Interview: Animator Glen Keane talks ‘Tangled’

A scene from 'Tangled'. Courtesy Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

You might not recognize the name Glen Keane, but you will surely know his work if you’ve seen an animated Disney film over the last 30 years. Glen is an animator who has had a hand in creating such memorable characters as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin in Aladdin. He’s also the son of The Family Circus cartoonist Bill Keane, and was the inspiration behind “Billy” in the single-panel strip.

With Glen’s long history at the studio he recently took the producing reins on Disney’s 50th animated feature, Tangled. The film tells the story of Rapunzel, and incorporates the classical animation style Glen is a master at, along with computer animation techniques. The end result is one of the most unique and beautiful contemporary Disney films that doesn’t have the name Pixar attached to it.

Criticize This! participated in an online roundtable with Glen a few weeks ago where he discussed the process of creating Tangled, what influence his father has had on him, and where he sees animation going in the future.

Bringing Rapunzel to life had to be a big challenge, because she moves in one way but her hair, as another character, has its own life. Could you explain to us the process to animate her?

Glen Keane: The first step in animating Rapunzel was to design the character with all the bells and whistles necessary to animate incredibly subtle emotion. That meant working closely with modelers and riggers, the people that create the entire nervous system under the skin of a CG character. Then the directors issue the scene to the animator. [Directors] Byron Howard and Nathan Greno would act the scene out so the animator could watch their expression and body attitude. Sometimes I would do drawings at that moment as I would interpret Byron as Rapunzel doing that same action. The animator then would do a rough first pass of the animation and I would do drawing corrections over the top in our dailies sessions. The directors would then make comments about what they wanted to take out or add or push. Once we had the basic movement down we would animate the hair. Sometimes the animator would control the 14 tubes of hair, each with 10,000 hairs in each tube, or we would have the simulation team animate the hair based on the movement the animator had created with the body. The simulation follows the laws of physics with some extra “Pixie dust” ingredients that our team of hair animators created.

Hair animation is still one of the most challenging parts with CG animation. How much effort and research did you need to end up with such perfect effects?

Glen Keane: We started writing software to animate the hair in 2005. Kelly Ward, who has a PhD in animating computer hair, joined our team and was every bit as creative as I am with a pencil with numbers, equations, concepts and the vision to interpret those elements into a beautiful, flowing, organic hair on the screen.

How did you reach the amazing “organic quality“ in terms of the character animation in Tangled?

Glen Keane: For me it was very important to find what I call “bridge people.” These are people who understand computers and hand-drawn animation. They’re translators in a sense. John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis were my partners as supervising animators and they found ways to pull me in so I could do what comes naturally to me, draw. We installed a Cintiq tablet in our screening room and I would watch the animators recent animation. I could draw over the top of every frame if necessary and the animators would see it large on the screen and those drawings would then appear on each animators computers back in their offices. That way it was a constant natural mentorship throughout the making of this film.

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Brian McKechnie

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