Unbraided – The story of how Tangled remade animation forever

In 2006, a man named John Lasseter walked onto the lot of the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California.

Tall and somewhat on the heavier side, Lasseter liked to dress in colorful shirts with bold patterns on them. The classic Hawaiian was a conservative choice for him compared to some of the more extravagant pieces in his wardrobe. Combined with his signature, round wireframe glasses, the end result made him look somewhat goofy, whimsical — even when he had a jacket on.

I assure you, he was nothing of the sort. As he strode toward the front door, an air of confidence followed the man.

After all, this was a triumphant day for him: he was just announced as the newly appointed head of Disney Animation. And an outside hire, no less.

See, John wasn't a Disney man. At least not anymore. Not since he was unceremoniously fired from the House of Mouse, 23 years earlier.

I. Sometimes, you just have to get fired

In the mid-eighties, John Lasseter was one of the young animators at Disney who were pushing for the use of computer-generated graphics in traditional animation. Unfortunately, their pilot project — a short film called Where the Wild Things Are — stepped on one too many wrong toes, and Lasseter was fired a few minutes after he finished pitching the short to his supervisors.

Feeling glum, and out of a job, he went to a computer graphics conference in Long Beach, where he met one of his friends, a guy named Ed Catmull.

Ed was a computer scientist working at a little company called Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group. Hearing what happened, he offered a job to Lasseter, starting the two of them down on a road that eventually ended in six Academy Awards nominations and two wins.

For this to make sense, you have to know that George Lucas had a pretty bad divorce.

In 1983 he had to sell a lot of his assets to settle finances with his ex-wife, Marcia Lou Griffin. One of the necessary financial moves was to offload the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group, by then renamed to Pixar Graphics Group. You might have heard of that one.

In 1986, Steve Jobs acquired a majority share in Pixar, and over the next ten years, the company went from a computer graphics shop occasionally dabbling in animation to a full-on animation studio. Lasseter — the guy who was fired for arguing computer graphics had a role in animation— led all of Pixar's subsequent movies as executive producer and occasional director, creating films such as Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bug's Life, and Cars.

You know, small stuff.

In 2006, Disney bought Pixar wholesale and named Lasseter Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. The prodigal son has returned — vindicated.

Which brings us back to that Burbank parking lot, and to Lasseter on his second first day at Disney Animation.

Before the inevitable meetings and handshakes and everything else a freshly minted CCO has to do, Lasseter had one thing on his mind: go to the offices and find his long-lost friend, his collaborator on the Where the Wild Things Are, the other animation visionary, Glen Keane.

He heard that Keane's pet project, an animated movie based on Rapunzel was canceled a few days earlier after spending several years in development. Rapunzel was supposed to be Disney's first CG-animated feature and Lasseter was determined to find out what had happened.

As he dove into the halls of the Burbank studio, Lasseter probably didn't know yet that with his support, Keane and his movie about a rebellious, golden-haired girl would go on to change Western animation fundamentally.

II. This is personal

I was born in the 90s, so predictably, I was a Disney kid.

My first movie-going experience was The Lion King, and I was hooked after that first hit, watching every subsequent animated release in theaters, right up until 2001's excellent Atlantis, which was my favorite of the classic, hand-drawn films.

(In no small part because my tiny, 11-year-old heart fell briefly but madly in love with Kida, the badass Atlantean princess.)

After that, things have tapered off though. I became a pre-teen who felt animated movies were for the kids and slowly, but surely, Disney tales fell by the wayside for me. I was only passingly aware of the CG revolution brought on by DreamWorks's Shrek, and Pixar's early films.

When I started watching those new kinds of films later, in my early twenties, they did feel revolutionary, and not just because of their tech, but because of their storytelling.

They also felt less magical, however, less alive than the old Disney movies.

Shrek is a great story and a technical achievement, but not a beautiful piece of visual art. Like many of its contemporaries, it feels distinctly "computer-y." Like you're watching an extended video game cutscene.

So how did we get from the early plastic rubber look of Pixar and Dreamworks to the lavish, graffiti-like world of the Spider-Verse movies or the punk-rocky sketch-book vibe of Nimona? How did CG animation get to be alive, beautiful, and stylish like the Disney movies of old?

