A fond childhood memory for Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is of her late mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) recounting Chinese folktales, in particular of the goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) who drinks the elixir of immortality and is transported to the Moon where she is eternally separated from her husband. A personal crisis arises when the adolescent learns that her father (John Cho) is going to remarry, and she decides to prove to him that the lunar deity is fact not fiction.
Despite his feature directorial debut Over The Moon being CG, legendary animator Glen Keane has not left behind working in 2D and with low-tech tools. “For me, the pencil is an extension of me,” he says. “It is a design element and the simplest instrument. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I did more drawings for Over The Moon than for The Little Mermaid, even though that was handdrawn and this is CG. I believe as Michelangelo said, ‘Drawing, or as it is called by another name ‘design’, is the fountainhead of all science, architecture and painting. Anyone who possesses this is a great treasure.’ I was drawing to communicate with the folks up in Vancouver [at Sony Pictures Imageworks].”
“I used to stand over Ollie Johnston’s shoulder as he would draw over my work,” recalls Keane. “I was 20 years old and was trying desperately to bring life to my first character, which was Penny in the film The Rescuers. As Ollie flipped between his drawing and mine, it felt like somebody was punching me in the stomach. The difference was so extreme. Here was a 65-year-old man being a five-year-old girl who was feeling and thinking. I was so touched by that. Although Ollie was my mentor for five years, I think about those 60 seconds all of the time. We had a Wacom Cintiq and I would draw over the animators’ work. [Visual effects supervisor] David Smith worked at finding the best tools that allowed a gentle touch like Ollie when he used to draw. Halfway through the production John Kahrs [Paperman] joined as a co-director; he is lefthanded and I’m righthanded, so it was such a joyful tag team collaboration between us.”
Keane recognised that digital technology gave him the ability to fully realise his vision. “There were so many things I was doing with drawing that I didn’t know I could ask for in CG. John Kahrs would ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ I said, ‘It helps with the look of the character if I can change the angle or direction of an eyelash.’ He said, ‘We can geometrically design eyelashes to do that.’ My job was to clearly define for those writing the computer code what it was we were trying to solve. You can’t just say, ‘I want it to be more organic.’ You have to be more specific.”
The goddess Chang’e was viewed as an older and more exaggerated version of the protagonist, which included being nine feet tall, and having small hands and a tiny head. “I looked at the experimental design work that Eusong Lee did and I asked, ‘Can we do that?’ This is the sacred goddess of China’,” remarks Keane. “Everything was bigger than life for her.” Simulating the cloth for various costumes worn by the diva goddess, conceptualised by the renowned couture designer Guo Pei, was a monumental task. “The complexity in the way her gowns trail, the stiffness and the layers of fabric was a major technological hurdle,” notes Kahrs. “Members of the cloth team at Sony were clamouring to get one of those shots on their reel because it was like a badge of honour. They were so difficult. It was an inspiring project to be on for a number of reasons and that’s one of them.” Despite leaving Disney and collaborating with Netflix, Keane did not abandon the mantra of having clear poses and appealing characters. “It’s a wild and psychedelic Oz story,” states Kahrs. “But a lot of those classic principles from the 2D animation world still apply to this show.”
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