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The Disney renaissance was just a stepping stone for Glen Keane

The director of Netflix’s Over the Moon makes his feature debut after decades in the industry

Portrait of animator Glenn Keane surrounded by some of the animated characters her has created Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

In 2012, animator Glen Keane was restless.

The agitation didn’t have anything to do with his career at Disney; Keane, who had been a character animator on everything from The Fox and the Hound to Beauty and the Beast to Tangled, loved the studio. But after 38 years at Disney, there was something missing, something that he wasn’t quite reaching, something new that he wouldn’t find by staying in one spot. And if he didn’t figure out what it was, he’d waddle in a creative quagmire for the rest of his career.

“If you weren’t at Disney,” his wife asked him at the time, “what would you do? Where would you go?”

“I don’t know,” replied Keane. “Google?”

Sure enough, the first phone call he received after stepping down at Disney was from the tech giant, asking him to come on board as its limitless strategy expanded into the arts. While under Google’s roof, Keane finally got his shot at directing. The short film Duet fused hand-drawn animation with state-of-the-art computer animation as it followed the interwoven paths of a boy and a girl from childhood to adulthood.

Even after four decades in the business, Duet was just the start of Keane’s foray into the unknown possibilities of his medium. A few years later, he collaborated with Kobe Bryant on the Academy Award-winning Dear Basketball. And now, at the age of 66, he has directed his first theatrical feature, Over the Moon, which arrives on Netflix on Oct. 23.

Keane’s passion for animation is a beating, tangible thing, even in the vacuum of Zoom. With Over the Moon, decades of designing characters and weaving stories come to fruition — but Keane knows that his character style and storytelling methods are not an end-all be-all. In fact, he’d rather keep learning, keep looking forward, so that animation can evolve into something that’s never been done. He recognizes the milestones, but they’re behind him, and he only sees what’s ahead.

“This art form can grow and become so much more than it is,” he says. “I still have a dream of what if Rodin was alive today, or Michelangelo, and you gave them the art form of animation, but did not show them anything that had been done before. Where would they take it?”

ariel on a rock Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Keane became an animator by mistake. As the son of cartoonist Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus, art had been part of his life from the very beginning. After high school, he had intended to pursue fine art, but when he submitted his portfolio to CalArts, it wound up in the hands of the animation program. The expansive medium ended up being a natural fit for a budding artist who had always been enchanted by the possibilities of entertainment within art.

“When I was a kid, I would draw,” he says. “I wouldn’t do a drawing to do a drawing; I would do a drawing to make the paper go away, so I could actually step into the world that I was drawing.”

As with many before and after him, CalArts funneled Keane directly into the animation industry. After a stint working on Star Trek: The Animated Series at Filmation, Disney hired Keane in 1974 to work as a character animator on The Rescuers. There, the new kid on the block worked alongside Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston, and the other legendary Disney animators known as the Nine Old Men. By the late 1970s, the old guard began to transition out, while younger animators — including Frozen director Chris Buck, former Pixar creative head John Lasseter, and director Tim Burton — entered the studio, sparking some strife. Midway through production of The Fox and the Hound, animator Don Bluth left Disney to start his own studio with a group of other animators, which left a bulk of responsibility on the younger crew’s hands, Keane included.

Because of the friction around The Fox and the Hound — not to mention the instability that came with various CEO shifts and executive turmoil — the next film on Disney’s docket, The Black Cauldron, was seen as a beacon of hope for the studio’s future. The fantasy film was a chance for the younger animators to break away from the traditions of the old and establish a new legacy in animation, possibly saving that branch of the Disney banner and expanding animation to an older audience at the same time. But despite being the most expensive animated film made at the time, with a reported $44 million budget, the movie tanked at the box office, making only $21 million.

The failure prompted Disney to shift its priorities to live action, television, and theme park attractions. CEO Michael Eisner would’ve shuttered the animation department entirely, had chairman Roy E. Disney not intervened. Still, in 1985, the animators moved from the Disney studio lot in Burbank, California, two miles east to Glendale, carrying boxes of their stuff into a hodgepodge of warehouses, hangars, trailers, and even an old coffin factory.

“You really did sense that this was possibly going to be the end of animation,” recounts Keane.