Well, through unlikely partnerships, sheer stubbornness, luck, and a French guy named Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

III. The golden boy of Disney

If there is an illustration beside the word animator in the dictionary, there is a very good chance it's a photo of Glen Keane. By the time of Lasseter's return to Disney in 2006, Keane was already one of the most accomplished artists in the company's history.

In the 70s, he quit his studies at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts after just two years to join Disney where veteran animators like Ollie Johnston and the rest of the "Nine Old Men" took him under their wings. He designed and animated Ariel and Tarzan in their respective movies, and was the supervising animator for the title characters in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas.

If you had a favorite Disney movie growing up, there is a good chance Keane had something to do with it.

Glen Keane was an interesting guy, though. Paradoxical.

While he was a dedicated student of the traditions and wisdom of Disney, he was also unafraid to experiment. He was simultaneously the star pupil of Jonhston and Frank Thomas (another legendary animator) and the rebellious collaborator of John Lasseter on the Where the Wild Things Are test.

He loved drawing with his pencil but fiercely argued that the computer should have a role in Disney's process.

After Lasseter was ousted from Disney, Keane kept pushing the boundaries and several of his movies contained small computer-generated parts — like the background in Beauty and the Beast's ballroom scene, or Tarzan's vine-surfing sequence.

In 2001, five years before the Pixar acquisition, he successfully got a new project green-lighted with him in the director's chair: a movie based on Rapunzel, the classic Brothers Grimm story. However, there was a stipulation: the movie had to be a 3D, CG-animated release.

This was something of a curveball for Keane, who originally wanted Rapunzel to be a traditionally animated, 2D feature. Although he was open to new technologies, he was worried that the 3D animation of the time was too rigid, too artificial to replicate the lifelike quality of Disney's hand-drawn style.

Nevertheless, he accepted the deal set out by management and started to forge ahead with the project. But the going was hard and Rapunzel went through many iterations in the next five years, eventually getting shut down in January 2006.

This was about a week before John Lasseter was announced as the new head of Disney Animation, and walked into the Burbank offices to find Keane.

IV. Second try

According to Keane's later retelling, Lasseter went to find him on his first day as the new Chief Creative Officer and he had two things to say:

First, he told Keane that he and Ed Catmull — you know, the other Pixar guy — decided to restart the Rapunzel project. Second, he asked Keane whether he wanted to do the film in 2D or CG. The choice was Keane's and Lasseter would back him on it.

Keane later recalled the conversation in an interview he gave to the Fat Guys at the Movies website (amazing name, by the way):

I told John if he had asked me three years ago I would have said 2D for sure but for the last three years I had been building a team around me with the idea that there was a better synthesis of the best of 2D and the best of CG possible. We had a new vision of what animation could be and I really wanted to pursue that goal. So I told John, let’s do it in CG.

And with that, Rapunzel was back in business.

V. Searching for the look

The first iteration of Tangled — called Rapunzel Unbraided — was very far from what the movie eventually became and was imagined to be a kind of inverse Enchanted. But instead of a princess and a prince getting stranded in the real world, two teenagers named Claire and Vince would have been shunted off to fairy tale land to inhabit the bodies of Rapunzel and his beau, Beau. (Terrible name choice, by the way — they should have consulted the 'Fat Guys' guys...)

Fortunately, this direction was scrapped and the team decided to go back to the roots of the original fairy tale. Keane said this about the decision:

[I]n my heart of hearts I believed there was something much more sincere and genuine to get out of the story[.]

A fairy tale needs the proper look, though: romantic, painterly, enchanting. And for that, the team needed to reach back. Way back.

VI. An improper request

In 1767, some twenty-odd years before the French Revolution, a courtier of Louis XV approached the esteemed painter, Gabriel François Doyen, to make a painting of him... and his mistress.

This didn't sit well with Doyen who was mainly working on religious and historical scenes and felt that such a frivolous request was improper. He declined the commission and referred the courtier to a colleague of his who had no such qualms. Who, in fact, was known for his cheeky, hedonistic scenes, often depicting cleverly veiled eroticism.

The courtier thanked Doyen for the referral and went to see this other painter, a fellow by the name of Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Fragonard didn't set out to be the "smut" painter of Louis XV's court — he kind of fell into the role by accident.

