Episode 1: Glen Keane on Nephtali

It’s been just under a year since On Animation last spoke with Glen Keane. At the time he was promoting his first short film, Duet. This year he’s back with another hand drawn short, Nephtali, a blend of hand drawn animation and live-action footage. Nephtali was created for the Paris Opera to coincide with the launch of their new digital stage, 3rd Stage.

Glen was personally invited to join a distinguished list of artists and filmmakers to help launch the 3rd Stage by Benjamin Millepied, the new Director of Dance for the Paris Opera. Benjamin and Glen first met while they were both working on projects at Google last year. I was fortunate enough to steal some of Glen’s time and gain more insight into the production of the short.

The audio isn’t the best quality due to the long distance call, so I’ve also transcribed the interview below. Thanks to Bonny Báez for his work cleaning up the audio and creating the background music. It wouldn’t have been an option without him. Enjoy!

If you like what you hear, please consider supporting future episodes on Patreon.

Daniel: How did Nephtali get started? What was the original inspiration behind it?

Glen: As I was working on Duet, Benjamin Millepied was working on developing a project at Google. He had seen what I was animating, and we started talking about doing something together. He actually showed me how to do a pirouette that I used in Duet, and we just thought it would be wonderful to do something together but wasn’t sure exactly what. So when he became the Director at the Paris Ballet, he created another stage. They have three stages there. They have the Bastille Opera, and they have the Garnier Opera, where the Phantom of the Opera took place. That’s the central location; one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris. But he wanted to create a virtual stage called The 3rd Stage, and he invited a number of directors to come to the Paris ballet and find inspiration and do something that was calling to you.

He was not trying to impose any kind of creative direction on it other than that we were passionate about what we were going to do. So I’ve always just been fascinated with dance. It always feels to me that dance is very much an animator’s…kind of like another way of expressing yourself through dance. Most of the time that I’ve seen dance in animation, I’ve never felt that it was really living up to the potential. It feels that we are often way too bound by gravity, and yet animation doesn’t have to be. So I thought I wanted to do something where I can really let the figure float in the air if it needs to be, and to really draw some of the fluidity of line that feels bound even by a real ballerina. The human figure is bound by gravity, and animation can really set that free.

We have an apartment in Paris, and I would walk to the Opera House. On my way I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, as I was going to meet the ballerina, Marion Barbeau. I thought I would just use some of her choreography. They say that a ballerina may have up to sixty choreographies in her muscle memory; it’s just there, and they can dance it.

I thought I’ll use that, and just animate. And then all I could think of was Ollie Johnston saying to me, “Glen, don’t animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking.” So I thought I can’t just go in there and draw her moving, I need to really give her a motivation and a purpose, and tell a little story. By the time I got there, I had developed a little story, and gave her the motivation on what these three basics acts to this little story would be. She was incredible. So anyways that’s pretty much how I developed it, and how the whole thing came to be.

Daniel: Can you talk a bit about creative process from studying the dancer in the studio in Paris to sitting down and animating it? Did you use charcoal for the end like you did in Pocahontas?

Glen: Well there was some charcoal drawings at the very beginning with the deer. The very end of it was actually a graphite pencil. A Mitsubishi pencil that we found in order to do Duet. It’s a 10B. I found out that it’s the same pencil that Miyazaki uses, which I didn’t know. When we were searching, we searched all over the world for the best pencil that had this really wonderful soft feel. So it can look like charcoal or you can be very accurate. That’s what I did Duet with, and that’s what what I’m going to draw with for the rest of my life. It’s so rich and wonderful in its line. I describe the line as having calories to it it’s so buttery. You get fat just drawing with it.

