One of the most influential artists working in the medium of animation over the last half-century, Glen Keane brought his long-awaited debut feature to the screen just last fall. That film—the musical fantasy Over the Moon—certainly was worth the wait.
Bringing splendid life to both modern-day China and a fantastical realm known as Lunaria, Over the Moon centers on Fei Fei, a 14-year-old Chinese girl who has long been told the legend of the Moon goddess Chang’e. While struggling to cope with the loss of her mother, the teenager decides to journey into space to prove that the immortal being is real. Produced by Pearl Studio and Netflix Animation, from a script by the late Audrey Wells, the animated feature is the first distributed by a major Hollywood studio to center on an entirely Asian cast.
Spending 38 years at Walt Disney Animation Studios—where he illustrated such classic characters as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin—Keane initially looked to direct his first feature over a decade ago, that being the Oscar-nominated Tangled.
Ultimately, though, this did not come to pass. Despite Keane’s storied history with Disney, the next stage of his creative evolution—as a director with an animator’s eye—would only start to unfold, following his exit from the studio.
After starting up his own company in 2012, the artist got behind the camera on animated short Dear Basketball, which saw the late Kobe Bryant reflecting on his retirement from the sport. With this project, he won his first Oscar—and while Over the Moon was overlooked by the Academy on its shortlist for Best Original Song, the imaginative adventure pic will likely place him in the Best Animated Feature race for the very first time.
Below, Keane reflects on his experience with Tangled, the health emergency that presaged his departure from Disney, bringing the best of 2D and 3D mediums together with Over the Moon, and the “Mount Everest”-type passion project he hopes to take on next.
DEADLINE: At one point, you were looking to make your feature debut with Tangled. What happened there? And why has it taken so long for you to come around to directing features?
GLEN KEANE: Well, the road into animation is always through a character, [where] I want to live in their skin. I want to be them; I want to experience all that they’re going through. That’s very much who I am. So, as long as there was a project that I couldn’t say no to, I was just going to keep doing those characters, and let the director get [the film] across the goal line.
Now, on [Tangled], I’m the guy that has to have that map, and fortunately, I had a really good map. With Rapunzel, there was something about that girl that I just found absolutely fascinating, this irrepressible spirit—and even her hair is a symbol of this spirit. You can trap her in a tower, but the hair is going to keep growing, and I’ve always felt like the hair of a character symbolizes the challenges. I mean, Fei Fei certainly is the same, with the chaos cut that she gives herself.
There was nothing else at that point, at Disney, that was appealing to me. So, I thought, “All right, well then I’m just going to propose a film that I would want to animate, and I’ll direct and animate that character.” It was going to be hand drawn.
Then, when I presented that to [The Walt Disney Company’s former Chairman and CEO] Michael Eisner, he said, “That’s really great. I love this idea. But Glen, we’ve got to do it in CG.” And I said, “Well, Michael, do you like all the drawings on the wall?” Because I had done maybe a hundred different drawings. And he said, “I love them.” I said, “Well, you can’t do that in CG. You just can’t get that organic, wonderful, hand-drawn feeling to it.” And he said, “Well, Glen, there’s got to be a way you can take everything you love in hand-drawn and bring it into CG.” I thought that was such a naïve statement, but a childlike, pure one, and I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
So, I started to direct it, trying to find a way to bring everything I loved about hand-drawn into that character. Then, at a certain point in 2008, Disney had gone through so any management changes, and we kept changing the story, and I think the stress of all of that resulted in a heart attack. So, I backed out of directing it and instead focused on animation, designing characters and working closely with John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis, two other supervising animators who loved hand-drawn, and we did that film.
After that though, I just felt like, “In animation, there’s something else waiting for me, but I don’t know quite what it is. And if I stay at Disney, I’m not going to find it.” So, I left, and now [Over the Moon] is the first opportunity as a feature.
DEADLINE: How did you come to direct this feature? What about the story resonated with you?
KEANE: I didn’t know anything about this project until I was in Annecy, doing a talk—which was, in a funny way, me auditioning for the movie. [I had] in the audience [producers] Peilin [Chao] and Melissa Cobb, with a script in their hand. Not knowing that they wanted me to do the movie, I just talked about everything I loved about animation. It was a talk called “Thinking Like a Child,” and I just went on and on about the characters that I relate to the most, characters that have this burning desire for the impossible.
They realized that that was the script they had in their hands, and they said, “He’s got to direct this movie.” So afterwards, they approached [producer] Gennie Rim and myself and asked if we’d look at the script, and in reading it, I just felt like, “I really connect with this girl. I believe that she truly has to do something impossible to deal with her situation.”
Building a rocket to the moon seemed like a crazy idea. I did have my doubts about, was I going to actually buy into the credibility of this? Because Walt Disney was always talking about “the plausible impossible.” So, she builds this rocket and I’m reading the script, and as the rocket is taking off, I’m thinking, “If this gets to the moon, I’m not in. A 13-year-old girl just can’t build a rocket to the moon.”
Then, as it’s going up, something goes wrong. Chin happens to be in there, and it starts to fall back, and she’s going to die—and suddenly now, all of those intellectual arguments are gone. Now, emotionally, you’ve got to save this girl, and as soon as that happened, I thought, “I’m in. I love the way Audrey is creating an impossible story, but making me want it to be real.” I think that was such a key thing.
DEADLINE: What’s your take on Hollywood studios’ preference today for CG animation? Is it motivated purely by financial considerations?
KEANE: Well, it’s not cheaper, so it’s not really a financial thing that way. But I do believe that it is a financial decision because successful films beget more films like them. On that first conversation I had with Michael, the reason he wanted to be in CG was not because he loves CG, but because Shrek had made such a huge impact—and that was going to be the future, in his mind.
