The Artist in a World of His Making

Glen Keane explores animation in virtual reality


If you were a child anytime during the last forty years, chances are that you grew up mesmerized by the work of Glen Keane, a legendary animator most famous for his contributions to Disney productions such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Tangled. A man like Glen Keane can be called many things: talented artist, author, or overall creative mind. But the simplest way to define this prolific man would be to recognize him as an apt storyteller.

After all, what is the work of any artist but that of expressing some narrative, whether it be abstract or well-defined, via a visual medium? In Keane’s case, his narratives, heroines, and landscapes are brought to life by the skillful and effortless strokes of his pencil. For four decades Keane has dwelt among the confined lines of the 2D page that later manifest themselves as complex forms on the screen. Now, however, thanks to advances in virtual reality technology, Keane’s medium is radically changing. The animator is no longer limited to the page, but can roam free in virtual spaces, accompanied by the characters that his imagination conjures up.

The video featured above is the fruit of a collaboration between Future of Storytelling (FoST) and a company called TiltBrush. The former is an annual conference (currently in its fourth year) that explores the ways in which the art of storytelling is developing in the digital age. TiltBrush is an innovative startup that has teamed up with Google to advance its VR drawing tools. With Tiltbrush’s software, any artist can create in 3D space, which is a complete gamechanger for animators like Keane.

“When I draw in virtual reality I draw all the characters real life size,” says Keane, as he elegantly carves sweeping virtual lines in a black virtual space.

“That doorway to the imagination is open a little wider. The edges of the paper are no longer there. This is not a flat drawing — this is sculptural drawing.” Indeed, for the first time ever the artist is brought face to face with his creations in an entirely novel way; characters are immediately born into a 3D reality that seems limitless in its potential.

One might wonder how this new-found intimacy between the artist and his work will affect the creative process. Perhaps it will lead to a Pygmalion-complex; the Cypriot sculptor of Ancient Greece who fell in love with the cold, ivory woman that he crafted with his own hands. Or perhaps it will simply unleash a new era of immense creativity in the animation sphere. As Keane notes, “by putting tools in your hand that can create in virtual reality, I can put goggles on and I just step into the paper.”

Words by Lilit Markosian

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