***This article originally appeared in the November ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 304)***
Ever since it was announced that beloved Disney veteran Glen Keane was set to direct his first animated feature, Over the Moon, animation lovers have been eagerly following the development and production of the project. Produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and Netflix, this beautifully conceived CG-animated feature follows the adventures of a young girl named Fei Fei who builds a rocket ship to the Moon to prove the existence of a legendary Moon Goddess. Once she arrives at her destination, she ends up on an unexpected quest, and discovers a whimsical land of fantastical creatures.
The film, which is premiering on Netflix on October 23, is produced by Gennie Rim (Dear Basketball) and Peilin Chou (Abominable), co-directed by John Kahrs (Paperman) and written by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give, Under the Tuscan Sun). The film features the voices of newcomer Cathy Ang (Fei Fei), Phillipa Soo, Robert G. Chiu, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Sandra Oh, Margaret Cho, Kimiko Glenn and Artt Butler, and includes memorable songs by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park and a score by Steven Price (Gravity).
“I love characters that believe the impossible is possible,” said Keane during a recent interview. “I like that in my own life. We all face impossible odds in our life, now more than ever, and nothing can stop a character that sees the goal. For Ariel, it was to live out of the sea somehow, and for Fei Fei it’s to build a rocket to the Moon. I felt like I had to do this movie. I get that girl.”
Keane, who received an Oscar for directing the late Kobe Bryant’s short Dear Basketball, adds that there was something very exciting about discovering a country like China through the perspective of this young protagonist. “I think there’s something wonderful about telling a story from the point of discovery where you are learning something new,” he said. “Our producer Peilin took us on a little tour in China, and we visited this wonderful little water town that became the town for Fei Fei. People would invite us into their homes and we got to have dinner with a Chinese family in their home. I had never known what it was really like in China, and the people were so warm and friendly. And what was, I guess the most inspiring to me, was how everything happens around food and the dinner table.”
A Final Gift
Chou mentions that the film was Audrey Wells’ final project before she passed away from cancer in 2018. “She was so excited about that idea, about a strong girl that loves science and was interested in doing that,” says the producer. “But beyond that, she really connected with the story thematically because she was going through her own journey in her life. We didn’t find out until a year or so of developing the project with her that she was sick and didn’t have a lot of time left. And so she really, really wanted to leave this movie behind as a love letter for her own daughter and her husband to talk about what happens when people pass on, that love still really lasts forever. We were really fortunate that she was still with us at the first screening. So she really got to see a version of this film, which she absolutely loved.”
“It’s actually been an incredible journey,” Rim says. “We followed Glen’s creative process and talked about the storytelling and the freedom of creativity. I think it’s definitely a Glen Keane film through and through, and he’s had so much support from both sides. I think we’re just all really excited to see the world experience this film in this way.”
Both Rim and Chou emphasized the importance of working on a movie that offered an honest and original representation of Chinese families and culture to the U.S. and the world.
“I definitely grew up at a time where I never saw anyone that looked like myself in U.S. movies or on television,” says Chou. “So, it’s meaningful to me to be able to bring this type of story and the culture also, which very much is a part of who I am and how I grew up.”
Keane says working with Netflix, Pearl and Sony Imageworks offered much creative freedom in terms of the film’s visual styles. “Netflix is a really unique studio in that there isn’t a house style,” he explained. “There’s a leaning into each creative’s personal vision. We did this film at an amazing speed. We were the first ones in this little Netflix animation studio. Within four or five months, had the entire movie up with the eight songs written and storyboarded. Everything was happening really fast. There was this confidence that this was going to stick. This was our film.”
Chou points out that while the film’s characters and experiences are very specific to China, overall the movie is universal and globally relatable. “Audiences will get to see a real Chinese family, real characters with depth and the same longings and desires and hopes for their children and themselves as everyone around the world. We’re all just people and connected in that same way. So I hope people will see that and feel connected to that. In a way, it’s kind of like being able to visit China through an animated film and really experience the people and the culture.”
Of course, the character of the film’s imaginative heroine is one of its main draws. “She reminded me so much of the other characters I had animated throughout my career. When my producer Gennie Rim and I read the script, we felt compelled to do it. This is Audrey Wells’ swan song. It tells such a beautiful story. So, this movie became one of the first animated projects set up at Netflix.”
Keane says he knew that he wanted to draw and design some of the characters in the movie. “Disney gets so deeply ingrained in you after you spend 40 years there,” he says. “I was looking at the designs and thinking, it’s almost there, but there needs to be something more. I had seen Brittany Myers’ work on the internet: She had done a wonderful painting of Ariel. There was something different and better about her approach. She was pushing and stretching things in a new way. So I started to imitate her way of drawing and I liked what it was doing for me.”
“Our producer Gennie asked me if I’d like Brittany to work on the movie with us,” Keane recalls. “She has a way of building the right team. So we brought her and Jin Kim, with whom I had worked on Tangled, and we designed these characters. They are three-dimensional, soft characters that feel like they have blood in their veins. It’s something that I learned from the Nine Old Men at Disney. It’s so much about sincerity in the eyes of the characters. So much of the performance is about animating the moment of discovery when an idea happens, and you can truly see it in their eyes.”