Benjamin Millepied and Dimitri Chamblas, who are running the Paris Ballet, invited me into to sit with some of the rehearsal sessions. As I was drawing Marion Barbeau and some of the other dancers, just watching them warm up, and as I’m sketching them warming up, I’m warming up myself and realizing how how much dance is very much a gestural, expressive medium. You are drawing a line of action from head to toe, and it’s very expressive. There’s a motion in those lines. As I worked with them throughout the next week, I found that working with a dancer is very much like working with an animator. They really truly were expressing themselves with their body, as opposed to me with my pencil. And they were really working towards silhouette, and all of the things that Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Erik Larson were trying to drill into me, they were doing as well. They were trying to communicate with attitude, so that somebody in the back of the theater could read the pose. There was always an anticipation of movement…

Daniel: Clear staging…

Glen: Staging, everything was really designed for the audience; just communicating it clearly. As Eric would always say, “Make a positive statement.” And something that I had learned in my first years at Disney, Ollie would say, “Think in terms of golden poses.” Even though you’ve got 24 frames a second flashing by, it’s really maybe only three poses in a ten second scene that really tell the story. Just think in terms of what are these golden poses? And the more I watched ballet, I realized that’s what they’re all about. They’re hitting these golden poses, and they may leap through the air… The pose walks in and it’s this picture, and a pirouette is basically one pose that is frozen but is moving, and all of these different attitudes were carefully choreographed to tell a story in movement. So that’s what I worked with Marion on, in terms of what are those golden poses.

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Recently, I’ve been working with Benoit Philipon. He is the guy that was doing the live action. We were talking about actually freezing those golden poses, and rotating them in space, and I would animate them moving in dimension. But I found that it was actually hurting the more important principle, which was communicating an emotion, a story. So I decided that I wasn’t going to freeze those moments. So there’s basically three acts that I worked out with it, and it very much comes from Psalm 42.

It’s a sense of spiritual longing in the first movement, which goes to conflict and struggle, and then finally a breaking free and a freedom of expression. Those three emotions are in that Psalm 42. The name Nephtali comes from when Jacob was blessing his twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. His son Naphtali, spelled with an “a” in English. In French it’s with an “e”, so I used the “e” spelling as it was done in France. But Jacob says, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful bonds.” And I’d always loved just that image of the power and the grace of a deer leaping free. And in the end having the fawns as a light that’s fruitful…these are things that are very personal for me. And because I was invited in in a similar way I was invited into Google…To be myself, and express something personal.

That’s what Benjamin Millepied was asking me to do. I find it really a gift for me to come in and not have to sell something or create something that stockholders will find fitting their guidelines. Instead, I found I had to complete creative freedom. It was really a wonderful experience. For me, drawing the figure has always been a joy. When I started animation, I just wanted to be a sculptor and a painter. So when I animate I’m constantly trying to find a way to draw the figure in space and turn them around.

Daniel: It’s sounds like that’s what you were doing when you were trying to find the golden poses. You’re still experimenting with drawing in dimension.

Glen: Yeah very much so. You’ve seen the Step Into the Page video?

Daniel: Yes

Glen: I mean that’s even another step beyond. It actually was funny, the day after I came back from Paris, after drawing these dancers, I went up to Google to do the Step Into the Page. And in Paris I was drawing this dancer who was leaping towards me. I had to draw that beautiful line of action of the dancer in perspective coming at me. Yet I knew that from a profile you would have this beautiful line of action running down the back all the way down to the feet, and that’s what I wanted to draw. But instead I had to do it in perspective, so it was sort of a frustration, and so the first thing I did when Bruce Skillman, one of the two guys developing Tilt Brush, gave me the stylus was I just drew a line going back in space like it was that same dancer.

I stepped around and saw this beautiful profile line and I could start to draw that dancer. That was really the first drawing that I did in VR. It was something that I found that I could never do on paper. It was incredibly liberating and difficult. I do think it’s going to take time to master that art of creating in VR. I don’t think it just gives itself up without some real effort of understanding the craft just like animation. I remember Frank and Ollie telling me it will take you five years to at least get to a point where you are comfortable animating so that you’ll understand what you’re doing with it. I hope it doesn’t take five years with this craft, but I don’t have any illusions that you just get it instantaneously.

