Disney’s Glen Keane On Tangled, Reboot Ralph And Bringing Old-School Technique To CG Animation

The origins of Tangled lie in a mid-90s attempt to realise the story of Rapunzel by Disney animator Glen Keane. Ultimately, he worked on the film in the capacity of animation director, not director, but his influence is very easily apparent throughout, and the film is still rooted (no pun intended) in his initial work on the project.

I was lucky enough to meet Glen recently and discuss his work on the film, on the cutting-edge CG technique within, and what new challenges lie ahead for Disney’s slate of upcoming films.

Here are the Five Things that Glen told me.

1. Tangled beginnings: Glen’s attempt to bring us a Rapunzel story

I was working on Tarzan at the time. When you’re animating, your brain doesn’t turn off, you can be drawing but you’re thinking about what you’re doing next, and usually I’m looking down the line at what other films are being done and I realized that after Treasure Planet, which was the next one, there really was nothing on the horizon. This story of this girl being trapped in this tower, something was appealing to me and I didn’t know quite what it was.

But the more I started to explore it, I realized that what I loved was this person that was born with this gift inside of her and it had to come out, she had to express it. It was coming out through her hair even. It was BOOM! growing out the window and you were being held in this tower. And I started thinking, that’s like me at Disney. After 36 years, what is like for an artist to work in a place like Disney for that long of a time? I never wanted to be an animator, I just wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a sculptor, I wanted to be a painter.

My portfolio was sent by mistake to the school of animation and I found myself, 36 years later, this is what I’m doing. I think there’s a part of me that really just wants that kind of expression, that personal, unique, artistic expression and this story was kind of communicating that. The idea that everybody has a gift that you have to express to be you, and I wanted that. So I started to develop that idea of this story. It’s a very spiritual idea, those are the things that drive me.

I was thinking about the origins of the story. They’re French, actually. It was written by Mademoiselle de La Force, and I was always fascinated with this style of the French Rococo. Freddy Moore, who was an animator at Disney, who really created the Disney look and was the one who taught the men who taught me, I always found that somehow, he was like a reincarnation of the French Rococo, Francois Boucher and Fragonard. When I look at their drawings, that’s Freddy Moore.

And I discovered that when I was 25 years old, so I tried to draw like Freddy Moore, and I tried to draw like Francois Boucher and Fragonard, and so when I was starting to design Rapunzel, I started thinking of her in a Fragonard kind of design, which really led me to thinking about the whole world of this fairy tale like a Fragonard painting. And I realized, for the French kings, they didn’t have movies but that was their version of fantasy, a Fragonard painting. He would create these idyllic worlds and look for these beautiful French curves in everything. So I purposefully pushed and studied Fragonard to reproduce that, because of the connection back to Freddy Moore.

2. Why was this hand drawn artist making his Rapunzel in CG?

It was because I was being forced into that. My attention was to do it hand drawn at first but Michael Eisner, at that time, said “We’ve got to do this in CG” and I started asking, “Okay, is there a way in which we can make CG have much more organic, fluid forms to it?”

For me , giving up hand drawn is not something I like. I love to draw. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be a sculptor but I found that animation was like the ultimate art form and all along the way I was always continuing to pursue animation because it satisfied that desire in me in art. And when Michael Eisner challenged me to do this film in CG, I showed him the drawings and said “Michael, do you like these drawings?” He said “Oh, I love those drawings” so I said “You can’t do that in CG!” And he said “But Glen, there’s got to be a way to take what you love in hand drawn and bring it into CG”.

I thought that was such an honest challenge that I took it, and I took it really seriously, and I wasn’t going to let that go. The fact that I don’t animate in CG, which I don’t, was really a benefit. I did spend one day on the film where I tried to learn to animate on the computer. It was so painful and frustrating that all I got out of it was a comment that I made to the team and which ended up on a quote board. I realized I’ve got to be careful what I say, but I said “I realize now I spent a day trying to do what you guys do that you work so hard just to do something bad” and that was up on the wall. But the fact is, I had no patience for something less than, because I didn’t animate like them.

