From Ariel to Kobe Bryant: Disney legend Glen Keane takes us inside Oscar-nominated 'Dear Basketball'

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

The animated short Dear Basketball is getting plenty of press for making NBA superstar Kobe Bryant an Oscar nominee. But it’s also the first nomination for Glen Keane, the longtime Disney animator behind characters like Ariel, the Beast, Pocahontas, and Rapunzel. Keane left Disney in 2012 to pursue more personal projects, and Bryant’s pitch for Dear Basketball spoke to him immediately — even though Keane knew nothing about basketball. “Kobe and I found that we had this connection of careers that we were really identified with and yet we had stepped away from — him with the Lakers and me with Disney,” Keane told Yahoo Entertainment. “There was something a little bit scary with this whole new path that we were taking, and yet thrilling.”

In the five-minute film, Bryant (who retired from professional basketball in 2016) narrates a very personal love letter to the game, describing how he first became obsessed with basketball and why he needed to walk away after 20 seasons. Under Bryant’s narration, Keane’s illustrations show Bryant at different stages of his life, from boyhood to retirement, using a naturalistic style and subtle touches of purple and gold (the colors of the L.A. Lakers). The moving film, which will compete for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film on March 4, was Bryant’s brainchild. “He’s an animation geek,” Keane explained. Talking to Yahoo, Keane broke down all the personal touches Kobe brought to Dear Basketball, from his tube-sock-rolling technique to the childhood photos he provided. The artist also revealed the inspirations for his most iconic Disney characters (Ariel, for example, was based on his wife) and revealed whether drawing Kobe Bryant can help a person play like Kobe Bryant. (The answer may surprise you.)

Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane earned his first Oscar nomination for <i>Dear Basketball</i>. (Image: go90)
Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane earned his first Oscar nomination for Dear Basketball. (Image: go90)

Yahoo Entertainment: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination! How does this feel compared to, say, Beauty and the Beast getting nominated for Best Picture?
Glen Keane: Well, that was Disney. I contributed in having done the Beast, but still I didn’t feel quite as personally involved. With this one, so much of my personal drawings are up on the screen. This was such a labor of love for me. It very much was a passion project to be able to draw and animate in a style that I’ve always loved, and the original drawings are up on the screen; they aren’t hidden behind clean-up drawings, which is what we’ve always done at Disney. You don’t have the original animators’ drawings up on the screen, you have finely traced cleanup, and then that’s painted. So there’s something really direct and emotional about the drawings, and there’s something really direct and emotional about the nomination.

Tell me how you came to make an animated short with Kobe Bryant in the first place.
Kobe reached out and connected to Karen Dufilho, who was an executive producer at a film we did at Google called Duet, which Kobe had seen, and he was also familiar with my work at Disney. So she set up a meeting between Kobe and myself at our little studio here in West Hollywood. Kobe arrived with his wife and daughters, and my wife was here, and my producer, Gennie Rim, and my production designer, Max Keane. So we all sat down in my little office with my animation desk, just to see, do we get along? Can we connect creatively? Can we connect just as people? And immediately Kobe and I found that we had this connection of careers that we were really identified with and yet we had stepped away from — him with the Lakers and me with Disney. There was something a little bit scary with this whole new path that we were taking, and yet thrilling. And we both just really connected with the excitement of what lays ahead. It was illustrated in the film: As Kobe walks off the court, through that tunnel, he steps into the light, into something new that’s waiting for him. And that’s what I’ve been feeling ever since I left Disney.

So did Kobe write the “Dear Basketball” letter specifically for this film?
He knew that he wanted to do something with animation — that’s been cooking with him for a while. He’s an animation geek [laughs], which was really surprising to find! Even when he was a kid [living in Italy], he learned a lot about basketball through some European animated films that were about sports. So that was kind of a trigger for him to start, and a natural place for him to go when he ended: to write this letter to basketball, imagining it as an animated film. He met with me before he wrote that letter. So he was already thinking, how am I going to communicate a goodbye to the game? But he was visualizing it. I mean, the whole letter is surprisingly well-crafted as a screenplay. It has basically three acts to it, and there’s this climax at the end of the second act where Kobe is there, and the crowd is cheering, and there’s confetti falling, and it feels like it could be the end of it. But then there’s this death, really, as his injuries take over and he has to let go of the game, and the ball drops and rolls and the screen goes black. But then there’s this wonderful resurrection where we find that little 6-year-old Kobe has always been with adult Kobe, and we see them playing on the court one last time, and he sinks the ball and Kobe steps off the court and goes into his future.