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Daniel: Do you plan on using it for any future shorts once you’ve explored it a bit more?

Glen: Well yeah, I’m developing a few ideas right now; trying to find the right partnership. Somebody who wants to collaborate, and do something that is personal, expressive. I want to do something that’s good. I want to do something that touches people in a meaningful way. I’m not interested in just the technical aspect of an object turning in space. I want them to have some emotional resonance with the audience.

Daniel: More than just a gimmick.

Glen: Yeah, much more than that. So I am talking to possible partners that we can do that with. Right now I’m not exactly sure. The thing is after leaving Disney, I left because I felt like there’s something wonderful out there waiting. I didn’t know what it was. Now I’m beginning to discover it. It really is an entirely new era of animation right now, and it’s not formed yet. It’s very very fluid. It’s kind of like if you’re making a sauce and at the beginning it’s just very liquid, and you’re stirring the spoon, and you’re thinking this is never going to thicken up. And you add some more flour, and pretty soon the gravy starts to get a little bit thicker, and then you have something wonderful. I think right now it’s still thin. It’s beginning to thicken. It’s beginning to form into something very personal, expressive, but it takes an enormous amount of communicating with others which is why I’m actually going out to The Future of Storytelling, to touch bases, to learn, to share. There’s an enormous amount of collaboration that’s happening right now outside of the big studios that I find incredibly exciting.

Daniel: Would you consider collaborating with another major artist, or do you want to focus more on personal stories right now?

Glen: I’m open to any kind of collaboration right now, and I’m finding that most of the people who I’m rubbing shoulders with are other artists as well. Maybe it’s going to be helping somebody else accomplish a vision that they have. It doesn’t have to be mine. I’ve spent my whole career helping directors realize their vision. Since I’ve left Disney, I’ve had wonderful opportunities of actually realizing some of my own, but I’m really open for the right marriage of creative people together. And if it means helping somebody else tell their story or working with another artist that I am sympatico with then yeah let’s do it. That’s how I feel.

Daniel: In the live action footage we see you directing the choreography of, Marion Barbeau, the dancer. Did you have an idea for what you wanted the whole sequence to look like from the start or was there more of an organic process with both artists bouncing ideas off of one another?

Glen: Yes and yes. I’d never done choreography before, though I’ve certainly thumbnailed so many different moments in animation that I assumed it was like that. Except that you are working with another person, a choreographer. I remember one time in Treasure Planet, John Ripa and I, we animated on the same animation desk at the same time where Long John Silver is meeting Jim Hawkins. John and I just choreographed it very much like a dance working around one another. I would run and animate a little thing, and then he jumped back in there it was…so collaborative that way. That was probably the closest I’ve had to this experience. I watched Benjamin Millepied, who is a genius in choreography. He works very intuitively, almost like it was straight ahead animation, where one pose just leads into the next.

He’s working with a dancer, watching them, and then something occurs to him, and then he adds on to it. He may have some general idea, but he’s really responding to the spirit of the moment. I watched him do that and I thought, “Okay, I can relate to that.” So when I came in, and I met Marion Barbeau, it was scary and intimidating because I don’t know dance. Here’s this ballerina who, her whole life since she was six years old was working and studying, and I’m not going to presume to know what she knows. But I did know that there are certain things that she needs. She needed for me to communicate the emotion that she had to have at the very beginning. I knew that I needed to have this longing start in one place, and have her move to the next point on the stage. So I did little thumbnail sketches to show her the way I thought she should move. And I mostly did them through little thumbnail drawings, sometimes trying to act them out for her.Then she would have an idea how to interpret this wind, this wave. In the middle of Psalm 42 it says,

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; All your waves and breakers have swept over me.