The real savior for Disney Animation was 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which became a critical and commercial hit, smashing the box-office record previously set by Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time and earning two Academy Awards. The Little Mermaid marked Disney returning to its musical roots, and the success of that film ushered in what animation historians now refer to as the Disney Renaissance. In that era of musical reinvention and renewed interest in animation, Keane worked on some of Disney’s most iconic characters, designing and breathing life into Ariel, Aladdin, the Beast, and others. Many pivotal Disney Renaissance scenes — Ariel reaching a hand up to the skylight of her grotto; the Beast transforming back into a man; Pocahontas’ hair blowing in the wind — came directly from Keane’s hand.

pocahontas with her hair billowing in the wind
Tarzan stands besides a projected image of a man
long john silver and jim hawkins on the deck of a ship in space
the beast in beauty and the beast Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Keane brought traditional artistry to the Disney Renaissance films, but he wasn’t a purist about 2D animation. Even from his very early days at the studio, the animator embraced new technology and the evolution of the craft. After watching Disney’s 1982’s live-action/animation hybrid Tron with fellow animator John Lasseter, Keane sparked to the idea of what computers could do in their medium. In hopes of inspiring their colleagues, the two created a short test film that year, adapting Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are with a 3D-rendered background and hand-drawn characters blended together. Disney didn’t have the budget to expand upon the project, and Lasseter was later fired for his insistence on using computer animation.

Unlike the future Pixar chief creative officer, Keane didn’t completely pivot to CG in the years that followed — but he didn’t solely work in the hand-drawn format, either. “I’ve never run away from technology,” he explains. “I’ve always thought of it as sculptural drawing. When I’m animating a character, I’m turning them in space. So Ariel turns, and I’m showing you, ‘See, she’s real!’”

Though the style of the Where the Wild Things Are test — which had 3D backgrounds more akin to something like Toy Story, rather than the still-rendered-in-2D nature of the Beauty and the Beast ballroom scene — never manifested at Disney, the success of the studio’s renaissance era pushed forward the technology that the company used. The sweeping ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast or the tree surfing of Tarzan used computers to achieve more sophisticated camera angles in a simulated 3D space. “My career has been these two areas coming together more and more and more,” Keane says.

Keane’s “will it blend?” mentality came to full fruition for 2002’s Treasure Planet, which combined more 2D and 3D elements than any animated feature before it. Keane worked closely with CG animator Eric Daniels on the hybrid character of Long John Silver. Designed as an intimidating pirate in the Disney mold, Silver was drawn by hand, but had a mechanical arm rendered with computer graphics. To execute the combination, Keane animated Silver side by side with Jim Hawkins’ animator, John Ripa. The two even shared a desk, handing versions of scenes back and forth until they locked down the movements.

“I’m always finding myself partnered with somebody who’s so good at something that I’m not good at,” Keane says. “The technology required you to draw dimensionally. If you’re going to put something geometric onto a character, it’s going to have to be dimensional. Like Pinocchio swinging a basket that’s now moving. Like the way Miyazaki can draw airplanes. You don’t have to have a computer to draw something that’s solid and dimensional. You have to have a mind that sees it like that.”

Treasure Planet’s fate eerily echoed that of The Black Cauldron: Despite being one of the most expensive animated feature films ever made, the movie bombed. Treasure Planet was just one of the many traditionally animated films of the time period to be a commercial flop. Those failures, coupled with the rising success of Pixar and DreamWorks, forced Disney to overhaul its animation strategy and pivot to a slate of fully CG films.

Keane’s next project, planned as his directorial debut, did not align with that strategy. Conceived as a traditionally animated adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale, inspired by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo paintings, Tangled could not move forward until Keane agreed to animate it with 3D computer graphics. Uncertain of how to capture the warmth and naturalistic stylings of hand-drawn illustration on the computer, Keane held a seminar for CG and traditional artists at Disney to find a midway point between the two styles of cartooning.

rapunzel and flynn rider surrounded by lanterns Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

A heart attack in 2008 forced Keane to step back from the director role. He stayed on as an executive producer and character designer on Tangled, and played an important part in shaping the way the movie adapted the Disney Renaissance-era “princess” mode to CG. From the beginning, he insisted on imbuing 3D computer graphics with the more naturalistic animation of the 2D Disney tradition.

“I really want to communicate solidity. That’s what computer animation is to me. It gives that chance of bringing drawing into a dimensional thing,” he explains. “But the problem is, it’s like a used-car salesman. It shows you something that is perfectly shaded. But really, structurally, if you look at it, it has lost the beautiful design of the rhythm of the bones in [the character’s] arm. There’s such beauty in nature. And [a computer] will give you a cylinder instead of a rolling, twisting rhythm. [With] drawing, you put that into it.”

Tangled captured this more naturalistic style to better effect than previous Disney CG films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, but Keane saw plenty of room to push the new philosophy further. 2012’s Paperman became his sandbox. Keane worked as a character designer for director John Kahrs’ hybrid short, a missed-connection urban fairytale love story that takes place across a subway line and a city setting.

