Animation legend Glen Keane on making impossible possible in Over The Moon
Photos show scenes from the animated film about a young girl who builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the mythical Moon Goddess.
Photos courtesy of Netflix

Animation legend Glen Keane on making impossible possible in Over The Moon

Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - November 5, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — You’ve most likely grown up watching at least a single work of the legendary animator Glen Keane.

As the former lead animator at Disney, Keane spent his three-decade career bringing to life iconic characters from such unforgettable animated films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas.

In 2018, Keane won the Oscar alongside the late NBA superstar Kobe Bryant for the animated short Dear Basketball.

Now, he is the director of Over The Moon, Netflix’s new animated musical film based on an enduring Chinese myth, which is said to be the basis of the famous Mid-Autumn Festival or the Mooncake Festival.

A 38-year veteran of Walt Disney Feature Animation, Glen Keane directed Over The Moon, an animated feature/co-production of Pearl Studio and Netflix.

In the story, a determined and bright young girl named Fei Fei builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the Moon Goddess. Joined by her “future” stepbrother Chin, she ends up on an unexpected quest to a whimsical land of fantastical creatures.

The film takes pride in its all-Asian cast, including the Filipino-Chinese-American singer/actress Cathy Ang as the voice of the lead character Fei Fei. She is joined by big names in the Broadway and Hollywood scene — Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Sandra Oh, Robert G. Chiu, Margaret Cho and Kimiko Glenn.

During an interview with The Philippine STAR and other press, Keane said that it was important to tap a full cast with Asian descent for the film. “It was as important to do that as it was to go to China and spend time there having dinner in Chinese families’ homes, where everybody’s sitting around a roundtable, experiencing the authenticity of the people and the culture… because all of the acting and gestures needed to be so true.”

Other than the voice cast, they also hired Asian animators, particularly women.

Meanwhile, according to the production notes, Over the Moon started taking shape in 2015 when Pearl Studio headed by Peilin Chou (Abominable, Kung Fu Panda 3) hosted its first annual Brain Trust summit, which invited animation talent from all over the world to gather at its headquarters in Shanghai.

Executive producer Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club, Dark Matter), pitched the story of this girl and the lengths she goes to prove what she learned as a child. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give, Under the Tuscan Sun) came onboard soon after. Over The Moon would turn out to be Wells’ last story to tell as she died of cancer. But producers said that her heart and soul was in the film, giving it more truth and meaning.

Over The Moon, now streaming on Netflix, is anchored on themes such as moving forward, embracing the unexpected, and making the impossible possible. And The STAR learned from Keane that it’s also the story of the incredible five-year journey of Over The Moon to the screens.

You said in an interview that you felt like you were really called to do this film, why so?

“I had just given a talk in 2017 at the Annecy International Animation festival in France, and the subject of the talk was ‘Thinking Like A Child,’ in which I just talked about everything I love about animation, and particularly the spark in a character. What I find the most fascinating are characters that believe the impossible is possible.

“And in the audience was Melissa Cobb, who would become the head of Netflix animation and Peilin Chou,who is the head of Pearl Studios, and in their possession was a script called Over The Moon. And after speaking, what they both said to each other: ‘That’s the guy that has to direct this movie, because in this story is a girl who believes the impossible is possible’ and that connection was made and when I read the script.

“I just fell in love with Fei Fei. I mean here’s this little 12-year-old girl that is so smart. She knows physics and math and science. That’s one side of her like her dad but then there’s her mom, which is all about faith and imagination and seeing what no one else can see. And both of those together, we were going to be able to animate.

“What I was told by my mentors at Disney was, they said, ‘Glen, don’t animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking and feeling.’ Thinking and feeling were both sides that Fei Fei had that I was so excited about bringing her to life.”

You have animated some of the all-time favorite characters. In what way has your illustrious experience at Disney been reflected in this film?

“Cathy (as Fei Fei) and Ruthie Ann (as Fei Fei’s mom) and Phillipa (as the goddess Chang’e), they’re more than voices in this movie, they give you the DNA to animate. Their faces also inspired the way the characters look. It just naturally happens. You hear their voices, you look at them, you find certain moments. We videotaped their performances because of little gestures that they did that we wanted to make sure the animators captured.

“The thing that I learned from Disney, because I’d spent nearly 40 years there and at a certain point, I sense that I needed to leave. And I didn’t know why. My wife has always been really courageous to go along with that. Like, ‘Okay, so what are you going to do?’ ‘I have no idea, but I know that it’s not going to happen if I stay.’ And I didn’t know what that was going to be.

“And by stepping away, you think about what is the essential thing from Disney that I never would ever want to lose? It was the thing that my mentor taught me there, one of the animators who worked on Pinocchio and Snow White and Bambi... animate what the character is feeling and thinking. That’s the part of Disney you can leave, but you’ll never lose that. That’s the transferrable thing for any animator around the world, in any studio, anywhere you are, any story. You have to crawl into the skin of the characters and live in their skin.”

How do you feel about releasing this film in the time of a pandemic?

“This film was an example of the lessons that we were animating about the impossible is possible. In doing this film, we all went through amazing loss. Personal losses of the people on our film, family members that they lost. In a three-year period, you  go through pain and loss... and these are the various things that we were animating. Probably one of the biggest ones was the death of Kobe Bryant at the beginning of this year. It was like losing a brother and losing Kobe. And we all gathered together and talked about him and there were a lot of tears that we shared.

“And within, I think, it was a couple weeks later, the pandemic hit and Netflix shut down. I mean, 11:30 in the morning, this was a Thursday and we had deadlines every Friday that we had to hit in order to get this film done. Gennie Rim, my producer, said ‘Glen, we have to clear out of the studio, Netflix is closing, and in half an hour, we were gone, and we still haven’t been back since. This is from the beginning of March into February. The coffee cups are still there with coffee in them, the coats are still on the chairs.

And the following day though, we had the deadline, they had to meet somehow. And then the following week and the following week and the following week and we had all gone back to our homes. I had home up in the mountains and almost no internet, almost none. So that when I was talking to somebody, their face would be talking and it would be some very important moment and their face would freeze and there’d be silence. It was like, argh.

“And I’d wait, and it would be 20 seconds, and then they would start again and I got really good at imagining what they were saying in that 20 seconds piecing it together (laughs).

“But the way that we did it was by this passion, the momentum, the love we had for the story and for one another, the commitment that what Audrey (Wells) wrote was so personal for her, that we at all costs were going to deliver this movie. I have to say, I’ve never worked on a film as beautiful and emotional as this one.”

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