by Roger Ash
Walt Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast has been released for the first time on Blu-ray in the new three-disc Diamond Edition, which includes 2 Blu-ray discs and one DVD. (A 2-disc DVD set is scheduled for release at the end of November.) As part of the celebration for this release, Disney hosted a virtual roundtable with animator Glen Keane, the Supervising Animator for the Beast. If you’re unfamiliar with the title “Supervising Animator”, that simply means he not only animated the Beast himself, but he also oversaw all the other animators who worked on the character.
If you’ve never heard of Keane, let me give you a bit of background. Keane is the son of cartoonist Bill Keane, creator of the Family Circus comic strip. Keane emerged in the 1980s as one of Disney’s top animators, bringing his skills to bear on such characters as Rattigan in The Great Mouse Detective, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan, and many others. His work carries a power, grace, and beauty that make him stand out as my favorite of the modern Disney animators. When the opportunity arises to hear a modern master of animation speak, you don’t pass that up. At least this animation fan doesn’t. This truly was a rare opportunity and one I’m very grateful I got to take part in.
The event was moderated by Disney’s Mindy Johnson and included a look back at the development of the movie and in particular, the Beast; a peek at some of the Blu-ray special features; and an open period for questions. Beauty and the Beast has a long history at the Disney studios as Walt Disney and his crew attempted to develop it. According to Keane, “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. And there’s just not a lot of story in that. We tried to figure it out. Finally we just put it on the shelf.’
Keane continued, “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 [lyricist & executive producer] Howard Ashman in a big way. There is something about Howard Ashman’s approach to breaking something down musically and describing story in these tentpole songs that really started to give us a structure to tell that story.”
But Howard Ashman didn’t come along for a while. In some footage from a trip to London that will be included in the special features, we saw the Beauty and the Beast team working with the original director, Richard Purdum. After having developed the film for a couple years, it was decided that things weren’t working out. Purdum was removed as director and the work that had been done up to that point was scrapped.
“Richard Purdum was taking much more of a very classic sticking-by-the-book approach on the story, not wanting to go into too far into the zone of a Disney musical,” said Keane. “At that point, Jeffrey Katzenberg said ‘All right. We’re going to throw out everything and start over again.’ And we found ourselves in Europe with nothing to do except a research trip. So we decided to take advantage of this time and go to the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is in France, and the Loire River runs through that area. And it was there that we found Chateau of Chambord. 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.’”
The Beast’s home had been found, but the Beast was yet to be designed. In developing the Beast, Keane knew he had his work cut out for him. Disney versions of characters often become the definitive version of the character in many people’s minds. In the past, the Beast in the story had been envisioned basically as a man with a beast’s head. Keane wanted the whole body from head to toe be beast. In the end, the Beast owes his look to many different animals.
“You knew that he had to be frightening,” Keane explained. “And 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 to believe this. 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. What is it about that gorilla that I love? I love the brow of that gorilla. So I would draw some of the brow of that gorilla on the Beast.
“And then there was the lion; the lion’s mane. I loved that. The softness of it, and so the lion’s mane came to be part of the Beast as well as the fangs. And there was the wild boar, the ugliness of that. So I put that onto the Beast with the tusks coming up. It was the sadness of the buffalo. It looks like the buffalo carries around the weight of the world on his head. And I loved that. And then the beard of the buffalo. That went into the crock-pot.
“And then there was the wolf. Every day I would walk to work past the London zoo, and these wolves would walk back and forth, back and forth. So for the structure of the leg, I started to use a wolf leg, and the wolf tail. The way the Beast could swish his tail around gave it a lot more emotion possibilities. Then the body of a huge grizzly bear. There is nothing more massive and powerful. I knew that from The Fox and the Hound and animating the grizzly bear in that.
“All the drawings that I started to do with the Beast, though; I put them on all fours, just as a reminder that this guy is an animal. One day in my office, Bruce Johnson, one of the animators working with me said, ‘So Glen, what’s the Beast going to look like?’ This is after like six months of drawing. I said, ‘I don’t know, Bruce.’ I grabbed a sheet of paper and started drawing. I went through the same thing I just described 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’s as if the character existed beforehand, and suddenly he appears on the paper and you recognized him. And that was the experience of that moment.”
