Sunday, April 22, 2012

Animation is the Greatest Art Form - Glen Keane

Glen Keane didn't waste any time before offering a personal statement that defused the often debated merits of the transition from traditional, hand drawn animation to computer generated imagery. "The computer has forced me to become a better artist."

In town to add the Tex Avery Award to his trophy case (he was awarded an Annie in 1992 and the Winsor McCay lifetime achievement award in 2007) Glen spent the evening of 19 April 2012 giving a presentation, taking audience questions, and tirelessly participating in a fan meet-and-greet at the Dallas offices of Reel FX for an estimated 200-300 people.

How has the computer forced him to become a better artist? First, use of the computer has made possible levels of animation detail that previously would have been impractical to do by hand. Therefore, heretofore untried effects have to be first drawn by hand. Second, because computers are still rather finicky when it comes to animation (as demonstrated by a blooper reel he showed) it's important to properly train and demonstrate hand-drawn works to the computer jockeys (i.e. you only truly understand something when you can teach it.)

Glen surprised the animation world recently with his retirement from Disney after 37 years during which he animated for The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon, The Fox and the Hound, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, and The Rescuers Down Under. As supervising animator he contributed to Aladdin, Beauty and The Beast, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Treasure Planet, and Tangled.

I inferred from something he said that a particular segment of animation of the Colors of the Wind sequence from Pocahontas was part of the motivation for parting ways with Disney. Glen said that it was the only time in his career that he animated a scene with charcoals instead of ink and paint and he found the results not only perfect for the scene but an energizing break with Disney's traditional way of animating. In his retirement letter he said that animation had "endless new territories to explore" and I thought this must be one of them. Glen called it "a new vision for hand drawn animation" and it freed him from being bound to the Disney tradition of animation.

Screen grab of a frame from the Colors of the Wind sequence from Pocohontas.
I didn't take that statement about Disney to be damning. He said that he felt Disney's approach to animation had "Once upon a time..." at its core. On the other hand, he felt that Pixar's core premise was "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

Glen seems to be a perfectly delightful, humorous, family-oriented man. He comes from an artistic family - his father, Bill Keane, drew the Family Circus cartoon for decades. (Interesting side note: Bill Keane insisted vehemently that he was a cartoonist, not an artist. But he deemed his son a true artist.) Just as father drew inspiration from son for his work, Glen readily admits to using his own family members as inspiration for his characters. While in one breath he cites his wife's "girl next door" looks as inspiration for Ariel from The Little Mermaid, he impishly cites her feet as inspiration for Tarzan's. Tangled's Rapunsel was based on his daughter who is now an artist herself.

Being in the presence of a great artist did not make me a better photographer.
Glen's presentation mixed video clips of his work (completed scenes, test shots of works in progress, and behind the scenes video that revealed, among other things, that he made embarrassingly funny faces while drawing), drawings, funny stories, live drawing of Ariel, the Beast, and Tarzan, and insights into his way of animating.
  • Be vulnerable. When you express yourself honestly and fully through your characters it makes you vulnerable and exposes you the world. But it makes the characters real.
  • Sharing is important. Learn from others, but pass that information along to still others. Benefits will return to you tenfold.
  • Animation is sculptural drawing. His inspiration for the Beast came from a visit to a sculpture gallery at a local museum where finally all the animal studies he'd been working on came together in his mind.
  • Don't worry about complexity. There's no such thing as complexity, just truth.
  • Your characters must believe that the impossible is possible. That belief enhances the credibility of the story. (This reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's advice to writers which says that every character should want something.)
One thing that was also clear in his talk was the influence that Ollie Johnson, the legendary animator and one of Disney's "Nine Old Men," had on Glen's career. Ollie's was the one name that kept coming up and Glen even included a photo of the last note (a sticky note) that Ollie sent him. I found this notable because I expected to hear something of Marc Davis, another Disney legend who masterfully animated classic female characters such as Cinderella, Alice, Tinkerbell, Maleficent, and Cruella de Vil. (I suppose that instead of expectation it was just hope - hope that I'd hear about influence or at least a comparison of Davis' and Keane's female characters.)

When asked to name his favorite character, Glen revealed it to be Tarzan. As a boy Glen had either wanted to be an artist or play football. As an artist, he loved Tarzan's masculinity and his athletic prowess as he moved through the jungle. Glen was living in Paris while working on Tarzan. His isolation and frustration at learning a new language helped him understand the problems Tarzan faced by trying to bridge two cultures.

Glen referred several times to a quote of Michaelangelos' about drawing, sometimes substituting the word "animation" for drawing. After reading it I'm certain you see why Glen Keane believes that animation is the greatest art form.

"The science of design, or of line-drawing, if you like to use this term, is the source and very essence of painting, sculpture, architecture... Sometimes... it seems to me that... all the works of the human brain and hand are either design itself or a branch of that art." ~Michaelangelo

Added 18 May 2012: Here's a link to the event announcement on Reel FX's website: An Evening with Glen Keane

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