It all started with Walt Disney during the first Golden Age of Disney animation. Disney had been trying to develop an animated film around the character of Rapunzel for years, but nothing ever really clicked and came together. At the time Disney wanted to make a Rapunzel-based film they had already done Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and myriad other fairytale stories, but Walt never let the Rapunzel idea go.
And neither did his studio.
Decades later, Disney would return to the Rapunzel story and create Tangled, a fantastic and highly entertaining computer-animated feature in 3D that had all the elements and style of a classic Disney film, but brought to life by means other than pen and ink. Worldwide the film would go on to make $576 million, and quite possibly could mean that a new Golden Age of Disney animation has begun!
I had the opportunity – along with several others – to interview Tangled directors Nathan Greno & Byron Howard, and Glen Keane, the films Executive Producer and Supervising Animator through an online Virtual Roundtable. All three men have worked for Disney for years, Keane since the Golden Age of Disney animation that brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Greno and Howard came along later, but their credits are also impressive and include Bolt, Brother Bear, and Meet the Robinsons.
Here are the highlights from the interviews with all three men.
Nathan Greno & Byron Howard (Directors)
Can you talk a bit about the genesis and evolution of Tangled?
Nathan Greno: The idea of a Rapunzel story has been around the Disney Animation Studios since the 1930’s… it was on one of Walt’s early lists. It took a long time to bring this film to the screen. The problem is the original tale is a very small story. It takes place in a tower. A girl is waiting around to be rescued. It’s all very passive and small. We needed to blow up the scale of the film… turn it into a big event. We really tried to keep what worked in the original. The original icons of the classic story are all there… it’s just been updated for a modern audience.
Having worked in both mediums, what do you prefer about computer animation and what do you miss about traditional 2D animation?
Nathan Greno: I really love both 2D and 3D animation. 2D is really graphic and classic. 3D has amazing textures and cameras to play with. It all comes down to your story… some tales work best in 2D, some in 3D!
I loved the characters of Pascal and Maximus. Was there ever any discussion about giving them voices?
Byron Howard: Nathan and I are huge, HUGE fans of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have someone like that as a character in Tangled?” Time and time again, people who have seen the film have said that they liked the fact that we kept them silent. Pantomime acting is a great challenge for our animators.
How early in the production process was it decided to make this a musical instead of a romantic comedy-adventure?
Byron Howard: We knew it could be both. Music can be more effective than the most brilliant dialogue at conveying emotion, so we were very excited to have someone as skilled as Alan Menken writing our songs and score. And just because it had songs didn’t mean that the film couldn’t be an action filled roller coaster ride. We like that.
You have both worked on several films prior to Tangled. Please explain the process of transitioning into the role of Director.
Nathan Greno: I came from the story department. I was drawing story boards for over a decade before I started directing. I was always at the start of the process, but now I get to follow the ideas all the way through to the finish frame. It’s an incredible process. I feel like I’ve become a much better artist. And I still get to storyboard… so I’m happy.
Byron Howard: Being an animation director is an amazing job. We are surrounded by the most skilled artists, composers and craftsmen in the film business. Nathan and I start at the very beginning of a film when there’s only an idea and thousands of blank storyboards, through to the end when the film premieres in theaters all over the world. In working with so many brilliant people along the way, we both become better filmmakers ourselves. I love my job.
How do you feel about Tangled being the last of the Disney Princess films (for a while anyway)?
Nathan Greno: I’ve heard that rumor. Not true! If we wanted to do a Princess movie as our next project, John Lasseter would be ok with that. There is a lot in development at Disney Animation… I wouldn’t rule out the idea of seeing another Princess movie!
Byron Howard: Honestly, I’m very happy that Disney Animation’s upcoming slate includes vastly diverse projects. That keeps the studio healthy. And, believe it or not, that slate does still include some great fairy tales.
How has the animation process changed through the years you have been working on Disney films?
Byron Howard: When I first started at Disney animation, CG animation was really just a tiny blip on the radar. Lion King had just come out to huge success, and Disney had a long slate of traditionally animated films in production. I actually remember seeing some of the first scenes from Toy Story, when the Army Men leave Andy’s room to spy on the birthday party, and I was like “Wow. This is going to change things from now on.” Now CG is the expected route for animated films, and the scope of the stories get bigger and bigger with each release.