With moving hair, flurries of paper planes, and shifting lighting, Paperman achieved a combination of 2D expressiveness with the solidity that Keane coveted. The short was a boon for the creative team, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, but much like the Where the Wild Things Are project, it was just too expensive of a model to pursue — and Hollywood’s biggest award wasn’t enough to sway Disney.

“It is a great idea that is waiting for its day,” says Keane, calling it the best of both worlds. “It’s an expensive path. Today, if we approached it again, we would find an even faster, more economical way to do it. I would absolutely love to see it.”

a 1940s-era woman in black and white, holding a paper airplane in Paperman
Paperman
Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Just at the crest of Disney Animation’s second revival — and right before the studio laid off some of its seasoned traditional animators — Keane, much like some of the Disney characters he animated life into, found himself wondering if there was something else out there beyond the horizon.

And so, after a fulfilling career, Keane ventured off into the wilderness.

Building off of Keane’s work in Tangled, Disney Animation released Frozen in 2013, which became the company’s first animated film to earn over $1 billion. Meanwhile, Keane had settled in at his new job outside Hollywood, working alongside engineers at Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects Groups under Google. The tech world was a stark contrast from the Disney days. “There were no pencil sharpeners in that entire Silicon Valley,” Keane recalls. “We had to bring them up from L.A.!”

Keane jumped between a number of experimental projects afterward. After releasing Duet, he created a short film entwined with ballet dancer Marion Barbeau’s choreography for the Paris Opera. Keane’s work continued to push the boundaries of what traditional hand-drawn animation could look like when mixed with technology; Dear Basketball, for instance, involved the animator using his iPhone to take photos of graphite drawings and flip them into negatives, then take an eraser to the images to create highlights.

kobe bryant in dear basketball Image: Granity Studios/Believe Entertainment Group/Glen Keane Productions

Keane’s independent route ran in parallel to the homogenizing of Hollywood animation. While Disney tried its hand at traditional 2D features again with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, the warmly received films’ underperformance at the box office cemented the studio’s decision to fully transition to computer animation, where DreamWorks had already been. American animation in this time made rapid improvements in technology — from the bounce of Merida’s curls in Brave to the sweeping flight scenes of How to Train Your Dragon — but it all took on the same sheen, to the point where animation fanatics could seamlessly integrate different movies into the same scenes out of morbid curiosity.

Time — and an interest in bigger projects — led Keane back to the major studios, but not the ones from 40 years ago. After winning an Oscar, the artist set up shop at Netflix, turning a big, empty concrete space in Los Angeles into a bustling animation studio. He likens it to the excitement of moving out of one’s parents’ house at 18. At Netflix, he says, the possibilities for creativity are endless, because there are so many projects in the works with so many different creators at the helm of each one.

“It’s really important that you had that kind of freedom and don’t put so much weight on any one film,” he explains.

fei fei in a rocket ship in Over the Moon
Over the Moon
Image: Netflix

The directing animators at Disney who mentored Keane gave him insight into working across various teams, so it wasn’t an aspect of the job he was unfamiliar with. Getting a great scope over not just the characters of the film, but its message and tone, allowed Keane to work as both an artist and an entertainer. The duality of art and entertainment is one of the big reasons why Keane loves animation. Getting to fully bring both aspects of that to life in Over the Moon felt like a chance for Keane to joyfully go deeper into the story than he’d ever gone before.

Netflix tapped him for Over the Moon when it acquired the project as a co-production with Pearl Studio, and from the moment he read the script, he was drawn to the character at its core: Fei Fei, a young girl who builds a rocket to the moon, determined to prove that the Moon Goddess, Chang’e, is real.

a sketch of fei fei Image: Netflix

“Here’s this girl who’s incredibly intelligent, and yet has also hung on to this heart of belief that the impossible is possible. I just found that that kind of a character was so wonderful to bring to life, and I really believed in her,” says Keane. Fei Fei is now his favorite character that he’s ever animated (tied with Ariel, he clarifies).

Back in his Disney days, Keane’s mentor Ollie Johnston always told him to animate what a character was feeling instead of just what a character was doing. When it came to a whole movie, that extended from one character to the scope of the entire story and the message of the film, a challenge he embraced. But the biggest moment of self-doubt came when he got stuck.