“There was a moment where Peilin was saying, we want you to make this movie your own, and we know you love hand-drawn,” Keane recalls. “But after doing Tangled I realized how much drawing is infused in CG if you want it to be. It can be the foundation to everything that you do. So, we decided to take all the power of drawing and design, the beauty of the lighting and the design and colors and textures that CG can bring. We decided to do it in CG. Now I look at the film and cannot imagine that we could have done it any other way.”
A Voyage to Remember
Keane says he has always been drawn to movies that incorporate human flight. “My favorite animated movie is Peter Pan,” he notes. “There’s this wonderful moment when Peter Pan takes Wendy, Jonathan and Michael out of the window of their home, and they fly across London. That idea that you can fly has always been a big part for me. I have flying dreams! As I read the script, the idea of building a rocket to the Moon really captured my imagination. I feel like animation is like that. It takes you on this ride that everyone is going to believe it.”
Comparing Fei Fei’s trip to the Moon to Dorothy’s magical journey to Oz, Keane adds, “Our movie is the same kind of adventure. I love the fantasy, the imagination, the desire to make believe, but deeper than that it was something that Audrey was writing from this deep, heartfelt need. Our main character is going to the Moon to meet a Moon Goddess, and just like Dorothy, she has to go through this experience to be able to deal with the problems she is facing at home.”
“Gennie and I got to do this wonderful film with Kobe Bryant, Dear Basketball, which expressed something that was so personal and such a life message for him,” Keane says. “For this movie, Audrey Wells wrote this story knowing that she wasn’t going to be around much longer, and she put this movie in our hands to communicate that message. It’s such a privilege, and we took that very seriously, wanting this film to be as entertaining, fun, emotional and deeply applicable to our own lives. I would love people to come away from the movie singing the songs — that are truly wonderful — and valuing the importance of love and cherishing the people in your life.”
Imagining a Colorful Moon
Production designer Celine Desrumaux has become an expert in wild voyages and animated trips to the Moon. The talented French artist who worked on Fx Goby and Hélène Leroux’s George Méliès-inspired Back to the Moon, was working on John Kahr’s acclaimed VR short Age of Sail in Montreal when producer Gennie Rim surprised her. “She proposed coffee and showed up with Glen Keane!” she says. “In a way, you could say she’d set us up on a blind date to see how we got along. It’s really important that a director and production designer have good alchemy, they really need to trust each other. It’s essential in that creative combination!”
Coincidentally, Desrumaux had already planned a month-long vacation in China when she found out that some members of the art team would be taking a research trip in and around Shanghai. So, in March of 2018, she joined the team for a week to explore some of the classic Chinese water towns. “I am always interested in projects that are collaborative in every respect,” she says. “It was inspiring to get to know everyone with their different backgrounds. The movie gave me a chance to work with a fantastic and talented team — and Glen Keane — how can you say no to that?
Desrumaux says the character of Fei Fei caught her attention right away upon the first reading of the script. “You could also tell the relationships between the characters were really powerful,” she adds. “I knew I would learn a lot from Glen, from his talent and all his experience. I also knew he wanted to be surrounded by a team that was fresh and that would challenge him. I’d already worked with Gennie and John Kahrs on Age of Sail and was excited to work with them again. I also know they put art center stage. Last, but not least, the world of the Moon (Lunaria) was a great design challenge with huge potential.”
The production designer says working with Keane was an amazing experience. “Watching him draw is hypnotic and relaxing,” she says. “Both he and the producers entrusted and supported me, always encouraging to go beyond our comfort zone, and to show up with strong ideas. They really deferred color and lighting to me during production — -which is my favorite part, too! Glen was always open to hear thoughts and, on many occasions, art and design influenced story and layout For example, the way I wanted to place the lighting influenced the position of the characters on the set.
The Other City of Lights
Her biggest challenge? Creating the magical world of Lunaria. “Any artist that is tasked with creating an original world that is magical and wonderful will say that it is both exciting and scary at the same time,” she says. “Instead of having a city made with millions of detailed homes and buildings, we chose to have a city of lights, made of abstract shapes and volumes of color. The less details you have, the more perfect every frame’s composition should be. Every exterior shot of Lunaria was art-directed.”
The team used real-world references to create Fei Fei’s beautiful town. “Wuzhen and Nanxun were our real-life references for that town,” Desrumaux says. “I took lots of photos on my trip through China that fed both the design and animation team. For Lunaria, everything started with the album cover for Pink Floyd’s famous The Dark Side of the Moon! We wanted something as bold and colorful as this cover. The art of Joan Miró also became our main inspiration. His paintings were a wonderful source of dynamism and color. There was also the simplicity of early Chinese paintings and artists, old 1950s animated films, architecture (such as The Paris Philharmonic), and, of course, imagery of Chang’e!”
Now that the world gets to see her handiwork, Desrumaux hopes everyone will enjoy the film’s magical moments and inspiring visuals. “I think every person who worked on this movie really put in a lot of heart, and you can definitely feel that in the movie,” she concludes. “I think we made it ours, this movie has a special flavor. From the deep and subtle acting in animation that made us fall in love with the characters to the colorful lighting that made us wish we were there with Fei Fei. Lunaria is a truly unique and very colorful world. We can’t wait to share the movie with everyone!”
Over the Moon premieres on Netflix on October 23.