In a bit of whimsy, Keane adds, “Each day as I walked past the London zoo, I would do these drawings of a mandrill. I remember there was a woman there as I was doing some drawings. The mandrill turned around and showed me that its rear end was all multi colored. And she said, ‘Oh he’s got a rainbow bum, he has.’ I just loved her accent saying that. So Beast actually has a rainbow bum, but nobody knows that but Belle.“
As Supervising Animator on the Beast, I asked Keane how closely he worked with the other animators. “I worked very closely with them. There were some animators that were actually in Florida. I would get their drawings sent to me, and I would draw over top of it and FedEx it back. They’d send me their thumbnails, little sketches, what they were thinking of the scene. I would draw over top of that with lots of notes.
“We’d talk on the phone. Aaron Blaise was a new animator on the film, and I trained him. But I trained him from California, and he was working in Florida. We felt that we could do this as long as we had an ability to draw over top of each other’s work. You can’t just talk it. You actually have to draw for somebody.
“So I had an enormous amount of drawings sending back and forth. Drawing over top of animators at the studio as well. It’s much easier if I can have somebody standing over my shoulder and watching me draw over their work. I did that a lot.”
He also worked very closely with the other Supervising Animators. “We were all very close. Just from often in the offices next to each other, constantly in story meetings together, taking a look at each other’s work. Jeffrey Katzenberg was a very solidifying influence on our team, as well. He would have early story meetings, 7:00 in the morning. We’d all get there, and he’d have his big Diet Coke, and we would talk together as supervising animators with Jeffrey and the directors. I think we became very close together. We knew each other really well.”
The Beast’s voice was supplied by Robby Benson, and Keane was forbidden to meet him until after the movie had been completed. “Robby Benson, for any of you who may be really young, you may not know that when this movie came out, he was a big teenage heartthrob. Or that was his history at that point.
“And Jeffrey Katzenberg was so afraid that I was going to draw the Beast like Robby Benson. So he said, ‘I don’t want you to meet Robby Benson until after this movie’s done.’ I had usually gone into recording sessions, worked with the actors, but in this case I wasn’t allowed to specifically because of this thing with Jeffrey. And I guess that’s something that does happen; you draw the people that you know into the character. I think I could have worked around that.”
I have always considered Belle to be the main protagonist in the movie, so I was surprised to hear that for the team working on the film, this is the story of the Beast. After all, he is the character who changes the most during the film. I certainly can’t argue with that, and it adds an interesting twist. I know this film well, but looking at it as the Beast’s story definitely has me looking at scenes in the film in different ways.
As the film progressed, one of the biggest challenges was finding a way to have Belle realistically fall for the Beast. The creators thought they had this licked when Beast rescues Belle from some wolves. “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. And so the story went that way. When we got to this sequence where Beast and Belle dance, which was just in the storyboard at the time, there was a feeling like this movie is not working. I don’t believe. We haven’t earned this moment for Belle and Beast to fall in love. It feels like we’re forcing it. It feels like the artist’s hand is sort of making people believe this, trying desperately, but it’s not working. What is it?
“And at that point Howard Ashman came in with this song that I think really turned the corner for us — the “Something There” song. And what was wonderful is it was a very small little thing that the movie turned on, Beast giving Belle the library. That was the thing; that he had noticed what was special to this girl, and he gave her this gift. And it was really cool just to see how you suddenly believed the story after that. And before that song was written, you didn’t.”
The dance sequence was revolutionary with its computer-assisted backgrounds and camera sweeps. It’s also one of the best known scenes in the film. I asked Keane about the difficulties involved in animating the scene.
“Any time the computer enters into a hand drawing, I find that it forces you to draw better. It forces you to think more dimensionally. So I have always embraced any time the computer work comes in. John Lassiter and I started this thing way back right around Tron, doing a little animated test where we animated the background in CG but I could do the character in hand drawings. It just naturally helps you think dimensionally when the background is turning in space. So what seems difficult about it is the dimensionality of animating and drawing a character that is turning in space. And that’s really not the hardest part of it.
