We had the privilege of sitting down with industry veteran and animation legend, Glen Keane, to chat about his most recent Academy Award-nominated project Over the Moon. Keane has been the leading character animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios for 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. 

In this first of two interviews, Keane takes a seat with SyncSketch Co-Founders, Bernhard and Philip and invites us into his experience co-directing Netflix’s recent animated feature film Over the Moon.

Glen Keane takes a deep dive into ‘Over the Moon’

An advocate for animating what the character thinks over animating what the character does, Keane was drawn to Over the Moon on account of the fascinating mind of the lead character, Fei Fei. Un-toeing the line between reality and fantasy, Over the Moon’s writer, Audrey Wells, was clear on her convictions about the story that was to be told. Wanting the story to illustrate the path to growth and freedom that pain and sadness leads you to, a moral she wished to communicate to her daughter after her passing, Keane was commissioned to direct a film with a soul in tribute to her.

His body of work lends itself to a deep sense of human connection, an ingredient his films are renowned for. In the interview, Keane discusses communicating the essence of the characters to his team in Over the Moon Keane by hosting regular lectures to share his philosophy of animation, pushing for racially authentic detail in the rigging of characters, and referring to ‘golden poses’– key gestures and movements to ground the animations.

He expands more on creating a spark and authenticity, as well as identifying 2d animations and CG animations as different mediums in their own right. Watch the full video (as well as the transcript) below:


Bernhard: How did you come across the story of Over the Moon? How was this story pitched to you?

Glen: What I love to do is draw. Syncsketch has actually really helped me be able to move into the future of animation. Drawing is such a direct link to how you feel, what you are imagining. It’s the connection I have to when I was a kid – creativity and imagination. I gave a talk at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival called Thinking Like a Child in 2017, and it was all about everything I love – creativity, art, imagination, and creating characters that are like kids that believe in the impossible. That spark gives you longevity in your career. 

Whilst talking about “that spark”, in the audience was Melissa Cobb, head of Netflix animation, and Alan Chow, who at the time was head of Pearl Studios. They both looked at each other and said, “he’s got to direct this movie.” In Over the Moon, there’s a character, Fei Fei, that is the epitome of believing the impossible is possible, very much like Ariel and other characters I’ve been drawn to. After the talk, they approached me and I read the script. There was just something about that girl that made me really want to animate her. For me it’s about asking the question, “can I live in the head of that character?”. Ollie Johnston used to say, “don’t animate what the character’s doing, animate what the character’s thinking”. It’s the same thing that I found was the key to animating Dear Basketball. I told Kobe, you’ve got the worst basketball player on Earth animating you. And he said, “oh, that’s good, because everything you’re going to learn about basketball is through me.” So I watched all of his top plays on YouTube, and we sat next to each other and I said, OK, I can’t animate you unless I know what’s going through your head. I wish I could have sat down with Fei Fei and talked to her so she could tell me what she was feeling. But there, I actually had the chance to sit and talk to the living, animated character. So he went through every moment of his career on these incredible moments and plays that he’d performed and remembered what he was feeling and thinking in each moment. And that’s what I animated. 

Reading the script for Over the Moon, I saw in Fei Fei this girl who was super smart because she knew about technology and math and science, which came from her father’s side. And then the other half of her was her mom. She believed there was a goddess that lived on the dark side of the moon and believed she could see what other people couldn’t see. And I just thought, that’s such a blend of everything I love in a character. I want to animate this character where you’re going to see these moments of discovery in her eyes. We’re going to animate that little spark of realization. All the way through the movie that’s what I was really connecting with when working with the animators and storyboarding, making those moments of discovery, of realization, to really carry the movie all the way through. I think it’s the key to animating characters that people connect with. 

Bernhard: Audrey Wells, who wrote the story, passed away in 2018. How did her passing affect you as the filmmaker and director? 

Glen: When somebody really believes in what they are telling you, you feel it. They’re not just doing a job, they’re not just doing something to entertain, they really have conviction. And reading the script, I felt that. Audrey knew she would not live to see this movie, but she knew that this movie was going to be a message for her daughter when she was gone, about how to move past the pain of losing somebody you love. That just stayed with me every page of that script. 

