We had the privilege of sitting down to interview Glen Keane, an industry veteran, and animation pro, to chat about his most recent project Over the Moon, which recently received an Oscar Nomination for Best Animated Feature. Keane has been the leading character animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios for many years and has worked on some of the most well-known feature films in their roster, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Tangled, to name a few.

Moving from a hand-drawn, 2D animation culture to filmmaking with CG animations, in this second instalment of interviews, Keane chats with SyncSketch Co-Founder, Bernhard Haux, about his top tips for animators. You can read the first part of our interview with Glen Keane here.

Glen reveals his top 5 tips for Animators:

#1 Keep on learning
Never stop learning! Look to constantly better yourself and your talents by learning from your peers. Be sure to surround yourself with people whose strengths complement your weakness – how else can you expect to develop?

#2 Remember Rhythm, Tilt, and Twist
Convey the illusion of life by mastering pose design that embodies Rhythm, Tilt, and Twist. Study sculptures from the Renaissance and practice life drawing to improve your observation. For a more organic drawing, do the RTT check: contrapposto in hips and shoulders? Flat to camera or 3D form? Suggesting movement? Rejecting symmetry? Facial expression appealing?

#3 Get in Character
Live in the head of your character and animate what they are feeling, not what they are doing. The more you think like the character the more authentic and believable your performances and animations will be.

#4 Keep your audience on their toes
Linear and contrived is boring. Strive to create a sense of expectation with your audience and then deliver something totally unexpected. Whatever you’ve primed the viewer for, try surprising them as the best drama or comedy comes from plot twists and misdirection.

#5 Show your own vulnerability
Bring yourself in to make a genuine shot that evokes empathy. Take personal, identifiable experiences and use them to create expressive performances that connect to the audience. Your shot will show that true spark of life, be more meaningful, and most importantly, memorable.

Learn more about these golden tips for animators straight from Glen with the full video interview (along with the transcript) below:


Bernhard: How has working with your creative team grown you? And how have some key people helped you grow as an artist, what have they brought to your career?  

Glen: On this movie, I started practicing what I call ‘reverse mentorship’ – surrounding myself with younger people that are better than me at certain things that I want to grow in. Jin Kim has been one of those people for me since I first started working with him on Treasure Planet. You realize that this guy has a dimensional form in his head. I could rough out some vague version of a dimension like Silver’s robotic arm, and it was a reasonable facsimile. Then Jin would draw it and you’d see that it actually works. You place those different parts of that robotic arm on there, and he just saw it in his head. I am not that kind of guy. I feel it, but I don’t have a clear image of it in my mind. If I can lean on somebody that has a specific gift, it frees me up to use what I’m particularly good at. For example, when I was designing the characters, Fei Fei and the rest, it just had a very Disney feel. Everything I’ve done has been Disney, so it’s in me, but it wasn’t right for this purpose. I was on Facebook and there was this drawing of Ariel and it was drawn using Photoshop. I said, “oh that’s my drawing.” But it wasn’t my drawing – it was better than mine. It was drawn by a young girl named Brittany Myers. There was something about the proportions and the colors she used. Gennie Rim heard me talking about this discovery and said we should hire her, so we did! It was Jin, Brittany, and myself, this little triangle that worked on all of the characters together, working also with Leo Sanchez in Spain doing modeling, but it was Jin that I had really developed a relationship with. These were people that I could really trust. They knew that it was more important for your design to be based on observation rather than formulas from the past. That’s the foundation for everything that I’ve learned and always want to do. We were doing Asian faces, so Jin could just look at himself and I could study it and see what is unique about Asian design. 

Bernhard: The character design, to me, was one of the most striking aspects of the film and how far it goes beyond what we’ve seen. In Western design, we’re not used to designing Asian faces, but it really was a big leap and it showed that there was a lot of thought, inspiration, and research invested

Glen: It was very important to work with our team in China. Jin built as much of an Asian influence on the animation team as possible, and female leaders, who would bring that sensitivity. My production designer had just backpacked all the way through China too – she was another person who became a reverse mentor for a sense of color. I learned a lot.

