Building a Beast: Interview with Disney Animator Glen Keane

By at October 8, 2010 | 10:43 pm | Print

Animator Glen Keane had been working on Disney films for about a decade when he became part of an unexpected “golden age,” a revived respect for the Mouse House’s animated movies, a widespread admiration the studio hadn’t enjoyed for decades. The year was 1987, The Little Mermaid was about to win over audiences, and Keane was asked to create the lead male character for an upcoming project called Beauty and the Beast. Disney Animator Glen KeaneOf course, that film would set new standards at the time, and earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

For Beauty and the Beast‘s 20th anniversary, Disney has just released a Diamond Edition of the movie, including the first-ever Blu-ray version. To celebrate, Keane has been reminiscing about his creation and we joined him one evening.

When Glen Keane tells his behind-the-scenes tales, he reminds fans that Beauty and the Beast was a story Walt Disney himself wanted to bring to the screen—and couldn’t. Keane recalls a conversation with the late Joe Grant, the man who created the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and worked on Beauty at the age of 79.

“I said, ‘Did you already work on Beauty and the Beast?’ explains Keane. “He (Grant) 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. And there’s just not a lot of story in that. And we tried to figure it out. Finally we just put it on the shelf.’”

When it was time for Keane and team to take the idea back off the shelf, they had plenty of motivation, fresh ideas, and a creative resource Keane can’t say enough about: Howard Ashman, the composer who won two Oscars with co-writer Alan Menken before dying of AIDS at age 40.

“This story … really needed Howard Ashman in a big way,” admits Keane. “There is something about (his) approach to breaking something down musically and describing story … that really started to give us a structure.”

In fact, the creators of the film’s famed ballroom dance scene felt it wasn’t good enough—until Ashman added his work. Ballroom Scene from Beauty and the Beast“There was a feeling like the movie wasn’t working. ‘We haven’t earned this moment for Belle and Beast to fall in love. It feels like we’re forcing it. Feels like the artist’s hand is sort of making people believe this, trying desperately, but it’s not working.’”

Then Ashman added the song “Something There.” And something changed. “I think (it) really turned the corner for us,” explains Keane. “It was really cool just to see how you suddenly believed the story after that. Before that song was written, you didn’t.”

But long before the Beauty and the Beast team got hung up on story issues, Keane had a big question to answer: What should the Beast look like? After loads of research, artistic exercises, and the drive to draw the “definitive” Beast, here’s what Keane told himself about his lead:

• He can’t look like an alien; he has to look like a creature that’s actually from this Earth
• He has to be an appealing character, but he has to be frightening
• People have to believe that Belle would fall in love with him

There was plenty of trial-and-error, and sketches from other artists, but no luck. “Nothing seemed to be clicking for me,” says Keane. “If you would come into my office, you would see all sorts of photos on the walls of, like, a gorilla. What is it about that gorilla that I love?”

Parts of The Beast from Disney's Beauty and the BeastKeane realized it was the gorilla’s brow, specifically, and he began identifying aspects of particular animals that meant something to him. And they all became part of The Beast.

“Bruce Johnson, one of the animators working with me, said, ‘So Glen, what’s the Beast going to look like?’” recalls Keane, six months into his drawings at that point. “I said, ‘I don’t know, Bruce,’ and I grabbed the sheet of paper and started drawing… I went through all these different elements.”

“And suddenly it was like, ‘That’s him. That’s the Beast. That’s what he looks like.’” Keane had instantly, with a few strokes of inspiration, found his character.

In the decade that followed Beauty and the Beast, Disney Animation achieved a level of recognition last experienced in a bygone era. “There was quite a while there it felt like the Golden Age was over and we missed it,” says Keane. “The Little Mermaid opened that door up for us. And we realized, wow, this really can happen for us too.”

“We were desperately trying to just get the (film) so that it would look good so people didn’t throw tomatoes at us. And then to see how it all came together, that’s what was amazing. To realize how all of these elements together just coalesce towards the end of the picture, and there it was.”

And a new era began. Starting with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s animated theatrical features won nine Oscars in the 1990s, and were nominated for six more. Nearly all of those were focused on music, but Beauty and the Beast helped establish that the modern Disney film could be recognized by the critical world.

When it’s suggested to Keane that his team initiated a “new Golden Age,” his reply is typical, part pride, part perfection: “Yes. Yes, it was. Now we want another one.”

(Note: Glen Keane is a directing animator for the upcoming Disney film Tangled, a take on the Rapunzel story coming November 24.)

Check out the Beauty and the Beast Diamond Edition
Three-disc Blu-ray and DVD Combo
Two-disc DVD edition (available November 24)

Images courtesy Disney

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