What was it like working with Alan Menken?
Byron Howard: Alan Menken, and our lyricist Glenn Slater are two genuinely brilliant guys. In a few minutes on the piano, Alan can create a tune that you will remember for the rest of your life, and Glenn’s diverse talent shows from the hilarious pub song to the heartfelt ballad in the gondolas. We’re very honored to have worked with them both.
Did you always have Zach and Mandy in mind for the roles?
Nathan Greno: In the very beginning, we try to create very appealing characters. We have friends around the studio do the temp voices for our early screenings. At some point (before animation begins) we begin the casting process. We saw hundreds of people for the role of Flynn and Rapunzel. Hundreds! It was crazy. It seemed that all of Hollywood wanted these parts. There were a lot of amazing auditions, but in the end Mandy and Zach totally nailed it. They were incredible. People are always surprised to hear they didn’t record together because their characters are so charming on screen. Mandy and Zach were the perfect fit.
Why do you think you were able to get boys interested in a “Disney Princess” film?
Nathan Greno: Mostly because I don’t feel we made a “princess film.” Honestly, I feel we made a movie that has princess elements in it — but I wouldn’t call it a princess film. Tangled has a ton of action, a ton of humor, a ton of heart and emotion. It’s a film for everyone. Yes, we have a princess… but she doesn’t know she’s a princess. It was easy to get boys interested in the movie because we made a movie for everyone to enjoy.
Other than Tangled, what is your favorite Disney movie?
Nathan Greno: I love Dumbo! Best. Film. Ever.
What were three main challenges you faced making Tangled?
Byron Howard: 1. The schedule 2. The schedule 3. The schedule. Honestly, the film was challenging in a hundred ways, but the fact that we had to make this film in half the time of other features was the real bear. Happily, the film looks more amazing than we could’ve ever hoped for, but our poor crew really took a beating trying to hit those deadlines with Nathan and myself being so slavish to quality. We love our crew, and the fact that their work has made such a splash in the world really justifies all their hard work and sacrifice.
Will you be working together on another Disney animation project, in the future?
Nathan Greno: Yep. We couldn’t be happier with the results of Tangled… we felt like we had no choice but to do this again! We pitched a few ideas to John Lasseter and we are currently developing another film… stay tuned!
How did each of you get your start in the entertainment industry? Was animation always your passion?
Nathan Greno: I wanted to work for Disney ever since I was a kid. I was always into creating my own comic strips and comic books. I loved to create my own worlds and characters. I loved storytelling. My mom started taking me to see the Disney films when I was a kid and I fell in love with them. Disney created better stories and better characters than anyone. I wanted to go there and learn. I was in first grade when I told my parents I wanted to work for Disney. I guess things do work out in life if you want something bad enough.
Byron Howard: Do what you love and do it with passion. Passionate people really push every industry ahead, including animation.
Glen Keane (Executive Producer/Supervising Animator)
Before the interview, Glen did a quick riff on the use and importance of hair in Disney animated films over the years. He quickly drew sketches of the Beast, Ariel, Tarzan, and Rapunzel, which was a pretty cool sight to see!
How did you get your start in the entertainment industry? Was animation always you passion?
Glen Keane: I sent my portfolio when I was 18 to CalArts to the school of painting. I wanted to be a fine artist. My portfolio was sent by accident to the school of film graphics, an artsy way of saying animation. I was very disappointed but ultimately discovered animation as the ultimate art form. I liked to think that if Da Vinci or Rodin was alive today they would chose animation as their metier.
Was it strange — after being a pencil & notebook guy for all those years — to suddenly be drawing on a tablet?
Glen Keane: The Syntec tablet at first was very slippery with the stylus pen on glass and it took a couple of weeks to get used to that but I quickly found that there were benefits to it. I could animate very quickly moving from one frame to the next and have my drawings projected up onto the screen in our dailies screening room. All the animators would watch my drawings form and I could talk and actually give animation lessons to the young animators on our crew. I saw this as an opportunity to pass on the baton that had been given to me by Walt’s “Nine Old Men.”