At one point I was reading it and I got to the place where Chang’e, the goddess, finds herself trapped in the chamber of exquisite sadness. And in the script, when you read those words, ‘the chamber of exquisite sadness’, you don’t just keep on reading. You have to stop and ask… What? There are no visuals at this point to accompany these words. If there was nothing else after those words, I would not have known how to finish this movie. But it said that the sadness and the pain that you are going through is the path to really becoming free and better, something more wonderful on the other side of the pain. So much about the pandemic and everything that we’re going through, too – we all wish we could go back. There’s one point where Fei Fei says, “I just want to go back to the way things were.” But we don’t go back. We go forward. And in this going forward, we face those struggles. Audrey had really planted that, and she had an incredible belief in this movie.

I remember just a couple of months before she passed away we were sitting on the couch in my office and I was talking about The Wizard of Oz because there is a lot of Wizard of Oz-type material in this movie. I talked about Fei Fei’s journey to the dark side of the moon and meeting this goddess, and it being like a dream for her, and she said, “no it isn’t”. I asked what she meant and she said, “Fei Fei really builds a rocket and really goes and sees this goddess who is on the dark side of the moon.” I’d been thinking more of Dorothy going to Oz and coming back, but it’s obviously a dream. “No it wasn’t,” she said. She had this fiery look in her eyes like I really had to believe in this. She and I both agreed that we would stay on a razor’s edge of ‘did this happen?’ or ‘didn’t it happen?’. I put enough clues on either side, so you could decide if you wanted to make the journey a more symbolic thing, or you can take it as something that really did happen. The reason Audrey was so adamant was that the message had to be credible and believable for her daughter. 

Bernhard: I felt this was very connected to how a child might imagine things. When she fell on the bed and got under the blankets I thought that this was the moment we’d come back to at some point – the story from this point on felt like a dream state. 

Glen: Kids’ imaginations are so powerful. Reading the script at the point when Fei Fei is building the rocket and it’s taking off I thought, wait a second, I’ve lived this. I remember when I was seven years old, I had a bunch of my friends over for my birthday and my dad walked into the living room where we were. He said, “all right, I have a surprise for you. I have a friend from NASA and they have built a rocket ship. It’s an experimental one, so it’s sitting in the backyard. And if you’d like to, I can take each of you on a small ride, one by one. It’s top-secret, so I’ll have to blindfold you. You can’t go out and see it, but I’ll give you a ride on it.” So one by one, we were blindfolded and you could hear ground control. Then you climbed up into the ‘rocket ship’, you’re strapped in and there’s a countdown. My dad had said, “it’s going to be a quick little ride because we’ve got to go out around the Arizona desert and come back so everybody can have a ride on here.” So you’re in the rocket, the countdown is going and finally, the rocket is lifting up into the air and you’re flying around. We went past the lake and it was an open-air cockpit. I remember because you could feel the wind blowing in your face and the water splashing. And finally, we come back down, we land, and seat belts are taken off, you’re stepping out of the cockpit and then your blindfold is removed. And there’s my mom and my dad on either side of the chair with the shortwave radio. The amazing thing was that you were not disappointed when the blindfold was removed even though it had all taken place in your head. This is what we get to do. I get to take everybody on a ride that they’re going to believe is real. And that’s what the motive was. 

Bernhard: One theme that I see in your movies is true human connection. Even the animation you’ve done with Disney on Tarzan and Jane, the gaze and intensity they have with each other, you bring that into the movie. Even thinking about Kobe Bryant, the film was originally a tribute to basketball but it turned out to be a lasting tribute to Kobe as an individual. Every single piece you touch has this deep emotional human truth to it. How do you work that into your animation? How do you work with a team and communicate that? 

Glen: We used a studio up in Vancouver, Sony Imageworks. Sacha Kapijimpanga was the head of this animation team, and I knew that it was going to be key that they understood what was most important to me because I was going to be driving them to deliver that again and again. The soul of the character is real. These are not impulses coming out of the character, you can feel it. It comes from somewhere deep inside and that has to be in the design of the character. 

This is why I really pushed hard on things like the authenticity of Fei Fei’s Asian eyes. What is the rigging underneath the skin? Why is it going to be so important to be able to animate this little hidden area right here above the nostrils that need to be able to build up as she wrinkles her nose? Or how the corners of the mouth are not pinched but curved and rolled in a beautiful way. And so many tiny little details I was going to really push on. So we gave lectures to the team regularly and I just shared my philosophy of animation. I was going to do a lot of drawing for them over the top of the animation and halfway through I asked John Kahrs to come and join me and co-direct. John is left-handed and I’m right-handed, so some poor animators had both John and I drawing on the scene, drawing over the top of their animation at the same time. 

