How a 'Little Mermaid' Animator Got Inside Kobe Bryant's Head for 'Dear Basketball'

Dear Basketball Sketch and Glen Keane - Inset - Getty - H 2018
Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky (Sketch); Theo Wargo/Getty Images (keane)

I had left Disney after nearly 40 years there, and since then I had been focusing on personal, expressive films. Kobe had seen this film I did for Google, Duet, and he contacted one of the executive producers, and she set up a meeting. He came in to our tiny studio in West Hollywood, which is just in a duplex, and it was so surreal. He drives up in a big black Suburban, and he is just in our neighborhood. Kobe Bryant!

Kobe loves animation; he is an animation geek. So he walked in and was standing in our little dining room — but it is actually our story room ­­— and he looked around at the drawings and storyboards and little things on the wall, and I'm thinking, "Oh boy, here it comes." And he says, "This is perfect. This is what I want." We crowded into my little office in the back and connected over things we had in common. For me, it was leaving a career at Disney, which was so much a part of me, and for Kobe it was leaving behind the Lakers.

We talked about doing something together but didn't know exactly what it would be. Before Kobe retired, he wrote this letter, "Dear Basketball," and he called me and asked me if I would be interested in animating it. He goes, "I have my friend John Williams who is going to do the music." And I go, "Oh, that would be really wonderful."

Right after his last game [in 2016], where he scored 60 points and my son and I were in our little studio screaming our heads off, he texted and said, "Let's do this." I told Kobe, "You've got the worst basketball player on earth animating you." He said that it was OK because everything I would learn about basketball was going to come through studying him. So Kobe came over, and we downloaded YouTube's "Top 20 Kobe Bryant Plays" and stop-framed through every one while Kobe talked about what was happening on the court. 

My mentor — one of Disney's Nine Old Men — Ollie Johnston told me, "Glen, don't animate what the character is doing — animate what the character is thinking." So we talked about what was going on on the inside. Kobe has an incredible emotional memory of how he was feeling during the plays. Any time you are animating, you are living in the skin of your character. For me, I've been a mermaid and a beast, but I never imagined I could be Kobe Bryant.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.