Is there a sequence you’re most proud of, and why?
Glen Keane: The sequence where Flynn is dying in Rapunzel’s arms. It was the most difficult and the most rewarding because the acting was so extremely subtle. The expressions of someone crying are inherently ugly. All the muscles in the face fight each other. No one wants a camera in their face at that moment. But we challenged the animators to go for the ugly face and as Rapunzel fights and holds back tears, the emotions are so real and so true. And it’s so effective because when that tear comes from Rapunzel’s eye and heals Flynn, you believe there is enormous pain in Rapunzel’s heart. If you don’t believe that tear comes from a heart of love the movie doesn’t work. It was successful and emotionally gripping. I was never more proud of our animators then at that moment.
Given that you worked on the Disney Princess movie that helped kick start Disney’s Second Golden Age of Animation (i.e. The Little Mermaid), how does it feel to have been so involved in the creation of Tangled, the Disney Princess movie that proved that WDAS can make truly great films in the CG format?
Glen Keane: It seems that a fairytale launches every important era of Disney animation. Snow White launched the golden age, Little Mermaid a renaissance, and now it’s my hope that Tangled can launch this third golden age of Disney animation. I think the key is finding the synthesis between a new technology, CG and the roots of our heritage, hand drawn.
What do you believe is the most important part of creating a character?
Glen Keane: I have an odd belief that the character exists before they are designed, similar to Michelangelo seeing a figure incased in marble. His task was to set it free. So for me the joy of creating a character that I believe is real is at the heart of creating a memorable character. I use people I know as inspiration. It’s a very intimate personal process and I will do hundreds, sometimes thousands, of drawings in finding that design. There is a great “aha” moment when I finally recognize the character on my paper as someone I know. And that happened with Rapunzel. I look at her and I can say with confidence that’s her.
How do you keep the creative ideas flowing? How do you fight back against creative blocks?
Glen Keane: I find that when I hit a creative block I see it differently now than I did when I was younger. I used to think of a creative block as proof that my creative journey had come to an end. That I just never really had it. Then I discovered it was not the end but a wall to climb, that really I had come to an end of a plateau and there were new ideas to discover and eventually another creative block to confront. So the way out of a block is to open yourself up to something new. The way I do that is escape from Disney, go to a library and randomly search through books of artists or writers and find some new wind of inspiration. Sometimes I head down the street not far from Disney to the Norton Simon Museum and I always am reminded that this is my time to be an artist and to make the most of the opportunity like these artists before me did i.e. Degas, Renoir, Rodin.
What was the hardest sequence to deal with in this movie and why?
Glen Keane: The difficulty of animating crowds is monumental. When Rapunzel enters the kingdom and sees a world filled with people it put the fear of God into all of us at the studio. How in the world could we animate this crowd and maintain the integrity of everything we wanted in Rapunzel herself? The heroes of that sequence were John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis, my fellow animation supervisors. Typically animation supervisors give the task of animating crowds to the newest animators as quote, “dirty work”. Instead John and Clay took it upon themselves to organize, oversee and animate those crowds. Those guys are awesome.
Any final thoughts on Tangled?
Glen Keane: Disney animation has been a home for me for 37 years and I have learned an enormous amount from the artists who I have worked with and the creative challenges in the characters I have animated. I have told the animators many times on this film that they are artists and had they been born five hundred years before, we would be talking about building a cathedral or painting on wet plaster and creating frescoes. But we are born at this time and our cathedral is animated filmmaking. This is their time on the planet to be artists and to be make it count. Open up what is inside of them and put all of their heart into moving this art form forward. That is the future for this art form of animation and Disney studios.
What advice would you give to people who want to break into the entertainment industry?
Glen Keane: I would say be yourself. The temptation is to give the audience what you think they want instead of opening up and being vulnerable and sharing who you are with them. It seems that every time someone takes that step of vulnerability they discover an audience ready to embrace them.
If you haven’t seen Tangled, SEE IT! It’s an excellent film and an example of how story, character, and technology can come together in a seamless and magical collaboration.
Tangled is available NOW on DVD, Blu-ray, and a variety of other formats.
What was your favorite moment from Tangled? Leave a comment and let us know!