The thing that really made the movie work came from Sacha Kapijimpanga. I had suggested that we find an actress that we could use to do the acting to kind of create one version of Fei Fei, to bind all of those shots together. And he said, “Well, Glenn, can we just not do that?”. OK, well, what’s your alternative? He said, “Well, I really want everybody to shoot their own live-action of themselves.” For one thing, everyone becomes more invested. If they discover something inside – and it’ll come out in some unique way, something from their past – that’s what they will animate. A personal experience. And I just thought, that is the best reason to do that. And so every animator filmed themselves. We could put together a live-action version of this movie and it would be so entertaining. But it was really important, I think, for that personal experience of each person to animate themselves in that character. 

Bernhard: Did you do any sort of animation on your own for the original Fei Fei? Did that help translate the essence to them as a sort of stake in the ground of what you would like to do?

Glen: Well, I would do what I call ‘golden poses’ to build around a pose that communicates ‘the thing’ with a live action reference. There’s always way too much of it, and you have to go through and condense it down and pick out those important moments. I still think in terms of golden poses, which is what I was taught, but there’s always some little thing – a head tilt, a gesture, a roll, a shoulder move – that’s a sparkle and I would point to those things. We tried to edit it without doing any drawing, though on the Cintiq I was able to animate really quick gestural speed drawings. Sometimes I could animate a whole little section of Gobe, then you could just play it and it might take three minutes to do it on screen. We were moving by so fast we didn’t really have time to do a lot of animation except in very specific moments. I did a lot of lectures and drawings just on how her attitude would be, how we could communicate her impulses and attitudes. The only animation that I really got to do myself was of Chang’e and the scarf animation. That was a joy for me to be able to animate – I knew right from the beginning that I was going to hang on to that animation. Of course, it was the last thing. I’m such a procrastinator. I kept thinking about it and finally, it was the very last shot cut into the movie. 

Bernhard: You’ve gone from your time at Disney to working with John Lasseter on Where The Wild Things Are, to the transition into newer technologies with your work on Tangled. Over the last 30, 40 years, technology has really made huge leaps. The storytelling is still the same, but how people create the visuals is very different. With regard to hand animation, I felt it was very hard work to do key poses. With some complex animations in 3D animation, we have the ability to put things on top of an existing animation later. Ultimately, sometimes turning out richer than what you could have done in that same time in 2D animation. Do you agree with that? Do you feel that 3D can lend itself to making changes that you otherwise couldn’t have fit into the traditional animation workflow, or that it adds some texture to some of these moments? In other words, do you feel like iterating and adding the textures is easier with the state of technology and 3D animation? 

Glen: You’re talking about two different mediums. It’s like three steps. I think of animation as sculptural drawing, and that’s hand drawn. But sculpture would be the first step. You look at a sculpture of Michelangelo or Bernini and there’s so much information though it’s not moving. But it could be moving. There’s a soul and there’s life, there’s an X. You look at The Burghers of Calais by Rodin and there’s just so much emotion. Anybody looking at that would never say, “it’s too bad that they can’t be moving,” because he’s captured this hot fire of life in that moment. So then we go to hand-drawn. Now, hand-drawn is not live action. Hand drawn is a step beyond the sculptural drawing, but it’s simplified. In that kind of drawing, especially expressive drawing, I’m not talking about cleanup, I’m talking about this graphite energy. I describe drawing as the line that you make is like a seismograph of your soul. There’s something inherent in that. And I think that you can communicate an enormous amount in a drawing without a lot of extra movement – it’s just infused in the line. That’s the power of drawing. So what happens when we go CG? If you did that same pose without that line, it dies. Because, now, you’ve moved further away from the sculpted to the animated. Now it’s even closer to reality and there are so many more sensors that are waiting to pick up the emotions and you need to be able to put that in there. These tiny little extra movements were completed all the way throughout Over the Moon. If you did all of those in hand-drawn, I’m not sure it would have worked as well. It would become busy, but there’s something about CG that gives it this ability to be that subtle and it doesn’t suddenly upstage a powerful emotional pose. So I do look at them as completely different things and approach it that way, though I love every one of those mediums.

For more insights from industry heavyweight Glen Keane be sure to read part 2 of the interview which is coming soon.