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“I See It More as a Visual Poem”: Animator Glen Keane on the Interactive Film Duet

Duet

Glen Keane made me want to make movies. As a head animator at Disney from the 1970s until just a few years ago, when he left to create his own company, Keane created iconic characters like Ariel, Aladdin, and Tarzan, plus gorgeously drawn animals like the bear in The Fox and the Hound and the eagle Marahute in The Rescuers Down Under. But what held me spellbound was the moment when the Beast — his character — and James Baxter’s Belle walked into the computer-animated ballroom during the title song of Beauty and the Beast: I’d never seen anything like that before, and I wanted to be a part of it.

What I didn’t know then was that this wasn’t Keane’s first foray into connecting computers with traditional paper-drawn animation. After Tron came out in 1982 he created a test for a computer-animated version of Where the Wild Things Are, and he’s continued working with computer technology until now — he was the first director on the CG film Tangled, for instance. His newest piece, a short film called Duet, was created as an interactive film for Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) for release on Android devices; it’s the third of ATAP’s Spotlight Stories, a series of interactive films sponsored by ATAP to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling on handheld devices. An edited linear version is available as well, but the full experience is only available through interactivity; it was released for Motorola phones (the Moto X, Moto G, and Moto G 4G LTE) last month — Google will make it available for other devices next year — and the Academy shortlisted it for the Animated Short Film Oscar as well.

Below, Keane talks about the technical and creative process behind making the film, the challenges of animating extreme long takes, and why, when computers seem to be everywhere in animation, we’re actually entering a new golden age for hand-drawn work.

Filmmaker: Where did the idea for Duet originate? Did Google research division head Regina Dugan reach out to you, or did you get in touch with Google ATAP yourself?

Keane: After nearly 40 years at Disney I had a sense something new was calling to me, and so in a leap of faith I took a step out into the unknown.

A guys’ night out proved to be the doorway into that new thing. I met with a few animation buddies at a restaurant in Venice Beach. One of the guys, Doug Sweetland, kept talking about an amazing new form of technology taking place at Google that allowed him to do CG animation in which the viewer controlled the camera. He said, “You should try it!”

Next thing, I’m invited up to ATAP. Regina showed me a Moto X phone on which I could watch the first Spotlight story, Windy Day, directed by Jan Pinkava and produced by Karen Dufilho, which they were nearing completion on. The first thing I noticed was how small the screen was in comparison to the big theatrical screens I was used to. Why would I be interested in that? Then I noticed that it was not really a screen at all but a window into an infinite virtual world … potentially the largest screen imaginable. I noticed that as the viewer, I controlled the camera and had complete freedom to turn anywhere I wanted. This was amazing! This was a new form of seamless storytelling. There were no cuts. I was involved in a very intimate way with what was happening before me. It was as if a screen of separation between the audience and the animated world had disappeared.

In many ways, this is closer to the way I experience animation when I am creating it. The characters are always living to me. There really are no cuts or close-ups in my head. For example, when I was animating Ariel singing in her grotto and she swims off screen, my experience was she continued to exist; it was just that the audience never got to see her after the cut. I realized the potential was now for the audience to have a much more fluid natural “conversation” with the character. This was unbroken eye contact.

I asked Regina what she was looking for me to do with this. She simply said, “We want you to make something beautiful and emotional.” My response was, “What’s the catch? What are you selling?” She told me they were not selling anything, that this animation would be a gift from Google, and that what they really needed was for me to push myself creatively and that will push them technologically.

I wanted to pinch myself. Was I dreaming? For an artist to hear such words is music to their ears.

Filmmaker: So you were working with a whole new toolbox, but the animation remains a marvelous testament to the expressive capacity of hand-drawn work. Was the process — including the layout, timing, or any technical elements — any different in anticipation of the piece’s interactivity?

Keane: Yes, the interactivity was the single most defining element in creating the story and animation. The animation was one continuous shot with both characters (and a dog) moving in opposite directions without a cut. What you see in the theatrical version is a deftly crafted edit (with the expertise of Zach Lydon of Framestore) that creates the same feeling of the seamless story that one experiences on the interactive phone. The longest piece of animation without a cut I had ever done at Disney was probably only about 20 seconds long. The animation of Duet runs all in one single shot with all three characters for a total of about five minutes.

Knowing that the audience controlled the camera was a game changer. The goal of a director is to tell a story through controlling the composition and all the elements necessary to deliver an emotional experience. In this case I needed to learn to coax rather than control. Jan Pinkavah was constantly encouraging me to take the plunge and give full freedom to the viewer.

Animating Duet was a mind-bending thing. As I would be animating Mia dancing in one direction, I knew Tosh was skateboarding at a different speed in the opposite direction (boy always moves screen left and girl always moves screen right). Soon they would meet and would appear on the same piece of paper I was animating on. Predicting this meeting point was always a challenge and one that I never felt like I got a handle on. There was a lot of collaboration going on between myself, our production designer Max Keane, our technical art director Matt Oursbourn, and the programming team to pull off those meeting points.

