Filmmaker Glen Keane knows a thing or two about animation.
With a career spanning over 40 years, he’s created many beloved Disney characters such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Beast and Tarzan. In 2012, Glen set off on his own and turned director, making a number of animated shorts, most notably of which was Dear Basketball with the late Kobe Bryant, which went on to win the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Now the celebrated animator has made his first feature length film in Netflix‘s fantasy adventure Over The Moon, which releases today. The film follows a bright young girl (Fei Fei) who sets off on a fantastical quest to the moon after building a rocket ship, to prove the existence of a legendary Moon Goddess. Over The Moon marks one of the first releases from Netflix’s growing animation studios, considered to be one of the key focus areas of the streaming giant in the coming years.
Over a Zoom call, he spoke to me about his new release, the freedom of working with Netflix and the evolution of animation.
Over The Moon is one of its first animated releases from Netflix’s recently launched animation arm. Is it liberating to be able to set the style and feel of what a Netflix animated film is, given that, unlike Disney, there is no established notion of what a Netflix animated film ‘needs to be’ ?
Well, I’ll never forget Melissa Cobb from Netflix coming to my little studio in West Hollywood, with this idea of what Netflix animation could be. She talked about the creative freedom that we would have which was so different from major animation studios which tend to have like a single runway from which their planes take off, one after another.
This would be a crossroads of the world of animation. It just all seemed so wonderful and almost too good to be true. And so we moved into the Netflix office, and there were four of us at the beginning of 2018, and by the beginning of summer we had the entire movie storyboarded and recorded eight songs. I mean, I’d never seen anything like this. All I can say is what Netflix promised was really true. We got great encouragement and guidance when we needed it, but never any instructions or directors to change our idea or vision. It was truly wonderful, just to be part of that studio. Every day we had new people coming from different places like Disney or DreamWorks or Pixar, all from different countries. It’s now grown now to hundreds of people all working on different projects and it’s exciting.
I’ve seen the film and it really is a visually stunning show of imagination. When you were making it, did a small part of you wish it could’ve released on the big screen?
Oh, yeah. We designed it for a big theatre with Atmos sound and things like that. But I also do comfort myself with the fact that a story of this kind is about that intimacy and connecting with people. And the fact that this kind of release allows us into people’s living rooms through streaming, and it let’s us be in an intimate setting and touch a family touch people, there’s something wonderful about that too.
As someone who’s been in the business right from the 80s, what do you feel has changed most in the field of animation and how these films are made?
I think the stories and the subject matter have become much deeper, and there’s a lot more freedom of storytelling. Especially with this Netflix kind of approach where you are giving individual creators freedom, and success is going to depend on authenticity. You will find that the kind of stories that are being told today are very personal and touch people in a very deep way. They don’t need to carry the weight of a gigantic studio behind them and I love that. I think that that’s where animation is heading into the future – a creative world without walls.
And that’s exactly what’s what’s happening right now, technologically. I’ve always seen animation as sculptural drawing. Being able to describe a figure in space but not only with dimensions on the outside, but also on the inside where you explore people and emotions.
For example in Over The Moon, the lead character Fei fei is incredibly smart and I wanted to animate her intelligence. I wanted to see the points of discovery in her eyes. My favourite shot in the movie is when Fei Fei sees her dad touch Mrs. Zhong’s hand with tenderness and we cut to Fei Fei and that moment of realization of what’s happening and that her Dad is moving on. You see Fei Fei’s eyes widen, and her eyebrows come together. It’s just a little moment, but you feel it, you feel her world exploding and it’s so beautiful. It’s so true. The Chinese woman that animated it, Emma, she just absolutely blew my socks off. I couldn’t have done that. That’s where I want to see animation go. That kind of depth.