Behind every great animated work is a team of people who virtually sweated blood on their piece of the puzzle. Back in animation’s golden age, Disney had the legendary Nine Old Men-Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, Wolfgang Reithermann, Ward Kimball, Les Clark, Marc Davis, Milt Kahl and John Lounsbery-who put their indelible stamp on all Magic Kingdom features from Snow White (1937) through The Rescuers (1977). During their reign, they virtually defined what we now call traditional animation, from squash and stretch through personality animation.
The last of those legendary artists, Johnston, passed away in 2008, just long enough to see one of what Disney now calls its Nine New Men lead the American animation renaissance that began with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987) and The Little Mermaid (1989) on to today. Glen Keane knows them very well, he’s one of the New Nine.
The son of comic strip artist Bill Keane (Family Circle), Glen first earned fame as “Little Billy” in his dad’s strip. All of those who still read the strip might realize that Little Billy was quite the artist in his own right. In reality, Keane got his first job working for Filmation on their animated version of Star Trek back in 1972. It wasn’t long though that he got his own set of keys to the Kingdom. His first Disney projects were working on such films as Pete’s Dragon (1977), The Fox & The Hound (1981) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986). By the early 80s he was working on the spectacular animation of Tron (1982) with his longtime buddy John Lasseter. Then in 1989 he truly made his mark as the supervising animator of Ariel on Little Mermaid.
Yet it would be his next film where he earned the right to carry the title of one of the New Men. That was when Keane was assigned the role of supervising animator for the Beast in Beauty and The Beast, which Disney has just released as a special “silver anniversary edition” DVD (even if the film was released in 1991).
Now hard at work on the next Disney project, Tangled, Keane took some time off for a Webex conference with several other reporters to remember what went into the only full-length Mouseworks feature film to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Film of the Year.
“There has been a lot of research that we did on time to get to the roots of this story,” Keane recalls. “Apparently Walt had done the same thing. On the film, at that time as we were working on it, Joe Grant, who was the head of story on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia was working with us on Beauty and the Beast. He was 90 or close to that anyways, late 80s.
“So I asked Joe about it. I said did you already work on Beauty and the Beast? He said ‘Oh yes. We tried to crack that nut but it was just too difficult. I mean the whole story just takes place in one dining room, where the Beast asks Belle every night if she’d marry him. There’s just not a lot of story in that. We tried to figure it out. Finally we just put it on the shelf.’
“There are a lot of ideas that have been put on the shelf. But we waited until there’s a time where we can really focus and crack that nut. In this story, I guess it really needed [Executive Producer] Howard Ashman in a big way. I mean there is something about Howard Ashman’s approach to breaking something down musically and describing story in these tent pole songs that really started to give us a structure to tell that story.”
With the tent pole of Ashman’s music in place, it then was up to Keane and his fellow animators to drape the rest of the story around it. To do so, they convinced the then powers-that-be at Disney–namely Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg–to let them go to the Loire Valley in France. It would be fertile ground for Beast’s heady brew.
“Now the Loire Valley, of course it’s in France, and the Loire River runs through that area,” says Keane. “Built along the river are chateaus that the kings had built over the years…It was there that we found Chateau of Chambord.
“It was something about that. It was an ominous, impressive place with all of these spires and just standing there before us. I’ll never forget the morning driving up there through the mist and fog and seeing it there. I thought this is the Beast’s castle. This is where he lives.”
From there, it was just a matter of actually designing the Beast. One inspiration was the Jean Cocteau’s magnificent 1946 fantasy on the same subject.
“That’s obviously the classic iconic film that defines Beauty and the Beast,” Keane admits. “We did look at that. When we visited the chateaus in Loire Valley, I saw the actual arms holding the candles in the chateaus there that he used you know as the arms kind of turn. There were these wonderful moments in there that – I don’t know…It just felt – there was the presence of castle, the chateau is what really hit me about Cocteau’s version that this was happening in a very magical place.”
Most important, it was during this tour that Keane came to one ultimate decision, and that was the movie really was the Beast’s tale, not Belle’s. Look over the film one more time, and you will see it actually starts with how the always nameless Prince was cursed into his horrific form. Belle is only introduced ten or so minutes later. This made Keane start developing a veritable whirlwind of sketches, none of them really catching what he wanted to express.
“You knew he had to be frightening,” Keane admits. As I would do these different drawings of the Beast, I kept thinking, how in the world is Belle going to fall in love with this guy? No one’s going believe this, really.”
Then one day Keane was sitting at his drawing table, studying a picture of a massive silverback gorilla.
“So of all these drawings, nothing seemed to be clicking for me. If you would come into my office you would see all sorts of photos on the walls of like a gorilla, of sketches. What is it about that gorilla that I love? I mean ultimate I loved the brow of that gorilla. So I drew some of the brow of that gorilla on the Beast.
“Then there was this lion. The lion’s mane; I loved that! The softness of it. So the lion’s mane came to be part of the Beast as well as the fangs. There was the wild boar, the ugliness of that but his muzzle…so I put that onto the Beast with the tusks coming up. It was the sadness of the buffalo; the weight, it looks like the buffalo carries around the weight of the world on his head. And I loved that. Then the beard of the buffalo; that went into the crock-pot.
“Then there was the wolf though. Every day I would walk to work past the London zoo. These wolves would walk back and forth, back and forth. I realized they’re so animal like. One of the things that I really am searching for is how can I communicate that the whole beast is like this beast animal? That it’s not just his head or his hands, or his feet. So it was the structure of the leg that I started to use a wolf leg and the wolf tail for the Beast. And the way the Beast could swish his tail around gave it a lot more emotion possibilities. Then the body of a huge big grizzly bear for the Beast. I mean there is nothing more massive and powerful. I knew that from the fox and the hound and animating the grizzly bear in that. So that came into play.
