Years after designing characters like Ariel and Pocahontas, Glen Keane discusses his directorial feature film debut on Netflix.

By Nick Romano
October 23, 2020 at 12:32 PM EDT
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In 1975, Glen Keane found himself standing behind Ollie Johnston, peeking over the animator's shoulder for 30 seconds. Or maybe it was 20. Keane can't quite remember, but he carries this memory with him wherever he goes.

They were designing Disney's The Rescuers; Keane as a character animator and Johnston as his directing animator. Keane drew a sketch of 5-year-old Penny, the young girl who needed rescuing from her treasure-hunting captors in that 1977 release, when Johnston came to his desk and draped a clean sheet of paper over his work. Johnston then grabbed the edge of the paper and flipped back and forth between Keane's design and a fresh drawing of Penny he whipped up. "It was as if I was feeling him punch me in the stomach," Keane says as he thinks back to the beauty of Johnston's work compared to his own. "It was the softness of this little girl’s skin and the tilt of the head. She became alive. It was not a formula. [Johnston] was in the skin of that 5-year-old. That’s the thing [where] I felt like that was the baton given to me."

Johnston would become a mentor for Keane, who went on to help design some of Disney's most memorable characters: Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Elliot in Pete's Dragon, Aladdin, the Beast in Beauty & the Beast. The list goes on, and each new addition reinforced that early lesson: look for the moment when the character no longer feels like pencil on paper, the moment when they feel alive.

Keane's body of work, which includes an Oscar win for the 2017 Dear Basketball short released with Kobe Bryant, adds to the surprise that, at age 66, years after leaving his Disney days behind, the animator is only now presenting his directorial feature film debut, Over the Moon, on Netflix. For Keane, it's not so surprising. "I’ve never really been hungry to direct because I've always found it deeply satisfying in bringing a character to life," he says.

Credit: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

A vibrant, colorful story about the young Fei Fei (newcomer Cathy Ang), who builds a rocket to the moon to meet the goddess Chang'e (Hamilton's Phillipa Soo) after losing her mother to an illness, Over the Moon feels like the culmination of Keane's experience in animation. He's had a hand in just about every element of the craft, from storyboarding to CG animation. Now, he gets the opportunity to steer all of these components, yet his ethos remains the same. "The thread for me has always been, 'Can I live in the skin of a character?'" he says. "I would never direct a movie that I can’t just really enter and live in that main character."

It's not like he hasn't had the opportunity to take the helm in the past. Tangled, the Walt Disney Animation film with Mandy Moore voicing Rapunzel, was once meant to be his debut directing vehicle. "I worked on that for quite a while, but Disney went through three changes in management within that time," Keane recollects. "Finally, I stepped off of directing and focused on animating." That's when a new lesson presented itself: how CG can meld with hand-drawn sketches.

Keane's animation supervisors, John Kahrs and Clay Katis, saw a Rapunzel sketch of his in which the heroine's eyebrows were marked with pencil lines that jutted off her face. This was for eye direction. "If I angle it, it can look stronger that way," Keane explains. "John and Clay would say, 'We can do that geometrically, we can create that.' ... The things that you find intuitive in your drawing, those will be keys for what we need to put into the CG. We went another huge step further in Over the Moon in the subtleties in the [character] performance."

Credit: Netflix

It wasn't until 2017 when Keane was put on the path to tackle Over the Moon as a co-directing project with Kahrs. He hosted a conversation at the Annecy Festival in France that year called "Thinking Like a Child," in which he discussed his personal journey in animation, including leaving Disney in 2012 to start Glen Keane Productions, and how the medium has evolved over the years. "Basically, I just shared everything that I love about animation," Keane says of that panel. In the audience were Melissa Cobb, who would one day become vice president of Netflix's Kids & Family division, and Peilin Chou, the chief creative officer of Pearl Studio, the animation house that worked on 2019's Abominable. "I didn’t know I was auditioning for directing this movie," Keane adds.