3. Bringing hand-drawn technique to CG animation

They would show me their animation, and rather than say “Wow, that’s amazing!” because I know where you came from to get to there, I’d draw over the top of it and say “But look what you can do”. They’d say “But you should see all the other versions”, and I’d say “But I don’t care, you’ve got to do this”. One by one, they’d start to get this and there was this collective learning where at the beginning I was saying the same thing over and over and over again, talking about appeal, talking about rhythm, talking about things the computer wasn’t doing, talking about asymmetry, and twist and tilt in the characters’ attitude and bodies, all the things I tried to do in my drawing, I’d say it over and over and over again.

And then it seemed, at a certain point, there was a breakthrough where I started noticing that I wasn’t saying the same thing anymore. They were getting it, they were predicting what I was going to say before they brought it to me and you saw those things were being solved on their own. It was an incredible thing to see this team of artists who really had no connection with Disney before CG, these were CG people, they didn’t know about who those masters of animation were, and they were now hitting the mark.

At first, though, they gave every animator so much rope that they could hang themselves, and they did for the first six months of animating. Everything looked hideously ugly. We put everything in this so that they could not say “I can’t make that expression”. We didn’t want that, so we gave them more choices.

We worked with the modelers. I did a lot – an enormous amount of drawings, eight months of working with modelers, creating expressions and attitudes. The potential was already there, but they didn’t know how to use it. At the beginning it was like somebody who was used to driving just a little Volkswagen suddenly found it had some kind of enormously powerful engine, so they were constantly driving off the bridge and crashing. But slowly they started to learn that it’s about appeal, that it’s about a subtle harmony. There’s actually a visual pitch that you shoot for.

We talked a lot about appeal, which is the relationship of the eyes to the nose to the mouth. We put so much flexibility in the designs that every animator put themselves into the character. When I watch the movie I can tell which animator animated what, and I didn’t think that would be possible. In hand drawn it’s easy, everybody draws a little bit like themselves, but in CG I thought it was just moving a model around. It took a lot of sheepdogging, getting them to go over one another’s work, and showing them how. For example “Go see Tony Smead because that guy is really nailing the design of Rapunzel every time he does her”.

4. Casting the animators

John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis were the other two animation directors, so we had the three of us, this triumvirate, and they both understood computer animation and hand drawn. Clay more hand drawn, and more recently computer; John Kahrs much more computer. John had animated what are probably all of the best scenes in Pixar films for years and years and then came to Disney. Those two guys cast which animator was going to do what. They spent a lot of time talking with the animators, finding out which scenes they wanted to do. And they tried to cast to the desire of those animators.

Early on we made a decision to not cast a supervisor as the head of one character. It became open – everybody could work on every character, which allowed every animator to own the character, in a way. If it had been just one person supervising, then everybody is trying to follow that person’s lead. Instead we really wanted people to take something from their own life and put it into their scenes. It made ownership much more personal for them. It was more challenging. And I doubted the value of that, but that was something John Kahrs from Pixar brought to us.

Tony Smead and his wife Amy Smead, they both did some of the best moments . When Flynn is [SPOILER REDACTED] and Rapunzel is holding him and [SPOILER REDACTED], that’s Amy’s work; the opening scenes where you meet Rapunzel and she comes out and throws her hair, that’s Tony Smead right there. It was really important to have these people like Tony to set the pace and say “This is possible” because while other people were crashing and burning with too much flexibility and not knowing what to do with it, Tony was taking that and just going “This is how you do it”.

5. The future of Disney animation

The same animators that did Tangled are going on to do the next Disney films, so you have a staff that is very seasoned and mature. Disney is an interesting place: the power of the animator there is phenomenal, in terms of his influence, her influence. And you bring those people on to a film and they demand certain levels of acting and performance from the story, and that’s what’s going to happen with those films too. They’re still in development.

The animators are doing right now a Prep & Landing short, in between films. The thing is, everybody has seen the potential of what this crew is capable of and no one wants to do less. The goal is to challenge them on whatever film.

The challenges of Reboot Ralph are entirely different to those of Tangled. There are so many different styles of characters in that movie going from one video game to another to another to another that it’s going to be phenomenal. And I’m telling the team “It’s going to be a whole different challenge for you guys to stretch and expand and become much more versatile than you are right now, so there will be new ways in which we’re going to be growing”.

For my next project I have some ideas in my mind. I really believe that the fairy tale has to be a big part of the future of Disney animation for us to continue to grow and be strong and to be who we are.

Tangled is in UK cinemas now and, not to put too fine a point on it, comes thoroughly recommended. You may also wish to read my interview with the directors of the film.