So I translated all of this in French to her, and the whole time was speaking to her in French. She understood that turbulent kind of a feeling. I kept looking for ways that we could get this beautiful arc. I kept imagining her as if she was a drawing. Even though you’re working with a ballerina, a living person, I’m still imagining her as drawing that’s actually moving across a space with a kind of an S Curve, a French Curve, in the arc of her path of action where she would fall down onto the ground. And sometimes it would feel a bit clunky, so I would ask her to do it again but with a little more of a graceful dissent as she would hit the ground and then rise up. There needed to be these changes of direction.

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There’s basically three pieces of choreography, each one moving in its own direction, it was very simple that way. So I wrote down words for her, so that she could understand the one central thought in that, from desire or longing. French doesn’t have a word for longing, so I had to come up with other ways of translating that. Desire would probably be the closest. Then there would be this struggle, which was the second word. In French it was a different word, but it was something like that. And then, liberty, freedom was the last one. With all of those I did a lot of little sketches so she understood how I would do this if I was animating it, and then watching how she interpreted it.

So that was how we were doing it throughout the whole process I was working closely with Benoit Philippon, who was doing all the live-action. He was filming the whole process. I needed him to shoot certain angles because I was going to use that for reference when I came back to L.A. Then when we got back, I really only had about three weeks to do all the animation, which is what we did. My son Max, who was Production Designer for Duet, was also the Production Designer for Nephtali. He just has a knack of taking the drawings that I’m doing and making them look a hundred times better. Just putting them in space and dimension.

Daniel: From my perspective, as a fan and an observer, you have accumulated all of this knowledge and expertise over decades of creating animation, and now you have your own company, in a time with all this emerging technology at your fingertips. It’s seems to me that the possibilities of what someone like you can do are really limitless. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re all waiting in anticipation for what you’re going to do next.

What are your long term goals in this business? What do you hope to achieve by the end of your career?

Glen: Well, I plan on living until I’m 120. So in a lot of ways I feel like I’m just beginning my career right now. I can honestly say that I feel very much the same way I did when I first started. I feel like I’m barely up to the task. When I started it seemed like everyone else knew so much more than I did, and I was playing catch-up all the time. And I always looked to past masters of drawing and sculpture as my guide when I became stuck. I wouldn’t look so much at animation as I would look at Rodin or Degas, and Augustus John, and learn that way. So now I’ve never lost that sense that if one of those artists from 150 years ago was transported to today and you gave them the tools that we have today. But didn’t show them any of the animation that’s been done, but just show them what’s possible. What would they do? What would they come up with? That’s kind of where I’m thinking of myself, in that sense of, if you could re-invent what you’re doing, who you are as an artist, and look at all of the tools afresh, you probably would never even come up with the look of Disney now. That’s a look that’s there because of a technical limitation of painting on cells. There would be an entirely different feeling to the way you draw

And now thinking about VR, maybe there’s a way of actually animating in three dimensional space. This is something I’m fascinated with actually animating around me with drawing in space as if you are sculpting that figure in space, but it’s in line. These are things that I’m really fascinated with and there’s been a few projects that have been cooking in my mind for thirty years now. I’ve been wanting to do them, but I never felt like I was ready. Not that I feel like I’m ready yet either. But at some point I’ve got to dive in and start, so right now I’m putting my sails up and seeing what fills them, and how I can accomplish these ideas.

My wife’s patience and encouragement along the way means a lot to me because we’re in this adventure together. For me to step away from Disney was also a scary thing to do. Something that I took very seriously because I felt like I was given so much there by these great teachers. I felt a responsibility to continue to pass that on. And I realized that even though you leave Disney, Disney never leaves you. You’ve still got those principles, and I’m trying to apply them into these new frontiers. I kept hearing from Ollie Johnston, he would say, “Glen, you’re going to do greater things than us some day.” I’m thinking, man, I wish he’d never said that. That’s such a burden; I can’t possibly do better than Pinocchio. But now I realize he didn’t mean great in quality like that. He was talking about greater in application, in influence. In a way, take those same principles and apply them in a ways that he couldn’t even imagine. And I see that that’s exactly what’s happening. Anyway, that’s where I’m at today.