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Immersed in Movies: Glen Keane Begins Again with the Oscar-Contending ‘Duet’

Immersed in Movies: Glen Keane Begins Again with the Oscar-Contending 'Duet'

For Glen Keane, Duet represents a new beginning after leaving Disney: a family affair that took him back to his childhood roots and the essence of drawing. It’s the third in a series of Google Spotlight Stories available exclusively for Motorola’s new line of Moto X mobile devices, and has been Oscar shortlisted for best animated short.

Duet was completely hand-animated and directed by Keane, and tells the story of Mia and Tosh, whose individual paths weave together like a spiraling double-helix to create an inspired duet. The unique, interactive nature of the story allows the viewer to seamlessly follow them from birth to adulthood.

“I was given complete freedom to do something beautiful and emotional,” Keane suggests, in collaborating with Regina Dugan and the rest of the Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) at Google. “Regina said, ‘We just want you to push yourself creatively and that will push us technologically.”

Keane started from scratch as part of this artistic renewal: drawing like crazy and using his two grandchildren as inspiration for Tosh and Mia. He was joined by his son Max (who served as his bridge between high-tech and traditional animation) and Gennie Rim (wife of Paperman’s John Kahrs), former production coordinator at Pixar and Disney, who served as producer.

“I explored how a baby grows and did sketches and then at a certain point I realized that the baby was turning into an alien, so that’s when I did a poetic transition.”

The technology had already been developed: an interactive, virtual world that knows where you are at every moment. The narrative of Duet consists of Tosh and Mia going off in different directions. You can follow one or the other, but any time you’re exploring, the characters will wait for you off-screen until you find them so you’re not missing any of the story.

They couldn’t do a fully rendered CG world for budgetary reasons and because Keane had to draw everything. He describes it as visual poetry and staying true to one thought. “Max scanned all of the drawings into the computer, and brought them into After Effects, retaining the pencil lines. The goal was to present line drawing in the animation and have it pop the way it does on paper. Max tried inverting it and illuminating space through it, and came up with a design with a blue line in a dark space and then adding white highlights during another pass. We added another color pass and layered it on top of each other to create a glowing image.

“One of the programmers said it would be so much easier if I just animated at 60 frames-per-second because that was the refresh rate. And the tech crew really valued the line. I said it’s easier for you but not for me: I’ve been animating at 24 frames for 40 years and that doesn’t even go into 60. We tried to make that jump so the animation would be natural and intuitive for me. I remembered these metronomes on all the animator’s desks at Disney. For them, 24 frames was just as weird as 60.

“I downloaded an app with a metronome on it and just started thinking in terms of 60 drawings. And it broke the log jam for me. It’s funny but the places where I thought needed the most drawings didn’t. like when a character’s moving really fast. But I found that it was actually more interesting in the slow motion moments to pad in the drawings because it gave it more of this smooth, ethereal feel to it.

“Animating with that device, though, where you’ve given the audience the camera, is really unnerving because you’re used to controlling the composition. And here you’re giving that control to the audience. And I learned that instead of me controlling, I’m more coaxing them where I want them to look compositionally.”

Keane not only learned about algorithms from the tech team but also rethought animation and storytelling for the non-linear, interactive experience. It’s more primal and more personal. “You found yourself continually thinking and you’d leave with a headache at the end of the day. There were no cuts and the longest scene I animated at Disney was 20 seconds in The Rescuers Down Under as the eagle flies away. But this was five minutes of unbroken animation with three characters. If you wanted a close-up you just moved him in closer or farther away. It’s seamless storytelling. And I wanted Mia skipping as she was growing up. With skip, it’s not a run, it’s not a walk, and it’s not a hop, it’s all three but it’s driven by joy.”

Duet has been the purest form of expression for Keane, who’s now ready to direct an indie feature. One of many ideas taps the world of ballet. He’s studying photography as well as animation in his continuing quest to take animation in bold, new directions. He’s never one to walk away from a challenge, and the industry would certainly benefit from Keane’s experimental ambition.

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