“So all the drawings that I started to do with the Beast though, I put them on all fours, just as a reminder, this guy is an animal. One day in my office, Bruce Johnson, one of the animators working with me said, “Glen, what’s the Beast going to look like?’ This is after like six months of drawing. So I grabbed the sheet of paper and started drawing. I was like – and I went through the same thing I just told all of you about all of these different elements except I was drawing it as I was telling him this and suddenly I looked at him, and it was like, that’s him. That’s the Beast. That’s what he looks like. It was like I said, it’s as if the character existed beforehand, and suddenly he appears on the paper and you recognized him. That was the experience of that moment.”
As it happened, one element that Keane had added, tiger stripes, had to be removed. The stripes made the creature just way too difficult to animate. Otherwise, Keane’s Beast was finally ready to animate. That still didn’t mean everything from then on was easy. It took one particularly memorable sequence to finally get that right.
“You know where Belle is binding up his wounds after the Beast has saved her from the wolves?” Keane asks. “You start to see the crack in the armor there. The Beast starts softening. You know the reason he was turned into a beast was not because he was a murderer or something. It was because he was selfish.
“That’s a lot more fun to play when you get to play more to the childlike stomping kind of a beast. I just spent the weekend with my 18-month-old granddaughter. And I see in her a lot of the characteristics of the Beast. Her learning to say no and pushing other little kids. She is really sweet, but there is still this dark side you have to confront.
That was the fun part of this character. Animating the wild animal, but then into a more identifiable childlike selfishness. We thought that once Beast had saved Belle’s life, that that was enough to earn this dance; this moment with her falling in love. Yet when we got to this sequence where Beast and Belle dance, which was just in the storyboard at the time, we had a screening, and there was a feeling like this movie is not working. We haven’t earned this moment for Belle and Beast to fall in love. It felt like we’re forcing it.”
“At that point Howard Ashman came in with this song that I think really turned the corner for us; the Something There song. I had always felt that Robby Benson should have a moment in this movie where he could actually sing. The guy’s got a great voice; a baritone base voice. It’s very soft and gentle. What was wonderful is it was a very small little thing that the movie turned on…it was really cool just to see how the story, you suddenly believed it after that. Before that song was written, you didn’t.”
There was one last contributing factor to the creation of the Beast, and that was the voice of Robby Benson. The irony of it all is usually the animator meets and observes a voice actor as they record their performance. This wasn’t the case for Keane in regards to Benson. He didn’t even know who was voicing the Beast until AFTER the movie was completed.
“I remember when we were trying to find the right voice for this character. “The directors had boiled it down to three different voices. I got this tape from them…And I drove home. I remember I was washing dishes. We had had dinner and so I just put the tape on. As I am washing dishes I am hearing one version of the Beast. Nah, that’s not it. Then the next one. No, that’s it. Then the third one was like whoa. That’s the Beast. I mean I could suddenly see the voice just fit with the drawings and it was clear, that was the Beast.”
Apparently the order came down from Katzenberg. What many may have forgotten, or were too young to understand, was that Benson was a teenaged heart throb of epic proportion in the late 80s and early 90s. Katzenberg was afraid that Keane would have been affected by this bit of information.
“You know listening to the voice made me really work on the brows, the expressions,” says Keane. “Because you become so familiar with the voice, there is a sensitivity and attentiveness that would come out in Robby’s performance that I would really push the expressions and the drawings. It was more like taking the design that I had and letting it work to the sound of the voice, mouth shapes. Robby has a kind of a soft way of speaking. So the mouth shapes of the Beast weren’t just kind of wild and violent as much as they were carefully shaped. Those are kinds of things that just happened because of the sound.”
Yet when all is said and done, audience response to the film was, to put it simply, epic. The combination of music, story and incredible visuals turned Beauty & The Beast into the biggest animated hit in Disney’s history (or at least until The Lion King came out). It also garnered the studio a nomination for Best Picture of the Year. Something Keane has a lot to say about.
“We were amazed that it happened at that time,” Keane recalls. “I think it took the Academy by surprise, and there was a lot of uproar about it. You know I’d be really interested in seeing what the final vote count on that was. How close we were to Silence of the Lambs.
Not that Keane denies the qualities of the Jodie Foster/Anthony Hopkins psychological thriller. On the other hand, he does have his own opinion regarding the Academy of Motion Pictures treatment of animation.
“Silence of the Lambs was a phenomenal film. So was Beauty and the Beast. Is it going to happen again? I believe it will. I have to believe that this art form animation is the greatest art form there is.”
For Keane this is particularly relevant as he honestly feels Toy Story 3 is one of the best films of 2010.
“What we have done is just the early curve of where it can go. Because of where computer animation is, and where hand drawn animation is. I think that there is something really new and wonderful to invent and create that no one has seen yet. And I really have to believe that one of these days, yes. An animated feature is going to win best picture of the year. Came close then, and it will happen again.
“Toy Story 3 is a film that could win that. There are a lot of other people feeling the same thing. You know [there was] one of the things that happened with Beauty and the Beast that really bothered me, and that whole academy thing was the way they were talking about well, what about real actors? We need to have real actors winning these awards. And I was thinking, well what am I? I mean I feel like I really poured my heart and soul into this character. Robby Benson’s voice, I mean I feel like both of us put so much into that. The fact that we’re drawing it doesn’t cheapen it. It actually adds more value to it to me. You know so. I think it’s coming.”
And one gets the feeling that when an Oscar is handed to a fully animated feature film, Keane will no doubt have a very important hand in it. It might even be his latest effort, Tangled, which will be out in time for the holidays.