The way Keane describes it, he was born to develop Over the Moon. Again, it felt like a story with a character who lived and breathed on the page. Janet Yang, a film producer on The Joy Luck Club and The People vs. Larry Flynt, conceived the original kernel: bringing to life Chang'e, the Chinese goddess of the moon celebrated during the annual Mid-Autumn Festival. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give) then took that concept and made it more personal.

Wells, who had been diagnosed with cancer, knew she wouldn't live long enough to see Over the Moon on the screen. So, she made Fei Fei's journey about loss and how to move on: the child struggles to deal with her father's (John Cho) new relationship (Sandra Oh) after the death of her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles). Chang'e was her mom's favorite story, and if Fei Fei can prove the goddess is real, maybe she can also keep her loved one's memory alive for her dad. Wells, Keane says, "wrote it really for her daughter and her husband after she would pass away." (Wells died in 2018.) "The movie was no longer an intellectual, theoretical thing. It was deep and it was real. How many people lost loved ones throughout the making of this film? It's part of what we go through in life. No one is immune to that."

Credit: Netflix

To live in the story, Keane followed Wells' research journey to China, specifically to two small water towns in Wuzhen and Nanxun, which served as inspiration for the setting of Fei Fei's childhood home, where she and her dad keep their moon cake shop alive and well. Keane's producers studied the way hairy crabs, which are served during the festival, are cracked open. They listened as people from different areas of China described how they prefer noodles, and they watched the graceful movements from traditional tea ceremonies. The world of Lunaria, Chang'e's kingdom, was a different matter. It was up to the imagination, which is perhaps Keane's most impressive tool. The filmmaker turned his attention to the album cover art for Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, which features a thin beam of light penetrating a black-and-white prism to emerge on the other end as a rainbow cone. The moon of Over the Moon became black and white, while the creatures populating Lunaria maintained a brilliance by contrast.

"I drew more for this movie than in any film I’ve ever worked on," Keane says. He sketched a 2D sequence that arrives early in the film: a moment when Fei Fei's mom uses her daughter's scarf to tell the story of Chang'e and the love this deity lost long ago. ("As soon as I read that part [in the script], I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna hold this for me," he says.) Keane also storyboarded a moment where Bungee, Fei Fei's trusty pet rabbit, stares up at the glow of the moon, a scene he agrees resembles some of his past work.

"I wanted this film to be the thing that I have enjoyed the most in my career," Keane notes. "Animating the moment of discovery, the moment of a spark of desire in a character... It could be Ariel wanting to be a part of that world, the realization that that’s what she needs. It could be Pocahontas with this subtle eye movement as she’s curious but scared of John Smith. It’s the Beast looking at the rose. 'How can I set Belle free? I'm gonna remain a beast forever.'" For Fei Fei, who's gifted with the rational skill of science and the childlike power of belief in what others can't see, Keane focused on the eyes for those points of discovery.

The character doesn't become real until Keane can leave his desk and feel that creation's presence in the room. It happened on Tarzan, another of his past works, when Keane recalls how he left work for the day but felt like he could put his arm around the wild man. "There was this one shot with Fei Fei where she just became so real she won my heart. She's like your own child, in a way," Keane says. It was a scene where Fei Fei first sees her dad touch hands with her future stepmother for the first time. "It's a lingering touch. They're picking up the dates and Fei Fei sees it. It's just a close-up of Fei Fei's face. In this moment, Fei Fei's world turns upside down, but you can't do anything." Keane showed this clip to a crowd of fellow animators at 2019's CTN Expo. There was no sound, very little context, just Fei Fei's eyes widening at this realization. The audience — and Keane, for that matter — knew then, after spontaneous applause, that people would be so invested in this girl's quest that they would "go to the end of the moon to follow her."

It's the epitome, Keane adds, of "don't animate what the character's doing, animate what the character's thinking and feeling." For the first-time film director, that lesson he learned from Johnston all those years ago stills rings true.

Over the Moon is now available to stream on Netflix.

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