But I completely believe that hand-drawn is a very viable way, and I intend to do that. Matter of fact, on this movie, Peilin said, “Well, Glen, we could do it any way you want. You can do it hand-drawn or CG.” And that was a hard choice until I started to think about the uniqueness of this film, particularly about the Wizard of Oz-ness about it, and what was going to be the equivalent of the black-and-white to Technicolor. For this movie, I gave [production designer] Celine Desrumaux the cover from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, with the white light exploding into rainbow colors, and I thought, “Okay, so Earth is going to be reflected light. The Moon, in Lunaria, it’s going to be sourced light. Everything has got to be glowing. This really needs to be CG.” There’s no way I think we could have ever had that kind of an impact with a hand-drawn feel.
DEADLINE: Still, you managed to incorporate hand-drawn elements into the film, in one key moment.
KEANE: That was done in a very traditional way. I was like, “Okay, this is for me. I’m going to animate this,” and I did it on my animation desk with paper. We scanned it in and then mapped that onto a CG scarf, but that was completely traditional, very much like Dear Basketball.
DEADLINE: Obviously, with Over the Moon, you were telling a story that is not your own. How, then, did you ensure authenticity in your depiction of Chinese culture?
KEANE: Gennie Rim was, from the start, adamant to bring as many Asian voices onto the film as possible, not just for the voice talent, but also for the animators—and female Asian animators was a great goal for us. So many of the most wonderful shots in the movie were done by women that knew the deep roots of Fei Fei’s family life—and food was so, so important.
The first meeting I had with the artists in Shanghai, I wanted to know what their path to animation was, and I was expecting art schools. And instead, the first person said, “Well, I’m from a northern province in China, and our favorite noodle is a flat, long noodle.” So, she didn’t even talk about her art training, but it was the food. And then the second one talked about a different shaped noodle from a southern area and I thought, “I’m on another planet here. This conversation would never happen in Hollywood.” But food, to them, was more important than their artistic training. It was connected to family, and their roots to who they were.
DEADLINE: What other challenges did you face in making the film?
KEANE: For one thing, I had not worked with this animation team up at Sony [Pictures Imageworks] before. The comfortable saddle on a film for me is from the standpoint of animation, and if that’s not going well, I’m really going to have a hard time.
At the beginning, I had suggested that we hire an actress that we could film. She would be like Fei Fei throughout the movie, so that there would be a consistency. Because that’s what I did with Ariel [on The Little Mermaid]. And Sacha Kapijimpanga—who was the head of the group at Sony—in the most respectful way, just said, “Glen, could we not do that, and just let each animator film themselves?”
I said, “Well, don’t you lose that [cohesiveness that you get with] one person?” And he said, “Yeah, you would lose that. But what you will gain is that each animator will really feel what Fei Fei’s going through, or whatever character. And I think that they will live in that skin that much more authentically.” And I just thought, “Man, what a great answer. That’s exactly what we need to do.” Given authenticity of feeling it, those animators put everything they had into it. We worked so hard at designing the character, building all of the rigging under the skin, so that you could deliver the subtlety of performance.
A favorite scene that really points to all of that work that we did under the hood is the scene where Fei Fei sees Dad picking up the red dates that Mrs. Zhong dropped there. They both kneel down and Fei Fei’s picking them up, and she looks up and sees Dad’s hand touch Mrs. Zhong’s hand, and they both linger. You cut to Fei Fei, and in this shot, nothing happens. She doesn’t move, but her world turns upside down, so it’s a dramatic moment. [We] just do that with her eyes.
Emma Shih, one of those incredible animators, she animates this beautiful little widening of the eyes, and then the brows push together, and there’s horror like, “What is going on?” And then, she ratcheted up to this other level where you can feel Fei Fei’s stomach muscles go, “Ugh!” So, there’s just two phases to that shot, and they accomplished it perfectly. Every time I see that shot—and there’s a number of places in the film where that kind of impact is attained—I’m so thankful that we did it in CG because that kind of performance is very, very difficult to control in line [animation].
DEADLINE: What has your takeaway been, in seeing both Dear Basketball and Over the Moon be so well received?
KEANE: They’re both very similar, in the sense that I feel like everything that I wanted each of those two films to be, they are. I’m so satisfied that I feel like it’s a reflection of me, the kind of person I am, working in collaboration with the team of people who gathered around me to help me tell that story, that I never could have done it without. That feels very fulfilling to me.
I’ve never lost my love for animating. I drew more on this movie than I ever have, on any film in the past—even the hand-drawn films, like Beauty and the Beast. Every frame of this movie, there’s drawings of mine over the top of whatever it is—the layout, the acting choices.
So, I feel like both movies are very much an expression of what Michelangelo said, and I think about Michelangelo because I aspire to be an artist. I mean, my dad one time said, “Glen, I’m a cartoonist”—and he was—“you’re an artist.” I was just a little kid, and that was like being knighted.
But Michelangelo said, “Design—or, as it is called by another name, drawing—is the root and fountainhead and substance of all architecture, sculpture, painting and science. Let him who attains this know that he possesses a great treasure.” I think that’s such an important part of what I personally wanted this film to be, to have this warm, human touch to it that you get through drawing, but it’s coming through in CG.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
KEANE: Well, I have a very unique idea that really allows me to pursue storytelling and music and drawing, in a way that’s never been done. It’s an idea that I’ve had with me for a good 35 years. It’s kind of like a Mount Everest I’ve been afraid to ever climb. But maybe now’s a good time to do that.
You don’t want to repeat yourself. You want to keep growing, to keep moving towards a level that your feet don’t quite touch the bottom and you’re uncomfortable. You’re a little scared. That’s exactly how I feel right now, and I think I always want to be artistically challenged that way.
So, that’s all I can say about it right now, but that’s what I’m hoping.