Bernhard: Disney struggled for a bit to land on their ‘spark’ as they moved into CG animation, but I think it came back with Tangled. Tangled was the first time I saw appeal back in those movies for what people loved about the Disney movies. You were very heavily involved in this movie – how did you perceive the transition and what did you add to the review process to really make sure that Disney found its aesthetic again?

Glen: It first hit me culturally. Every studio has a culture, and Disney’s is a hand-drawn culture that goes deep. The obvious benefits of computer animation were coming into the studio, but it hadn’t entered into how the animators were bringing everything that they’d learned into their work. So there was quite a division. The consensus was that computers could be used for inanimate objects but living beings were hand-drawn. I had presented to Michael Eisner the possibility of doing a movie on Rapunzel. I had a bunch of drawings on the wall and he was convinced we needed to make the movie, but he wanted to do it all in CG. I argued that if he loved the drawings then we wouldn’t be able to do it in CG, but he was certain that there would be a way to take everything we loved about these hand-drawn animations and bring it into CG. I just thought it was a naive comment, and yet so pure and childlike. I eventually agreed, so the first thing I did was host a retreat called ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, where I brought people together who were writing code working on the computer animation, but also hand-drawn artists and painters at the Huntington Library. We spent a day just talking about what an ideal world would look like if there were no technical limitations. We realized that everybody was united in wanting to create believable worlds and characters. 

From that point, we started to work on how we were going to design a movie with Rapunzel. In doing that, I found the biggest challenge was identifying problems. Looking at the computer animation you could tell that something was missing, but it wasn’t enough to say “I want it to have more appeal” or “I want it to feel more organic.” For the guy that’s going to be writing code or figuring out the modeling on the face and the rigging underneath, those directions mean nothing. We had to be very specific about what our instructions really meant, and so I started to imagine the head like it was a head on Mount Rushmore and that I was in a helicopter. I would literally imagine myself in a helicopter coming in closer and closer until I would envision the thickness of the upper and lower eyelid, for example. It’s not just a line, it’s chiseled out. Then the plane goes down and meets the cheek and the way the cheek rolls. That wonderful piece of geometry has got to animate; we’ve got to push and squeeze that eye. 

We started talking about all of these tiny little details in terms of flying in on a helicopter up at this gigantic Mount Rushmore-like sculpture in our minds. Nothing is too tiny and delicate; they’re big geometric shapes. As I would draw, John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis would ask why, when I drew Rapunzel, I’d draw her looking at something in a direction, and why I’d always use specific lines for the eyelashes when drawing her looking that way. The eyelashes were drawn to be throwing a look, that way you could see it better. John said we could create that geometry on Rapunzel’s eyes so that there are directional aspects, like a little awning. Everything that you could draw had an equivalent in CG and that really just opened up a new world to me. We had the capacity to do a lot of that kind of thing in Tangled, but we did a lot more of it in Over the Moon. This is something that I want us to keep moving forward.  

Bernhard: Those little tweaks and the organic feel of the characters took them from being animated shells to feeling warm. What are some other things you’ve learned of adding to those characters that create appeal?

Glen: When I was taught by Eric Larson, you’d go into his office and he would take a look at your animation. He wouldn’t redraw everything in it, but he would draw diagrams and it was always about rhythm. He would say three things: tilt, rhythm, and twist. There’s something in our minds that encourages us to want to make everything symmetrical – the human brain is always trying to bring back symmetry. We had nearly 120 animators towards the end, so there was never any time to go over each animation. As a result, we heavily relied on diagrams on Syncsketch. I would go over one shot after another and do little gestural drawings and it was often about tilt, rhythm, and twist. Everybody at Sony Imageworks knows those three words, I repeated them a thousand times. But although everybody knows it oftentimes it doesn’t show up in their work. You think you’re doing it, but you’re not. It’s either not enough or too much. It’s largely about learning to be subtle and using these subtleties to build into the character. It was as if we had built this Lamborghini but they were just driving around in town at 35mph. 

