Glen Keane shared some key lessons during The One Academy’s International Masterclass: Disney’s Animation Legend at Subang Jaya.
On his first visit to Malaysia, Glen Keane, one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s longest-serving lead character animators, was invited to give a masterclass to The One Academy students, alumni, industry professionals, and secondary school students on 13 January 2024 at EX8, Subang Jaya.
Keane was named a Disney Legend after a career spanning nearly 40 years. Having trained under Disney’s Nine Old Men, some of his well-known illustrations that are still beloved today include Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Aladdin, and Tangled.
He was the recipient of the 1992 Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in the Field of Animation, and in 2007, he received the prestigious Winsor McCay Award for his lifetime contribution to the field of animation.
Despite his illustrious achievements, Keane remained humble and down-to-earth as he passionately shared what he learned throughout his ever-growing career with more than 700 people in the audience.
Here are some key takeaways from the lessons he shared:
1. You don’t need to know everything to start
When he was tasked to draw the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, he had no idea what the character was going to look like. The character only began to take shape when he did a rough sketch while in discussion with his colleague.
With the Beast, I didn’t know what he was going to look like. As soon as I drew those eyes, I could see the character looking out at me. I said, “Well that’s him, there he is – the Beast.” Animation is like that, you start to discover something inside yourself that rings true with what you’re animating.Glen Keane said while doing a live drawing demonstration of the character
It also helps if the animator “lives” in the skin of the character that they are animating and believes the situation the character is in.
Whenever we are creating something, it’s a conversation that we have with our artwork. We would come up with something new, because our art is speaking to us as we’re making it.Glen Keane
2. Draw what you know
His father Bil Keane, a cartoonist who drew comic strips about his family, had a sage advice for him to “draw what you know.”
Speaking of an example, the character Ariel in The Little Mermaid was based on his wife, Linda, while his son Max served as his inspiration for Tarzan.
He reminded everyone not to lose the 6-year-old in them and to think and imagine like a child when creating characters.
3. Observation skills are crucial
Keane added that the skill of learning to see is important for any artist.
Observation is the skill that we all need – it’s learning to see.Glen Keane
Keane carries with him a little sketchbook and actively sketches his surroundings. He shared that he sketched while his wife shopped in Kuala Lumpur too.
He also shared how a simple pencil is a great example of simplicity being the ultimate sophistication.
When held, the line goes all the way down to the heart, and the thing that nobody can see in the heart can then be seen when connecting the pencil to paper.
4. Technology advancement forces him to become a better artist
With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tools, many people in various industries have expressed worries about how it could affect jobs.
Keane shared that when Disney made the transition from 2D animation to computer animation, Disney was split into two camps: one side was excited about the new thing while the other feared the change.
Keane said whenever he finds that a new technology crosses his path, he’s forced to be a better artist (and that’s not entirely a bad thing).
When a student in the audience expressed worry for his future as an animator with the rise of AI, Keane has this to say to assure the student.
The concept of AI is not new. We’ve lived through it so many times in history, the idea of technology coming along and feeling like it’s going to replace the things that we love. It doesn’t take anything away from us; it’s giving us something to choose to work with. I really believe there’s a path for using AI, but it really requires artists to use it.Glen Keane
5. Keep learning, even from the younger generation
After retiring from Disney in 2012, Keane founded Glen Keane Productions to further his exploration of animation, design, and film. Through his company, he also gets to teach and inspire new generations of artists and learn from them.
He showed the audience a peek at the project that they are currently working on, animating Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which is about 70 minutes long. He then showed how they improved and whittled the long video into a 15-minute express version with the same intensity and flavour.
Starting his own company has also led him to many more incredible opportunities outside Disney. His collaboration in 2017 with the late Kobe Bryant, “Dear Basketball” is based on Bryant’s poem that he wrote during retirement.
During the process, Keane learned about basketball from the legendary athlete and more about drawing human figures. The short film received an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
The film was so wonderful and so special because it was about somebody’s love of something, and to animate that kind of heart was a gift for me.Glen Keane
6. Believe in yourself
No one could believe it when Keane shared that one of his ex-employers said his drawing was like a 6th grader’s.
During a roundtable interview session, I asked how he managed to pick himself up whenever he faced criticism or received negative feedback.
He credited his resilience and self-belief to his parents, especially his mother. She always encouraged and believed in him.
My mum was the most encouraging person. Just always saying “Glen, you can do it, whatever you set your mind on.” She’s always talking about that and I watched her live her life that way. And when those bad things would happen, I would remember that.Glen Keane
His father also played a part in building his self-belief and conviction that there was an artist in him.
I remember my dad one time said “Glen, I’m a cartoonist. You’re an artist.” I was just a little kid and he gave me a book on dynamic anatomy. I got on the stool box and I’d done drawings of Greek statues. I was following my path as an artist early and showing other kids these drawings. Everyone, all my friends, started laughing at me but I realised they don’t get that. I’m an artist, they’re not. I just rose above all of them because of encouragement from my parents.Glen Keane