Losing the story’s way happens in every movie, Keane says, so the team at Netflix did what he’d seen done before: The company brought in a consultant to explain why the plot wasn’t working. It’s a practice common across the industry, especially at big studios like Disney and Pixar, where half-animated movies may be entirely rewritten due to negative test reactions. Melissa Cobb, head of Netflix animation, asked him what he thought. Keane said he liked the direction he’d originally been going in. To his delight, Cobb told him to stay on his track: “that vote of confidence of a studio that’s really relying on the director to be true to themselves,” Keane says.

the glowing land of lunaria Image: Netflix

Over the Moon whisks its young heroine Fei Fei on a fantastical space adventure to the spirit-populated land of Lunaria. Fully realizing the moon proved to be a fulfilling creative challenge: Keane likened the transition from Earth to Lunaria to a modern-day Oz, except his team didn’t have the luxury of switching from black and white to Technicolor. Production designer Celine Desrumaux came up with the idea of everything on the moon emitting its own glow and light. This idea excited Keane, who decided to draw upon the works of surrealist painter Joan Miró — something that he’d wanted to do ever since randomly meeting the artist’s grandson on the streets of Paris, and falling in love with the artist’s spherical wonders. But it was the smallest moments, the ones that took him back to his character animator days, that sparked to him the most.

“We really aimed at animating the point of discovery, the moment when something clicks in [the character’s] eyes. Designing their eyes and eyebrows and expressions in their faces was so essential to communicate that,” says Keane. He notes a moment in the film in which Fei Fei sees her dad and his friend Mrs. Zhong reach for each other’s hands. They touch, and Keane cuts to his heroine’s face as she realizes the depth of their relationship. “It’s my favorite shot in the movie. And all it is is just Fei Fei’s eyes.”

Keane says he likely did more drawing for Over the Moon than for any Disney movie (“I think I drew over every shot”). It’s easier to communicate with drawings, he says, instead of giving vague instructions. Whether that meant finding the right look for Fei Fei’s hair, getting the curling and rolling of the mouths just right, or discovering what Keane calls “golden poses” — ones that feel sincere — it meant lots and lots of drawing.

Fei Fei and her mother
a watercolor-esque scene from Over the Moon Image: Netflix

“People make the mistake in animation that they think that animation is about a lot of moving drawings, or moving images,” says Keane. “But it’s really about an image that moves you. It could be just one. You find that one and you believe it.”

When it came to the narrative elements of Over the Moon, Keane says he felt immense pressure to get everything right for a “sacred” story. The legend of Chang’e is important to Chinese culture and is the basis for the Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important Chinese holiday after the Lunar New Year. Keane sought input from his Shanghai-based animation team in order to make the story more culturally authentic, right down to the little details. When Keane first saw a scene in which Fei Fei accepts a gift from her new potential stepmother, he knew that an American character wouldn’t hesitate to show her disdain, but the team told him that a girl raised in a Chinese home would never dare show “any inkling of disrespect.” The first version of the scene, however, swung too far in the other direction, with Fei Fei deeply bowing, which the animators said was a relic of their parents’ generation. The motion, they told Keane, would be a more subtle nod. They went back and forth, fine-tuning the details to more accurately reflect Chinese culture. Keane says he listened eagerly and learned a lot.

Even after nearly 50 years in the industry, Keane is still learning. He excitedly recounts various people he’s worked with on Over the Moon and everything he’s picked up from them — from other creatives across other industries, like fashion designer Guo Pei, who designed the costumes for the movie (“She didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Chinese, but we both drew”) to the next generation of animators, like Desrumaux. The latter is something Keane refers to as “reverse mentorship,” a key responsibility for the elders of any industry.

character mockups for Over the Moon
Some of Myers’ character designs.
Image: Netflix

While struggling with the character designs for Over the Moon (“everything looked like it was a Disney character”), Keane noticed a painting of Ariel on Facebook by character designer Brittany Myers. “It looked like my drawing, except it was done with paint,” he recounts. “But it had something else. It had some proportion to it. And I was like, Yeah, that looks like mine, but just better. It’s really cool.” He showed the drawing to his producer, who suggested hiring the artist. Myers came on to the project and did the character art for the movie. Keane was in awe, and says he learned so much just from working with her.

“The principles of animation that we’ve learned need to be passed on. But the formulas do not need to be passed on,” he explains. “You don’t want to keep doing things that look like everything that’s been done in the past. When you come across something in your artistic path that feels like it’s out of place — like, Where the heck did that come from? Lean into it.”

It takes courage, he admits, but places like Netflix — where, for now, creators aren’t expected to hold up any legacy, and the executives don’t put all the weight on any one film — will allow artists to break free of expectations and embrace the unknown.

What happens when traditions go out the window? “I have no idea!” Keane says, with the gleeful joy of a kid who has a blank page and bucket of crayons. “For me, it’s going to be about [staying] good, true, and beautiful.”