My favorite shot in the film is a shot where Fei Fei meets Mrs. Zhong, the woman that eventually becomes her mother. She wasn’t meant to be in the kitchen, and there’s Dad with this other lady. Mrs. Zhong dropped some red dates on the ground and everybody’s kneeling, picking up the dates. Fei Fei wasn’t aware of the nature of the relationship prior to this moment, but she sees a look between Mrs. Zhong and her dad. You see this arresting moment where everything registers. We made sure to plant that in the audience. The next shot is Mrs. Zhong holding the ball, then Dad holds her hand for a little too long. You cut to Fei Fei and in this shot, her world turns upside down. It’s the most cataclysmic moment in the movie, but you can’t move her. It’s the most wonderful example of taking that Lamborghini out and going 180 mph without even moving much at all. Fei Fei’s eyes get wider as she realizes it, and the mouth lowers slightly, using those little wonderful rolling corners that we’ve designed. Then Emma, one of our animators, rigs it up to the implications of what she’s just seen. It goes a step farther than, “oh no”, and into, “Dad is falling in love with somebody that’s not my mom”. Her world turns upside down and you can see it in just these little eyebrow muscles that we put in there, and a little more downturn of the corners of the mouth. That shot was so beautiful. When I saw it I thought, OK, we are going to succeed in this movie.  

Bernhard: Is there anything you do to prepare for reviews when you get all sorts of shots presented to you that allow you to get the best feedback at any given moment on the specific moment for the animation?

Glen: We would have it in context. At the beginning of the pandemic it was really difficult, all of a sudden everybody left the building and we all went to our homes. I came up to Lake Arrowhead and my Internet speed was slow so talking to people virtually they would freeze just at the point of talking about something important. I had my iPad which had SyncSketch and I could take a look at the shots. I could prepare before meetings and spend time before them going over the shots so that I was up to speed and knew what I was talking about. In the meetings I’d really make the most of those face-to-face moments – you did not want to be fumbling or wasting time. There had to be really clear communications because you might have 30 seconds or a minute, maybe five minutes on a big, complicated, important moment in the film, and never more than that. So Sacha Kapijimpanga, John Kahrs, and I would go over the shots, helping each other out. Nobody has everything in their head, so it was incredibly helpful. My editor, Edie Ichioka, was always available. And I had a lot of voices in my ear and learned not to rely totally on me. 

Bernhard: Can you give a handful of tips of what you are always looking for in shots and the current themes you’ve observed that can help animators improve their shots. What are the five types of things you can distill to help people? 

Glen: What I think is really wonderful is when you have the audience expecting something. That gives you power. All the shots leading up to this particular shot have built expectations in the audience. That’s wonderful, because now whatever it is that they’re expecting you know to not deliver that. You always surprise them in some way. It could be something of a similar vein, but delivered in a way that they never expected. I was always looking for that little surprise that would make somebody laugh. Comedy is in surprise. Sometimes it’s in your storyboarding, too. For instance, Fei Fei is going to build this rocket, and the song ‘Rocket to the Moon’ is playing, and it’s going to take off. As soon as I got to that in the storyboarding, I knew that we could not have this rocket take off. We had to go backward. At that point, you can start to play with it, like making a snail going faster. It just gives you everything to start to have fun. 

Bernhard: What are the things that you keep when you review? What are the things that you as a director are looking for? 

Glen: Often what I keep is the vulnerability of the angle – I want to see that in the shot. That means taking something personal, something you’ve experienced, something that when you look at it, you immediately identify with. It’s the identifiability. And the identifiability happens when an animator puts themself in the shot and reveals something personal. Those are the shots that are the most wonderful. It’s the reason that we even get into animation, taking our own personal life and putting it into the characters that we’re animating with that makes all the difference.

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