As a young man, he spent some time traveling through Italy and the country's many romantic gardens, terraces, grottos, and picturesque temples left a lasting impression on his art. His brushwork became light and fluid with dramatic colors and bold compositions. He learned to breathe life into the canvas, to give the sense of movement to the motionless.

Like all painters of his time, he alternated between religious and classical themes, with the odd depiction of domestic life — and in 1765 his breakthrough finally came. His painting, Coresus sacrificing himself to save Callirhoe, won him admission to the Royal Academy and was bought by King Louis XV himself.

A Rococo painting depicting a white-robed figure sacrificing themselves while a group watches and a young girl lies on the floor.
Jean-Honoré FragonardCoresus sacrificing himself to save Callirhoe, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly, Fragonard was awash with commission requests, and this is where the problems started. See, Louis XV's court wasn't really known for piety and restraint — oh no, on the contrary. Remember, this is the same court that was gleefully guillotined just a few years later by the Parisian public.

So when they came calling, they didn't want pictures of saints or Greek myths. They wanted to see their own lives on canvas, and their life was loud, licentious, and full of fun.

I think you know where this is going.

Money is money, and ultimately Fragonard was more concerned with capturing life than the source of that life. He would find a way to make his subjects beautiful, no matter where they were from — the world of myth or the gardens of Versailles. And this is how he became the painter of lovers in lush, overgrown gardens, playfully frolicking among the ruins of mythological architecture.

When Doyen's referral came knocking on the studio's door, Fragonard didn't even flinch at the mention of a mistress. He just nodded and prompted the courtier to tell him more.

VII. The Swing

Imagine that you order a silly little boudoir shot of yourself and your significant other to maybe put on the bedroom wall, and then that photo becomes one of the major works of a whole Western art period.

Well, this is kind of what happened to our humble courtier. Fragonard took his commission and turned it into The Swing:

A Rococo painting depicting a young girl in a pink dress on a swing.
Jean-Honoré FragonardThe Swing, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Striking, isn't it? The Happy Accidents of the Swing is considered to be Fragonard's best piece and a fundamental artifact of the Rococo period of European art.

It depicts a young woman on a swing, propelled by an older gentleman in the shadows, while a younger, smiling man is lying back (hiding?) in the bushes, looking up at the girl.

The woman herself is losing — or kicking off? — one of her shoes as she is swinging toward the light and the younger man, while a statue of a putto is looking down on the pair, shushing them with a finger in front of his mouth.

What is the painting about? There are many interpretations.

The most innocent reading is a simple playful afternoon in the gardens — a servant propelling the young nobles on a swing. The most sinister one? A young wife cuckolding his elderly buffoon of a husband with his lover, while the putto reminds us all to keep their secret. My favorite of them all? The self-assured rebellion of a girl on the verge of womanhood.

Be it any — or none — of them, it's hard to deny the magnetic quality of the image. You can almost hear the subtle creaking of the rope and the giggle of the woman as the shoe flies off into the bushes.

The Rococo was all about breathing life into the inanimate, and with The Swing, Fragonard achieved that goal perfectly. Which is why it caught the eye of an artist, hundreds of years later, working to bring her own rebellious teenage girl to life.

VIII. A conversation across the centuries

It's probably not a surprise to you that hundreds of people have worked on Tangled. They all left their marks on the movie, but there were some who were key to making Tangled what it is.

One of those people is Lisa Keene.

Keene was the original art director back when the movie was still called Rapunzel Unbraided, and she was already a Disney veteran by that point. She worked on almost all of the studio's big features as a background artist and character designer, so it was natural for Glean Keane to have tapped her to lead the development of the film's visual language.

It was Keene — in collaboration with French-born concept artist, Laurent Ben-Mimoun — who reached back to the Rococo, to Fragonard's Swing to create the perfect fairy tale look.

She remade The Swing as a concept art piece with Rapunzel in place of the woman from the original. In this iteration, there is no young man in the bushes and no elderly gentleman at the end of the ropes. It's all Rapunzel, her golden hair, and a shoe flying off into a lake.

Take a look.

This piece became the foundation for the look of the whole movie: pastel colors, dynamic composition, and deep shadows pierced by oh-so-much golden light.

Taking inspiration from a two-hundred-year-old painting, the look of Tangled was born. Now the director, Glen Keane just had to figure out how to bring it to CGI. And boy, was that a big "just."