“What the hardest part of the dance sequence was –- was actually learning to dance. James Baxter and I, James was doing Belle, and I was doing Beast, brought a dance instructor in. And so he and I would dance together, and I would learn the Beast steps, and he would do Belle. James went through and blocked out all the animation himself first. Then I went in and went over top of it and was drawing the Beast. But in the end, I would have to say it was really just the subtleties, the gentleness of keeping the Beast –- of learning the dance steps that were the most difficult in that sequence.”
A sequence that is close to Keane’s heart is the transformation of the Beast into the human prince at the end of the film. “I had been waiting to animate for years the scene where Beast transforms. I had one week left in production, and I hadn’t even gotten to it yet. And Don Hahn, the producer, came into my office.
“I said ‘Don; I don’t have time to do this. I feel like this is what I was born to do, and how am I going to do this in a week?’ And he said ‘All right. Glen, look. Whatever it is that you need to get done, this sequence, just make it great. Take the time that you need. I’ll fight off the wolves here. We’ll figure it out. Just do what you need to do.’
“This transformation is a spiritual moment. For me, when you’re animating something, you’re trying to express something that you’ve experienced in your own life. This isn’t just drawing a character. You have to live it. You have to feel it. And I know that for me when I am animating a character, I am going through all of those same emotions that they are. When I was animating the Beast, I would go home and my jaw would hurt from drawing this face. I was living it. And in this moment here, this to me was very much something that I think I just experienced in my own life, my own spiritual life.
“I am a Christian. I really experienced this. I wrote up in the upper corners of the paper as I was animating this a bible verse from I Corinthians. It says ‘If any man is in Christ, he’s a new creation. The old things have passed away, and all things have become new.’ That’s what this was for me. Every artist has to draw on their own experience, their own beliefs, and put that into their work. And it’s there. You sense it. It’s true.”
As powerful and as meaningful as this sequence was for Keane, when asked if he would change anything about the Beast, he replies, “I wish he could have stayed the Beast. In fact, I did have us record a line at the end of the movie where Beast and Belle, the prince, were dancing. I knew that the audience was going to be disappointed. ‘What happened to our Beast?’ So I had them record Belle saying, ‘Do you think you could grow a beard?’ We should have put it in there.”
This is but a glimpse of what Keane went through in creating and animating the Beast. In the end, it came together in a magical film that was the first fully animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It lost to Silence of the Lambs, but people noticed.
“We were amazed that that happened at that time,” said Keane. “And I think it took the academy by surprise, and there was a lot of uproar about it. I’d be really interested in seeing what the final vote count on that was.
“One of the things that happened with Beauty and the Beast that really bothered me 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 feel like I really poured my heart and soul into this character. And Robby Benson’s voice. I feel like both of us put so much into that. And the fact that we’re drawing it doesn’t cheapen it. It actually adds more value to it to me. “
Keane ended the session not by looking back but with a look ahead at what the future may hold for animated films.
“I just finished Tangled. I oversaw animation with a lot of the animators. And what I kept reminding everybody was that computer animation is still just a graphic flat artform. Even though we say it’s 3D, it’s on a flat screen, and it’s just as much of a graphic shape as drawing is. So I would do a lot of drawings and apply the same principles of hand-drawn to computer animation. And I think that it’s important to bring the feeling, the influence, the inventiveness of hand-drawn into computer animation, where you are not tied to just what the computer is giving you.
“Because the computer seems to always shade everything so perfectly. And this is what you want, right? Look how good it looks. It’s like dimensional everything. And you start thinking ‘Wait a second. No. That’s not quite what I wanted. I pushed that silhouette a little stronger, and I stretched that arm out more. And I jut that jaw out further.’
“That’s the thing that we have to remember; that we are the masters of the graphic statement and letting the computer bend its knee to the animator, instead of the animator to the computer. At the beginning, I think we really struggled, and the computer was sort of dictating what we were going to get. And now in Tangled, I feel like you will see the computer really changing and bending to what it is that we want it to look like. It’s very unusual animation in computer animation. You’ll see a big influence of the same kind of principles you see in Beauty and the Beast.”