When Lakers champion Kobe Bryant announced his retirement in the farewell letter “Dear Basketball,” he didn’t imagine it would evolve into an Oscar contender for animated short. “That is beyond the realm of dreams,” Bryant says.
But in retrospect, it’s not far-fetched that the five-minute, 22-second “Dear Basketball” was accomplished enough to merit Oscar’s shortlist and an Annie Award nomination.
Bryant had partnered with Disney Animation legend Glen Keane, whose credits include “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And years earlier, Bryant had cold-called composer John Williams and begun a friendship that ultimately led the multi-Oscar winner to score “Dear Basketball,” (see story, right). Kobe might have been too young to play on America’s original Olympic “Dream Team,” but for this film he assembled his own.
Keane’s elegant, hand-drawn animation captures both the power and grace of Bryant, whose gravity-defying moves suggest Baryshnikov in sneakers. Keane says: “I am a movement nerd. My son Max played basketball and I constantly sketched during his games. There’s a rhythm I already knew.”
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Fittingly, Max Keane served as production designer on “Dear Basketball,” as he had done previously on Glen Keane’s Google film, “Duet.” Max initiated this film’s storyboarding process, including the complex images of Bryant as a boy rolling his dad’s socks into a makeshift basketball. “That was very complicated to draw,” notes Glen. “We filmed Kobe showing us how he did it.”
“Glen asked lots of questions about my process as a child,” says Bryant. “I used to place chairs in the driveway and weave through them to work on my ball handling. Glen wanted to know exactly how I’d line up the chairs, so I drew a sketch for him. But he didn’t actually recognize them as chairs!”
To accurately capture Bryant’s playing style, Glen, Max and producer Gennie Rim downloaded Lakers’ YouTube videos, and went through them frame by frame with Bryant.
“He talked about every second of those plays, and what was going on in his head,” recalls Glen. “My mentor, Ollie Johnston, who was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, always said, ‘Don’t animate what a character is doing. Animate what he is thinking.’”
“I can remember what it felt like in certain situations,” says Bryant. “From years of studying game films, you condition yourself to remember little details.”
Armed with these insights, Keane and company could animate Bryant’s signature moves. “They picked up on those idiosyncrasies and brought them to life,” says Bryant. “It was true to form.”
Crucial in “Dear Basketball” is the blended animation of what Keane calls “little Kobe and big Kobe.” “I knew they both had to be on the court playing at the same time. The 6-year-old in each of us is still there.”
Capturing the reactions of Lakers’ fans was also essential. “Max used flashes of light, which tells you there are people taking iPhone pictures, and that gave us depth,” Keane says.
Glen actually used an iPhone to animate the sweat on Bryant’s brow. “If you click your iPhone three times, the screen goes dark, and my pencil would become light as I animated droplets of sweat. There were many new things we tried.”
For now, Bryant fans can watch “Dear Basketball” on Verizon’s streaming service Go90, and those who attended Bryant’s December jersey retirement celebration at Staples Center viewed it on the big screen there. It also screened at the Hollywood Bowl in September with Bryant narrating and Williams leading the orchestra. For Bryant himself, the film serves as inspiration to embrace the challenges of his post-basketball career. “When there are tough days, I’ll watch this film. It will motivate me to keep going.”