like. I'm about to start working on a new project that I really can't start talking about yet. But I've got some ideas.

So there you have it. Even as the world is once celebrating all of the effort & artistry that went into the animation & creation of Ariel in Disney's "The Little Mermaid," the man behind this much beloved character is about to pick up his Blaisdell Layout pencil once more. Which is the best bit of animation-related news I've heard in a long, long time.

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  • Enjoyed reading the article and can't wait to see what Glen is cooking up at his new production company.  Hopefully, some traditionally animated stuff is in the works.  There's been some beautiful computer animated films done in terms of design & story, but hand-drawn animation is still tops in my book.  

    Thanks for mentioning the Ariel cel at the Disney Soda Fountain/Studio Store.  Your mentioning of these cels through your articles or the posting of press releases is how I got my L&T Bella Notte one a while back.  Unfortunately, this article came a bit too late for me this time around.  Called the Studio Store today to only find out they had blown through all 50 pieces in the edition within 3 hours yesterday.  Quite disappointed as they chose a wonderful moment for this cel.  Would have been my 1st cel of Ariel, too...

  • This is a great article

    I look forward to Glen's company! in fact I wonder if I'll be able to try to send a portfolio and resume for a job

  • It's always nice to read stuff about Glen. He's been my favorite of the newer generation of animators, ever since I became fascinated by the Beast.

    Though I was hoping this year to finally talk to him at the Legends awards ceremony, they blocked us off from the main area. The closest I got was within 5 ft of him as he walked backstage, carrying his granddaughter.

    I think what makes Glen such a great person as well, is that he always seems to be so humble. I was listening to him talk with Clay Kaytis in an old Animation Podcast, and Glen talks about the difficulty of drawing hands, or sometimes feeling that he was not as great as others said he was.

    What did stand out was in that podcast, Glen mentioned that he felt that hand-drawn animation still had alot of new ground to cover...and I can't help but wonder if his upcoming work will reflect those words.

    I still wish I could get the chance to meet him. It seems every other person around me has gotten that chance. Then again, it took me 21 years to finally be in the presence and speak to John Musker and Ron Clements at the Expo.

  • I had posted the following in AnimationInsider.com on my interview for Mike Milo and it applies here-

    Johan klingler says:

    April 15, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    I wanted to add this note to my interview to express how truly wonderful being part of the legend of animation has been for me. Disney 2D Feature Animation just let go of almost their entire crew as is described in the following link.


    Though Animation is a commercial art for Feature Studios, it is truly a High Art when such talents as those Disney Features had as a team are brought together. Their films educate, archive knowledge and help to design the future of our society. Animation is an art form that requires pooling together the talents of every High Art in society to create the singular High Art of the Animated Feature Film (2D and/or 3D). It is hard to hold any studio responsible for such high ideals as the High Arts, being it is business and a commercial art, Disney did achieve High Art during it’s renaissance. Disney did this because of the choices made by the collaboration of incredible talent brought together at the time. We, the artists, felt responsibility for our creations and a love for the art and those people who enjoy it. I and my amazing wife, Norma, had the incredible privilege of being part of the legend. The legend was the team, the amazing pool of creators we belonged too. To us, they are family. Whether we got along or not doesn’t matter because we all wanted the same thing. We wanted to achieve greatness in our art. We loved the same things and decades later we still love the same things. We are family. The journey of Beauty and the Beast, Alladdin, Lion King, etc. etc. was historic to our art form but what was most amazing was the legendary team we were. The amazing talent working and struggling through the trenches of production, accomplishing the seemingly impossible, “Building Dreams”.

    I met my wife at Disney. We were married during the production of Beauty and the Beast. I was an artist on The Beast and she was an artist being used by The Bell team at the time. While she was drawing Bell and I was drawing The Beast, we worked in a building called The Heart Building. Teams, Dreams …Disney… made our future.