Watch: The Making of ‘Dear Basketball’:

I remember when I was storyboarding it, I didn’t realize how much was in that letter until I started to draw the different shots. And it was when I got to the end and I realized — oh, little Kobe is still there, and they both have to be on the court at the same time! I just got chills. And it was at that point I realized, this is not a letter about basketball. This is a letter that’s to all of us, about that 6-year-old version of us that’s still with us as professionals, as adults, and the dreams we had as a child have never left us. It really could be “dear animation,” “dear medicine,” “dear writing,” dear whatever. I just knew that the film was much bigger than basketball.

The moment when Kobe and little Kobe are on the court together made me cry.
Oh, thank you for saying that. That’s exactly how I felt when I was sketching that out. Because at the beginning these are rough little sketches: Oh, I’m going to animate little Kobe. And then I realized once I got into it — wait a second, drawing Kobe, he’s not going to be some goofy little cartoon character. This has got to be a finely rendered version of Kobe that everybody can recognize. Wow. It’s not like the Beast. I mean, I could draw the Beast, and he could be any beast. I could define the Beast. But with Kobe, it’s gotta be him. And he’s actually got very delicate features to his face. He’s not easy to draw. That was a big challenge for me.

When you were drawing young Kobe, did you ask him for reference photos?
I got every photo of Kobe that he had when he was a little kid. There weren’t a lot of them. I used those very carefully, had them on my desk. And there are different ages that I got — really little Kobe to adolescent Kobe to teenage Kobe — and I was able to use those as my inspiration for him. So that’s kind of how Kobe looked when he was a little kid, a really cute little guy. The posters on the wall were all the real posters that were on Kobe’s wall as a kid. Kobe was constantly texting me the details, images that he really wanted to use. The videocassette player that he’d have on his bed, looking at the Lakers game. The videocassettes that his grandfather would send him. The way the chairs were set up on the court — Kobe sketched out the little pattern of chairs. I mean I’ve still got his horrible little drawing [laughs] of the chairs there. Everything had to be true.

Little Kobe has big dreams in <i>Dear Basketball</i>. (Image: Go90)
Little Kobe has big dreams in Dear Basketball. (Image: Go90)

How you fold his dad’s tube socks was the first thing. I skipped over that, but my son, Max, was storyboarding a version of it, and I noticed that he had really focused on how the tube socks were folded. I said, “Is that really that important?” And it was. Kobe was like, “No, no, you have to know. … Here, I gotta get some tube socks.” And he got some. “You gotta film this.” So we filmed it, and we animated it based on that little footage.

Tell me about developing the art style, which is so wonderful — the color palette and the way it’s drawn.
Max Keane is our production designer. He’s my son as well. He’s known my drawings his whole life, and he’s got great taste. He’s always been a critic of my animation, ever since he was a little kid. You know, he’d look at something with Aladdin and say, “I don’t know, Dad, you’re beginning to repeat yourself. That’s the same gesture.” He was a little 10-year-old kid at that time! But he’s always been incredibly honest and has great taste, so we’ve been working together since I left Disney.

And Max has this personal goal, it seems, of celebrating the expressive line. At one time he said to me, when he was a little boy and he’d just done this drawing, “Dad, do you know that every line you make on the paper, or anybody makes, is a unique creative act never to be repeated again in history?” And I realized, he’s right. Every line you make, if you look at it really close, it’s this explosion of graphite dust across the paper, like a star field. And there’s this energy to that.

So we’ve been sort of celebrating hand-drawn line in the film we did for Google, Duet, and everything that we’ve done since then. Max has this way of lifting the lines off the paper and setting them in dimension so that there’s space. They’re not flat any longer. There’s parts of the drawing that are out of focus because he’s suggesting that they are closer to the audience, and other parts that are really focused and in detail.

Kobe Bryant in animated action in <i>Dear Basketball</i>. (Image: go90)
Kobe Bryant in animated action in Dear Basketball. (Image: go90)

The challenge of animating this in the Staples Center, where you’ve got thousands of people — how do you do that without drawing everybody in there? Max had a way of putting depth and subtle color, slight purples and golds, throughout the whole film — very, very understated, but that’s the color theme, this gold and purple throughout. Everything is very natural. We’re not trying to sell or push anything with it.

There’s one particular shot I want to ask you about — that turning point where Kobe says, “My body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” and we see his injuries.
Max personally put in a good month working on that one moment. It was basically a few drawings of action that were one pose; somebody had snapped a photo of Kobe at that moment, and I was animating it. But Max ended up taking a skeleton drawing that I had done and imposing it as an X-ray in there, so that you had this X-ray and then a muscle pass over top of that. And then we told Kobe, we want to see your injuries light up on your body at that point, like little flashes of light in the places those injuries were taking place. So I asked, can you give us a list of your injuries? Kobe gave us, I don’t know, two pages of injuries. I said, “OK, look, we can pick four!”

