Walt Disney animator reveals his cartooning secrets

Glen Keane created Ariel, Beauty's Beast and the latest Disney princess in Tangled. MFM got an exclusive interview with the drawing legend

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The original artist behind Disney royalty Ariel, Beast and the newest Princess on the block, Rapunzel, Glen Keane is a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes stories. So how do you give birth to a Disney character and who is the best Princess? 

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Tell us a secret about working on a Disney movie 
I was working on a scene in The Rescuers and struggling with a scene where Bernard was sweeping the floor. I pushed harder and harder with the pencil before going to animator Eric Larson. He said, do you know what the secret of Disney animation is? I said, heck I don’t know, a certain pencil? And he said, sincerity. You’ve gotta believe in the character. What kind of guy is Bernard, he asked me. Does he care about what he’s doing? Course he cares! He wants to get every scrap of that dust. In an instant Bernard was there. Believing the characters are real is the key.

Is it true The Little Mermaid nearly didn’t get made?
Ron Clements who wrote The Little Mermaid presented it at a ‘Gong Show’ where if an idea isn’t liked, it gets a gong. Michael Eisner who was the President/CEO at the time said we’d already done a mermaid story, as we already had Splash. But then the studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg said we want to do this.

How did you create Ariel? 
I was originally supposed to design and animate Ursula [the sea-witch character]. But then I heard Jodi Benson singing Part of Your World and I said, I wanna do Ariel. They asked me, can you draw a pretty girl? I said, I can draw my wife. So that’s how she came to look like my wife Linda, who’s an actress. She kinda looks like Meg Ryan, so that’s why Ariel looks a bit like Meg Ryan too. Her sea shells aren’t as big though! 

Who’s your favourite Disney princess? 
It would probably have to be Ariel. I identified with the girl’s faith. She looks up at that world and she’s convinced she’s going to walk. Nothing was gonna stop her. She’s got that fiery personality and is so strong willed. I live with my heart way out there, so I relate to her. Fairytales connect to that thing in all of us, that the impossible is possible. 

Is drawing in your genes? 
My dad was an artist and my son and daughter both are too. My daughter Claire, when she was 7 years old, said that our house should have drawings on the ceilings and the walls. When I came to work on Tangled, I hired Claire to design the scene where Rapunzel paints on the walls and ceiling. It was actually Claire drawing – but this time she was hired and paid to do it!

Do you prefer working on films with pencil and paper like The Little Mermaid or a CGI film such as Tangled?
I love to draw and I see myself as an artist first and as an animator second. Originally I wasn’t interested in working on a computer, I wanted to draw. But then I came up with a story, Rapunzel, that I wanted to animate and ended up directing a computer-animated film. But while I was working on it I had a heart attack and had to take a step back. Still, I got to design the characters and direct, and pass on what I was taught.

What’s the best bit about being a Disney animator?
Drawings are like a magic mirror – whoosh and you go into it. You’re right there with the characters. In the world of animation, you have to believe otherwise it’s just a job.

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Glen Keane’s been working for Disney for 38 years and has worked on some of the most adored films and characters of all time. Yet, he still found time to draw us a picture of Ariel, right there and then! As the fairytales promise, dreams really can come true…

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