IX. Bridging the gap

Things were slowly coming together for the Tangled team, but there were still a lot of questions around melding the worlds of 2D and 3D animation.

So, to gain perspective, Glen Keane tried to be a CG animator. For one day.

Succumbing to his team's constant pestering, he gave in and tried to learn how to do animation on a computer. He quickly became frustrated, however, and according to legend, he made an exasperated comment to the other CG animators in the room with him:

You guys work so hard just to come up with something that looks bad!

Being the fun lads and lasses they were, his team took the quote and put it up on the wall. For the rest of Tangled's production, Keane's exclamation became a reminder not to accept the limitations of the medium they were working in. On the contrary — if necessary, invent the things you need to achieve the painterly look of Fragonard.

Even with the can-do attitude, the work was often grueling.

Keane held daily sessions with the animators where he took their 3D sequences and drew over them on a tablet in real-time. He broke up the computer's unnatural symmetry and stiffness. He added tilt and rhythm, expression, and flexibility.

The animators complained:

But you should have seen it before!

To which Keane replied:

Yeah, but we gotta solve that. It’s gotta be like this.

Each daily session ended with dozens of notes for each animator, which they tried to implement with the help and support of John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis — the other two supervising animators besides Keane.

Keane affectionately called the two of them "bridge people" because they understood both 2D and 3D animation and could translate between the two sides.

Keane recounted the moment when things finally started to click in an interview he gave to the website Den of Geek:

You realise that the only way we could solve this problem of bringing hand-drawn into CG was to identify the problem. You can’t just say hand-drawn looks better, make it like hand-drawn. It’s like, specifically, exactly, what are you talking about?

And that’s what I was getting from people. The CG folks, the software people, they were saying, “I don’t understand, what’s different. What do you want? What are you looking for?”

Okay, these are the principals. We’ve got to have, in the hair, we’ve got to have rhythm, number one. I did a drawing of what I saw as rhythm, and suddenly they got it. It’s got to have twist, so that the front side turns to the back side. Oh, okay. It’s got to have weight, volume, so that it curves out and down, like it’s got a heaviness to it. And you see the little light bulbs going. As soon as you gave them specific problems, they were solving them.

All of this could have easily ended in disaster.

Feelings could have been hurt, egos could have stood in the way. People could have dug their heels in and insisted that some things simply just cannot be done.

But miraculously, both Keane and his animators were filled with empathy toward each other while simultaneously having absolutely no regard for "feasibility" whatsoever. During Tangled's ten years of development, it is estimated that Disney spent more than 260 million dollars on the movie and the team invented most of the techniques and tools they needed along the way.

Tools and techniques that went on to produce Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, and Encanto, and paved the way for non-Disney animation darlings like the recent Spider-Verse movies.

Tangled is a production of a paradoxical mindset — one that is excited by the new while revering the old. It's the love child of a team with two very distinct sides trying to create something together that is more than the sum of its parts.

And if you have ever watched the penultimate scene of the movie, you know that eventually, against all odds, they did succeed.

X. The best scene of Tangled

Look, this is going to be a heavy spoiler, so if you haven't watched Tangled yet, you might want to stop here and come back once you have. But we've got to talk about this scene.

In their interview with Glen Keane, the 'Fat Guys at the Movies' guys (still an amazing name) asked him what his favorite sequence of the movie was. When I was reading that question, I immediately had my own candidates:

Rapunzel's first time out in the woods! The musical number at the Snuggly Duckling! No, no — the lights over the water! Or maybe the amazing chase scene at the quarry? Yes, that! Or, wait, no — the best scene is any scene with Maximus in it.

I was full of guesses because the movie is full of amazing set pieces and characters. But Keane went in an unexpected direction with his answer:

Fat Guys: Is there a sequence you’re most proud of, and why?

Glen Keane: The sequence where Flynn is dying in Rapunzel’s arms.

Not the river breaking the dam with all that gorgeous CG water, not Rapunzel's golden hair with 140,000 individual hairs, and not even the police horse that is also a dog and just the bestest boy. No, Keane's favorite scene is Rapunzel quietly crying, holding the body of his dead love.

