What do Ariel, Tarzan and Rapunzel have in common? They were all animated by Disney Legend Glen Keane, and designed with his wife, son and daughter in mind. It is no surprise that his family serves as inspiration for his work, given that his father, cartoonist Bil Keane, created The Family Circus, which featured Glen and his siblings in cartoon form. Bil, Glen’s biggest influence “from birth,” was always willing to slide his own work aside when Glen asked for help, providing direction, wisdom and guidance. Glen learned from his dad to “Draw what you know,” and that is the approach he has taken with his Disney characters, many of which are on display as part of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s new exhibit “Make Believe: The World of Glen Keane,” on display through September 3.

Glen Keane poses at the Walt Disney Family Museum

In celebration of the exhibit, Glen spoke to Walt Disney Family Museum members about his work and process. Glen believes that characters exist before you draw them, and used the example of how he came up with the way Beast was going to look. It took him less than five minutes to explain and sketch Beast: a buffalo head because there is a sadness to the way they look, the crest of a gorilla because their brows express so much emotion, the muzzle of a boar, the mane of a lion so he is soft if Belle hugs him, twisted horns, cow ears to make him seem friendlier, and human eyes since there is a prince trapped inside of Beast and his eyes are the window to his soul.

Glen’s characters are dimensional not just in the way that they’re drawn, but in the way that he knows their backstory and uses inspiration from every day life to breathe life into them. For Ariel he figured out who she was, what kind of person she would become, and that she should have red hair, even though Michael Eisner said mermaids are blonde. Animation requires 24 drawings per second, and Glen was having trouble figuring out how to make Ariel’s hair move in the water. He was watching TV and saw a piece about Sally Ride on the Space Shuttle, and noticed that her hair did not move – that was the key to giving Ariel zero gravity hair! For Pocahontas, Glen based the shape of her face on Superman’s shield, with her cheekbones sitting up higher. In contrast to Ariel, Pocahontas has narrow eyes, a straighter nose, and noble eyebrows to convey her intelligence and spirituality; her flowing hair illustrated her spirit.

Glen was instrumental in ushering in the Disney Renaissance of animation, but had been mentored by the best: Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, along with the other Nine Old Men. Eric Larson reviewed Glen’s portfolio, and a line drawing that took just a few seconds to draw is the one that caught Eric’s eye. That drawing got Glen hired straight out of Cal Arts by the Walt Disney Animation Studio in 1974, and is on display in the exhibit. Glen remembers the overwhelming heritage he felt walking into the Studio, the smell of the polish on the linoleum floors, and the “artistic incense:” cigarettes, pencil shavings and Scotch. He said that, minus the smells, he gets the same feeling walking into the Walt Disney Family Museum, with its heritage and roots.

Ron Miller – Former Disney CEO and son in law of Walt Disney – at the exhibit

While WDFM founder Diane Disney Miller did not have a presence at the Studio, Glen had a few stories about her husband, former Walt Disney Company President and CEO Ron Miller. Ron’s heavy footsteps and hulking size served as inspiration for Ratigan in “The Great Mouse Detective.” Also, Ron and his friends would occasionally play volleyball at the Studio against the younger animators and overpower them despite being about 20 years older.

Glen told MiceChat that the first Disney movie that left an impression on him was “101 Dalmatians,” even though the way he saw the film was not under optimal conditions: his family of 7 in a station wagon at the drive-in listening on a car speaker. The fear instilled in him by Cruella de Vil gave him a reason to believe that she was real; he emphasized that a child only needs a little reason to believe and they will be hooked. When Glen became part of the Disney Studio, he got to work with Cruella animator Marc Davis, of whom Glen was in awe. During Marc’s figure drawing class at the Studio, he would say, “And again…” as he took a very methodical and structured approach in teaching animators how to analyze and look for positive angles.

In recent years Glen has taken to using Google’s Tilt Brush to add another dimension to his repertoire; the Tilt Brush allows him to draw how he sees things in his head. The air and space around you takes the place of paper, and VR headgear allows you to design your art in 3D as you walk into, through and around your creation. This video shows Glen using the Tilt Brush to draw Beast and Ariel.

Young Glen, who at the age of 4 or 5 was fascinated by the use of sculptural drawing in a Popeye cartoon featuring Sinbad the Sailor; pre-teen Glen with pencil in hand visualizing images with depth and who felt that the purpose of drawing was to make the paper go away so that you could enter the drawing; Academy Award winner Glen Keane. Glen was influenced by many people throughout his life, but it is Glen himself that shines through in his characters that we know and love. Doing the thing that feels like breathing, giving voice to assured heroines, conveying stories through the lines of his drawings – these are Glen’s gifts that make us believe.

If you haven’t visited the Walt Disney Family Museum, this exhibit is a great excuse to do so. And if you have visited before, this is your opportunity to return. More information about the Glen Keane exhibit and the Walt Disney Family Museum is available HERE.