Another challenge was animating at a 60-frames-per-second rate instead of the 24 fps I had spent 40 years doing. The phone is refreshing at the 60 fps rate and in order to get the full benefit of each drawing I needed to shift my thinking. This was a real conundrum at the beginning. I found that I could not easily transpose 24 into 60 since they are not divisible. The way around it for me was when I remembered on the desks of my mentors at Disney — Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men as he referred to them (based on the Supreme Court Justices) — they each had a metronome. I realized that for them, in that early era of animation pioneering, 24 fps was just as strange as 60 fps. They understood it by the simple rhythmic click of a metronome. I downloaded a metronome app and just imagined 60 frames passing by at each one second click and found it much easier to imagine the timing. I now think in a 60 fps timeframe. You can teach an old dog new tricks!

Filmmaker: What was the process like working with the coders, software engineers, and technical team developing the piece?

Keane: We were all in one room together. If you were to walk in, you would hear the flipping of animation paper and the clicking of keyboards. It was a constant conversation and exchange of ideas and solutions. They would hear as we were developing the idea of having both characters meeting in a tree and started problem solving long before it was animated. Ultimately that section was the most complicated. We had one person devoted to just that for nearly nine months. The room had dry erase boards all around and the programmers were constantly writing algorithms on the walls to address the creative problems. Gennie Rim, our producer, even had me teach figure drawing classes at night for the artists, programmers, Regina Dugan and anyone who desired to learn about drawing. In exchange, they taught me a few things about thinking in algorithm logic.

Filmmaker: You’ve been talking about giving the viewers complete control of the camera. How does the film’s navigation actually work in terms of the time-flow and going back and forth between the characters?

Keane: It’s fully interactive at all times. We know when you look away from the characters, so we’ll have them wait for you to come back so you don’t miss part of the narrative. If you happen to get lost, we animated a butterfly that gently leads you back to the characters. Regina described the story structure as a double helix as opposed to the traditional linear structure. At any point in the intertwining story you could hop from one spiral staircase to the other and follow either Mia or Tosh. We became very sensitive to the need for the audience’s curiosity to let them pull away from one character to the other at any time.

Filmmaker: More broadly speaking, what is your process like when you’re both directing and animating yourself?

Keane: I need to know what the important story points are as a director and make sure the audience does not miss any of those, so the experience is an emotionally satisfying one rather than one of confusion. Once I knew what those key moments were, I gave the animator in me free reign to explore and have fun in just how Tosh and Mia might move and grow in order to arrive at those moments. When I felt Mia needed a way to express the joy of adolescence, I added in a pile of leaves in her path so she could kick them. When I wanted Tosh to feel the joy of adventure, I added a stream with rocks in it for him to negotiate.

Filmmaker: You wrote in a blog post that one of the most difficult parts of designing Duet‘s interactivity was the music. What was the process like with your composer Scot Stafford?

Keane: I knew that I wanted this story to build to an emotional and romantic moment between Tosh and Mia. Without the right music I was afraid it would come off as too cheesy. I did a sketch of myself dancing on the edge of a block of cheese as a reminder that both Scot and I were agreeing that was the edge we were going to balance on.

In order to write a score that had the right momentum and emotional build, we decided to follow Mia’s arc first. Scot wrote a piece that is used in the theatrical version. However, like the animation, there is a lot more music waiting in the wings than in the edited version. Scot created a flexible structure that allowed the different musical sections to stretch, giving freedom to the viewer to wander. But as soon as they chose to come back the music would be waiting for them, ready to progress to the next moment. Scot is a genius. I have no idea how he could figure it out…amazing!

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a bit about Glen Keane Productions? It’s a much smaller operation than you’ve been involved with at Disney. What kind of work do you hope to produce in the future?

Keane: Duet is the first fruit that has fallen from the Glen Keane Productions tree. There is a certain quality to it that I intend to continue to strive for in future projects. There is a “goodness” in Duet that I love. It speaks to the purpose of life. It celebrates beauty and emotion. It celebrates life. I want to do more stories that possess these qualities.

Filmmaker: Computer animation has come a long way since Ariel ran down the staircase in The Little Mermaid and the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, and of course you’ve been involved with 3D work since the early ’80s. But given the ubiquity of computer-generated animation today, what do you anticipate for the future of hand-drawn animation?

Keane: The look of traditional hand-drawn animated movies is a look that was developed in the technical limitations of needing to paint on cells and clean up the original animation drawings — this no longer applies. The future of hand-drawn is wide open thanks to computer technology. Ironically, it is the computer that will set hand-drawn free to become its purest self.

I imagine an artist like Degas alive today. If you did not show him any traditional hand-drawn animated movies but instead showed him what is possible with moving pastel drawing in space and keeping the integrity of texture and color . . . what would he come up with? I feel we are at the beginning of something new in hand-drawn, similar to CG in the late ’80s.

Filmmaker: That is a fascinating perspective. Do you have any thoughts about new outlets for small-scale hand-drawn projects like Duet, as opposed to theatrical feature films from artists like Hayao Miyazaki or Tomm Moore or television programs like The Legend of Korra?

Keane: I never would have imagined trading in a big theatrical screen for a handheld device, but the fact is there are many benefits to this new platform. I don’t think the big movie theater should ever go away. I want to continue to do films for that format as well, but there is something so intimate and personal in animating on a platform that the audience holds in the palm of their hands. New platforms affect the length and form of our stories. I see Duet as an example of this. I see it more as a visual poem rather than the traditional story model … and yet it still delivers emotionally.

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