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Disney animation legend Glen Keane on his Kobe Bryant film

The veteran artist discusses his collaboration with the basketball star ahead of Annecy.

In advance of his keynote speech in Annecy this week (on Tues 13 June), veteran Disney animator Glen Keane (the creator of characters from Ariel in The Little Mermaid to the Beast, Pocahontas and Tarzan), has revealed further details about how he came to collaborate with recently retired NBA legend, Kobe Bryant.

Late in his career, Bryant wrote a poetic letter to his younger, six-year-old self, “Dear Basketball.” Bryant had been contemplating an animated film based on the poem. “He (Bryant) had been meeting with various studios and then he saw a little film I had done for Google (Spotlight Stories) called Duet,” Keane explained of his VR film from 2014 that was available in both interactive and non-interactive forms.

“Kobe really connected with the hand-crafted quality to it and also to the (idea of) the visual poem,” the animator said of the legendary LA Lakers star, who played his final NBA game last year.

“I said to Kobe that if I was to animate your basketball, you would have the worst basketball player in the world animating you. He said ‘well, that’s good. Everything you learn about basketball, you can learn from studying me.”

In 2012, Keane had recently left Disney after a 38-year career at the studio. Bryant had just retired from the Lakers. ‘We both wanted to say something very personal,” Keane remembers. “That’s how we connected and decided to do this together.” 

The film, screening in Annecy following its premiere in Tribeca, is around 4 minutes long. Bryant provides the narration while there is music from the multi-Oscar award winning John Williams. 

Williams startled his fellow collaborators by confessing he had never seen a basketball game in his life but he connected with Bryant’s childhood dream.

“What was surprising for me was that I had thought that what made Kobe great was the physical genetics and that he was born just gifted. But, no, it was really his discipline and learning. He focused and put so much into learning this game… you’re animating his passion and drive,” Keane says of the basketball star who endured multiple injuries throughout his career and often “played through pain.”

Keane is both an advocate of hand-drawn animation and a pioneer in computer animation. (He and John Lasseter made the first computer animated film, a 90 second version of Where The Wild Things Are, in 1984.) In recent years, he has been experimenting with Virtual Reality. 

“I love Disney. It’s where I learned my art form and I felt that at Disney while I was there, there was a lot of creative freedom but you knew there is a built-in expectation of Disney film and what it needs to be. It is a big company and there is an enormous amount of money riding on that. I felt I needed to have less of that pressure on me,” the 63-year-old explains his departure from Disney at a time when, he felt, the studio’s feature animation division was moving “full speed” down a path of computer animation.

“I felt I needed to keep doing the thing that actually brings joy to my heart and that’s actually getting graphite on my hands and drawing and animating.”

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