    It is sad to see the Traditional Animation team broken up and some may consider it the loss of a legend. I don’t see it quite that way. You see our art form is a fine balance of funding/budget, quality and time. Most think of it as just an issue of quality. Recognizing that the team we were at Disney was a pool of some of the best talent in the world, I also realize how important it is to seed the world with the best to, in fact, raise the art form of animation as a whole. This is actually what is happening now as a result of Disney releasing so much of their talent. We are now seeing a great thing happen though it may feel, to some, like the rose flowers have been cut off the plant. Disney has always been masterful in bringing the most incredible talents together to create, as a business and commercial art, some of the most lasting High Art Animations in world history. It is very likely they will continue to do so no matter what path animation as an art form takes in the future. They will build legendary teams and those individuals will spread the knowledge and art throughout the world. As they do so, new legendary teams will form in other places as funding is raised. This is the miracle of our business and the wonder of animation. To continue having gorgeous flowers, the rose must be trimmed, nurtured, and cared for, and you must even dump some manure on them otherwise it’s just a thorn bush. The world of animation is a multitude of colors and tones when it grows everywhere. 2D animation will never die but rather take root in different forms. If the world truly wants the old art style of 2D animation, funding will come together for it at some amazing studio and audiences will flock to the films again. The art must evolve with the audience though just as the audience evolves with the art.

    The artists of Disney are legends because the art form is legendary. Having been granted the privilege of being part of the team during those legendary times has been an honor, a wonder, an incredible journey and one of the most amazing parts of my life so far. My best wishes to every artist and creative talent of Disney who are part of molding our world. You are the Legend. The artists of all Feature Studios like those I’ve worked for; Sullivan Bluth, Kroyer, Amblimation, etc. ect. are the true legends. We build the dreams that build the world. Hope grows in the heart of art.

    Johan Klingler


    Sept. 29th 2013

    I am inspired and stricken with awe to see that it is happening so soon.   True High Art never dies, it just evolves.  Traditional 2D/CG assist Animation is one of the highest arts in our society.   Glen, I had the great honor of working with you multiple times at Disney and I always felt like a Mouse amongst Legends there.   Thank You for keeping the Art Alive.  

    Johan Klingler


  • In the past, many have asked me, IS 2D ANIMATION DEAD?  I'd answer, "NO, it will reinvent as Disney artists spread across the world, create new forms of high art that archive knowledge, teach and design the future of our society in some way.   You just need to be patient.  You see a form in Maya's "Grease Pencil".  Now Glen Keane an incredible LEGEND and close friend to Norma and I has done JUST THAT.   He has created the "NEW FORM OF HIGH ART".   60 frames per second -60 drawings per second animations.   2D LIVES FOREVER!!!  enjoy his film directed and created by Glen Keane, "Duet".   AMAZING!!!!   THE FUTURE!!!!

    Glen, Norma & I send you the warmest hugs ever.  We miss you.


    Link-    m.youtube.com/watch

    Contact Johan Klingler at -www.linkedin.com/.../johanklingler

  • In the past, many have asked me, IS 2D ANIMATION DEAD? I’d answer, “NO, it will reinvent as Disney artists spread across the world, create new forms of high art that archive knowledge, teach and design the future of our society in some way. You just need to be patient. You see a form in Maya’s “Grease Pencil”. Now Glen Keane an incredible LEGEND and close friend to Norma and I has done JUST THAT. He has created the “NEW FORM OF HIGH ART”. 60 frames per second animations. 2D LIVES FOREVER!!! enjoy his film directed and created by Glen Keane, “Duet”. AMAZING!!!! THE FUTURE!!!!

    Glen, Norma & I send you the warmest hugs ever. We miss you.


  • Glen Keane has reinvented the high art of 2D animation in Digital form with "DUET" 60 frames/sec. 60 drawing/sec. 2d is also reborn in Maya "GREASE PENCIL". Animators are able to 2D animate in 3D software to obtain full fluid motion. Next step is to put the two together. Then C.G. Animation would be fully "hand drawn" much like a puppeteer works. Think about it, it is a matter of a higher form of rigging is all. "Vector Rigging" let's call it and 3D animation is 2D animation at its highest.

    "If you say it can't be done... ...your in the way, we're getting it done."

    Johan Klingler Gen11 Animation

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