So the last flash is really on his Achilles tendon. And it’s the most wonderful moment because you see Kobe move into this freeze frame, and in that moment you get to understand the pain that a basketball player like Kobe goes through, and how you push the body to its human limits. The desire can be there to go on, but the body just can’t do it. We were trying to figure out how to do that. We had animated a section where Kobe is in ice after the game, but it wasn’t as dramatic as showing the moment, an X-ray vision of the body struggling to keep up with what that moment was.

<em>Dear Basketball</em> in X-ray vision. (Image: Go90)
Dear Basketball in X-ray vision. (Image: Go90)

You worked on so many unforgettable animated characters during your time at Disney. What inspired those designs?
I invested a lot of myself in the characters I designed. Before Little Mermaid, I was doing villains: Ratigan [in The Great Mouse Detective], the bear in The Fox and the Hound. I was doing villains. And I was cast to do Ursula in Little Mermaid. But when I heard Ariel sing, I just really related to this character that believes the impossible is possible, that this mermaid could fall in love with a human with legs. I was intrigued with this girl’s belief that nothing was going to stop her. And I told the directors, I’ve got to animate that girl. I’ve gotta be Ariel. And they said, “Well, can you draw a pretty girl?” Because I’d been doing these big, ugly characters. I said, “Yeah, I can draw a pretty girl — I’ve been drawing my wife for 10 years now!”

So I designed Ariel, really, based on my wife, who very much looks like Ariel, except no fins. And the big expressive eyes were just a way of really trying desperately to communicate what is going on inside this girl’s soul. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I made ’em big.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid. (Image: Disney)

The Beast was much more like me. I had a terrible temper when I was a little kid, would throw things around, and that somebody could look past this beastly exterior and find something to love? That really moved me. So living in the skin of these characters has been what’s natural for me.

Tarzan was very much my son, Max. At the time I was trying to figure out how to animate Tarzan swinging on a vine, but he seemed passive, Tarzan just hanging onto a vine. But my son, Max — our family had moved to Paris, he was 14 years old, and he refused to accept he was no longer in California. So he skateboarded everywhere in the city and would come home with bloody knees, going down railings. We’d watch these extreme sports videos together, and I started thinking about Tarzan as, instead of swinging on the vine, what if he was like a tree surfer? So his whole movement was based on my son, the way he was moving around on the skateboard.

Rapunzel [in Tangled] was my daughter, Claire. When she was 6 years old, I remember, she wanted to paint the ceiling in her bedroom. And my wife said, “We’re not going to set a 6-year-old loose with paints in the house.” So when Claire graduated from art school, I hired her to be Rapunzel as an artist. When Rapunzel paints on the walls, we had to have an artist to do that. So I said, “Well, hey, Claire, now you get a chance to paint your bedroom.”

How did those experiences at Disney influence your work on Dear Basketball?
My approach has always been about what my dad [Bil Keane] taught me, because my dad was a cartoonist. He created the Family Circus comic strip that he based on his own family, and I was one of the kids in there. Dad was always telling me, “Glen, draw what you know.”

And that was the scariest part of Kobe asking me to do this film: I really, truly did not know basketball. I was terrible in basketball. As I told him, “You’ve got the worst basketball player on earth animating you.” And he said, “Well, that’s good, because then everything you’re going to learn is going to be through analyzing and studying me.” And it’s true. I mean, I studied every move that he made. He’s an illusionist on the court. He’s a magician, where he was constantly making the opponents commit to one fake he was doing so he could move to the other side, and faking people out with incredible skill. I was just amazed as I was animating him, to the point where I’d finally learned it so well that I really believed I could do it. I mean, I really believed I could play like Kobe!

So one night at the Lakers Training Center after evening was done, the lights were off, I went out onto the court and I got a basketball, turned on the lights, and said, “I’m going to do a three-pointer from out here.” There’s this jump fade shot that Kobe learned from Michael Jordan that in a lot of ways became a signature shot for Kobe. I knew I could do it. From all the analysis, I knew that you’ve got to jump up and kind of fade back, your right hip is slightly forward, your left arm is straight up holding the ball, your right arm is at about a 45-degree angle holding the ball, and then you release all the way until the tip of your finger lets go of the ball. I remember Kobe saying, “Even after the ball has left my index finger, I still feel like I have control over directing the shot.” I mean, I felt all of that. And the ball is flying through the air, and I can’t believe it, I’ve never been able to do this — the ball is heading straight for a three-pointer from way out in the middle of the court!

And then the ball falls about 10 feet short of the basket. But it was going in a straight line. It was gonna make it! But it was one of those wonderful moments. A little humbling. Like, OK, I’ll stick with my animation. But I think I still had good form.

[Editor’s note: Dear Basketball was released by go90; both go90 and Yahoo are part of Verizon. The film was produced by Kobe Bryant’s Granity Studios, Glen Keane Productions and Believe Entertainment Group.]

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