And once he explains it, you understand why:

It was the most difficult and the most rewarding because the acting was so extremely subtle. The expressions of someone crying are inherently ugly. All the muscles in the face fight each other. No one wants a camera in their face at that moment. But we challenged the animators to go for the ugly face and as Rapunzel fights and holds back tears, the emotions are so real and so true. And it’s so effective because when that tear comes from Rapunzel’s eye and heals Flynn, you believe there is enormous pain in Rapunzel’s heart. If you don’t believe that tear comes from a heart of love the movie doesn’t work. It was successful and emotionally gripping. I was never more proud of our animators than at that moment.

That scene is why Keane pushed his animators every single day. That scene is why the team spent 10 years in production, burned 260 million dollars, made math PhDs work together with classical animators, and invented a bunch of stuff nobody has heard of before.

That scene is where CG animation didn't just become as good as 2D, but transcended it.

That scene is a triumph.

XI. The moral of the story

I think there is a misconception around innovation lately.

In our modern myth of the techno-kings and queens of Silicon Valley, innovation happens by a maverick outsider who comes into an established field and disrupts it with a new, unfamiliar perspective. The old guard might stand in the way, but eventually, they are either won over or made utterly irrelevant by the enigmatic outsider who is just simply better at what they do.

It's the story told by many fawning biographies of "great men" and the foundation of just as many if not more investor slide decks.

And to be honest, there is an element of truth to it: innovation often starts by bringing an unfamiliar perspective to a familiar problem. Yet it's only a part of the picture — an incomplete slice of the whole story.

Because there is a vastly more important second part, the moment when the initial spark of innovation grows into a roaring fire that changes the game for everyone. When something transcends what was there and becomes something never seen before.

If Shrek was innovation, then Tangled was transcendence.

And it wasn't created swift, single-minded disruption — quite the contrary. The team that created Tangled struggled, debated, and experimented. They were curious about the future, yet respectful of the past. They got excited about new tools but were adamant that the tool should serve the artist, and not the other way around. They were genuinely, empathetically interested in each other and wanted to build something together that none of them could on their own.

What I'm trying to say is this:

New things that make our lives worth living are created by building bridges. Bridges between domains, between individuals, and across time. It is done slowly, deliberately, and carefully, but it is worth doing unquestionably.

At the very end of his interview with the Fat Guys, Glen Keane signed off with a thought that I find utterly beautiful:

I have told the animators many times on this film that they are artists and had they been born five hundred years before, we would be talking about building a cathedral or painting on wet plaster and creating frescoes. But we are born at this time and our cathedral is animated filmmaking. This is their time on the planet to be artists and to make it count. Open up what is inside of them and put all of their heart into moving this art form forward.

The rivers change, but the act of bridge building remains.


  1. John Lasseter (Wikipedia)
  2. Glen Keane (Wikipedia)
  3. George Lucas (Wikipedia)
  4. Walt Disney Animation Studios (Wikipedia)
  5. Tangled (Wikipedia)
  6. Animator Glen Keane Talks ‘Tangled’ (Fat Guys at the Movies)
  7. Glen Keane Talks 'Tangled' (Animation World Network)
  8. SDCC 2010: Disney Animators Panel on TANGLED (Collider)
  9. An Analysis of the Character Animation in Disney’s Tangled (Senses of Cinema)
  10. Animation Director Glen Keane Exclusive Interview TANGLED (Collider)
  11. Glen Keane interview: Tangled, family, Walt Disney, computers and The Snow Queen (Den of Geek)
  12. Tangled: An Interview with Disney Designer Laurent Ben-Mimoun (Animated Views)
  13. Rococo (Wikipedia)
  14. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Wikipedia)
  15. The Swing (Fragonard) (Wikipedia)
  16. Gabriel François Doyen (Wikipedia)
  17. Disney + 'The Swing' (Geeks)
  18. Art on Film: Fragonard gets “Frozen” (Art Docent Program)


1. Unfortunately, like many stories taking place in pre-metoo era Hollywood, this one also has some inappropriate sexual conduct lurking in the background. In November 2017, John Lasseter took a six-month leave of absence after acknowledging allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. He eventually was let go from Disney (again) in 2018. If you want to read more about the scandal, check out this Variety article. On a personal note, I'm sorry that the only footnote is a bummer one, especially at the end of a story about the best aspects of humanity. But, this human world of ours is rarely black and white, so I hope you'll be able to handle the various shades of gray.

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