I recently took part in a virtual roundtable with Glen Keane, long time Disney animator and key player in Tangled, the House of Mouse’s latest feature length toon. Unfortunately, none of my questions were pushed forward to Keane. I suspect they were a touch controversial – he appears on the verge of leaving Disney for Dreamworks, of all places, and I was curious about this.
As it happens, the best question posed during the whole session was one pitched rhetorically by Keane himself:
How far can hand drawn affect, or be integrated into, computer animation?
Tangled itself is a good investigation into that very query.
Now. Instead of spending much time on this sadly fruitless roundtable, I thought I’d go back to my one-to-one interviews with Keane, and with Tangled‘s directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. I published these in full towards the end of January, but here are some edited highlights:
Keane on why he, a hand drawn animator, was making a film 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.
Greno on why story structure is more important than the things you hang on it:
Your story will tell you what your lighting needs to look like, what your characters should be designed like, all of those things. If you don’t have your story down, if you don’t have your beat board working, I don’t know how you do the rest. That’s why with animated films, even with some of the Disney ones that haven’t been as strong, the ones that haven’t worked, it’s because their story wasn’t in place. Personally, and I know Byron feels the same way, I think that it’s like your designing the roof of the house when you don’t even have the foundation yet.
Look at the sequence with the King and the Queen before the lanterns go up in the air. It was added, actually, very late in the game, because we needed to see how they were feeling. There was something missing, and we had to figure it out. We thought “Okay, you have to know that the celebration, as beautiful as it is, still has its roots in this tragedy, and this loss that is being felt by the parents”. It’s a very simple sequence of shots but its placement, and where it occurs, the fact that it’s behind closed doors, that nobody sees this except for eachother, so they’re not really being a King and Queen, that’s what makes people relate to them and feel “My heart goes out to them”. That’s a choice that comes from structure and sequence, where you’re putting the beats in a certain order, but also, at the same time, we will look at the performances. A lesser animator could have ruined the scene by going too far, but if you look at the animation, it’s so miniscule and tiny and controlled, so subtle that it lets the audience’s mind do the work for them.
Byron on his next picture with Greno:
We pitched six movies to John Lasseter. We had this meeting in the middle of the Tangled production schedule and John walked in to this meeting and said “Oh , I thought there was a mistake I’m making on the calendar… you’re pitching ideas but you’re still making Tangled” and we were like “I know, but we’ve seen people go through this where they wrap up their film and they don’t know what they’re doing, they go into this development process and we have a friend in the studio who was for a year and a half developing ideas and pitching them and those weren’t right so he went through this whole thing, so we though we’d just try and get something going early, so that when we go on these trips we can look around the world, see different cultures, maybe be inspired, and add to this project that we’re working on.
John looked at the six ideas and there were two, actually, that he thought were great and he said “Why don’t you combine those two?” and that’s the genius of Lasseter is he can always see things like that. And we thought “Wow, that would be a really wild, different concept of a film, so totally weird and different”.
Keane on the French influences in the film’s style:
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.
Howard on Disney under John Lasseter:
John Lasseter does watch all of us very carefully, he watches all of our leadership decisions very carefully, looking for people who could potentially do the job. It’s a great job but it can take a certain sort of brain to do it. A lot of it is interpersonal skills, you have to be able to work with a crew and get the best out of a crew. He’s the best example. His crew would go through hell for him, and then produce a great film. And then they’d pop back in to go through it again in a second. They trust him because he has the highest level of expectations of himself, and of his crew. He demands excellence in everything he does.
I think that John does see the dedication on our end to making something that is extraordinary. John always says that he wants every film he works on to over deliver and we’re of the same mind. Hopefully people will go in saying “I don’t exactly know what to expect from this movie but I hope it’s good” but then they come out afterwards saying “My god, that was so much better than I thought it was going to be”. That’s why Pixar inspire trust and I think Disney in the future, you’ll see a bond of trust really growing.