Meet the creator of Disney’s the Little Mermaid

‘I’m an actor with a paintbrush; I can play anyone I can imagine.’ says animator Glen Keane, who has created Disney characters Ariel (from the Little Mermaid), Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Beast and Tarzan.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Ariel in The Little Mermaid

He’s probably the most enthused person Design Week has met this week. Or possibly ever.

Keane has spent 38 years with Walt Disney Animation in what it turns out has been something of an accidental career.

He says, ‘When I applied to the California University of Fine Art in 1972, I wanted to be a sculptor or a painter, but my application ended up with the animation department.’

Graduating, then joining Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1974, Keane was privy to a period of learning, under the guidance of Disney’s old-guard animators Ollie Johnson, Frank Thomas and Eric Larson.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid
The Beast in Beauty and The Beast

Keane’s career has covered several periods of sea change at the studio, and one pivotal point in the early 1980s when the future of animated films at Disney hung in the balance.

Hostile takeover attempts of the company during the tenure of Ron W. Miller (president 1980-83 and chief executive 1983-84) subsided when former head of Paramount, Michael Eisner took the helm.

‘For a while nobody was sure if we were going to continue with animation at all,’ says Keane.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Ariel in The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid (1989) would change this though. ‘We hadn’t done a fairy-tale for 20 years and now here was one with a new kind of music. Everything from reggae to Broadway.’

Crucially there was a new tonality to the animation, a sort of realist imperfection, which Keane hadn’t had license to develop before.

He says, ‘On the opening night, my mentors, all those guys in their mid 70s were there and I asked “What do you think?” and they said “Well we wouldn’t have done it like that”’.

Keane who ‘plays’ Ariel – in the sense that he sees himself ‘as an actor with a paintbrush’ remember – says ‘some of her expressions were ugly.’

Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Snow White and Cinderella were drawn so that every pose was elegant but Keane says, ‘If you were to stop-frame through any film, even the most beautiful actress has ugly expressions.

‘There is an authenticity to her acting performance that makes people think, “She’s a normal girl just like me,’” says Keane.

He’s currently working on two new films – one, another fairytale, set for a 2013 release, is called Frozen and tells the story of a snow queen.

‘Each film is like another plane on the runway and animators approach the film as one group, but it may be in development for four years before we step in,’ says Keane.

Through the lineage of Ariel, The Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, Keane says he has become a ‘more seasoned actor,’ and that inevitably ‘the growing influence of the computer’ has coloured his work.

Aladdin
Aladdin

He describes a ‘difficult transition’ where creative teams of artists were working separately to computer scientists and those writing code. 

‘For a while there were two studios speaking separate languages and it took seven years to move forward,’ says Keane.

In recent years Disney’s competition has come from Dreamworks and Pixar, both of which are staffed mainly by Keane’s ex-colleagues, he says.

‘We’re still connected and there’s a friendly competition and camaraderie between us all,’ Keane assures us.

Now, 38 years after his journey began, he finds himself revisiting fine art, but more deliberately this time. ‘I missed my calling and classical drawing is what drives me. I’m an artist first and then an animator,’ he says.

The Beast in Beauty and The Beast
The Beast in Beauty and The Beast
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  • Tom Banks November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    He may be getting older, but his vision for the future is exciting. Look forward to the next two films.

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