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Interview with Glen Keane, Disney veteran and legendary animation artist (Part 2)

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Last week Glen Keane’s interactive short Duet was released on Moto X devices ahead of a wider release on multiple platforms scheduled for early 2015. Glen appeared as a special guest of this year’s Bristol Encounters Festival in September where he presented this exciting new project. In our second featured interview (click here for part one) Skwigly had the pleasure of sitting down with Glen to talk about the short, his leaving Disney and his plans for the future.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Duet started after you left Disney?

Well, after I’d been at Disney for thirty-eight years. You work at a company where you’re creating animated films within a house style and something inside of you though says ‘what would you do if you didn’t have to do a film that really fit within the Disney walls?’, ‘Would it be the same?’. These questions were bouncing around in my mind eventually I felt like I needed to leave. Well, this Duet is the first fruit that fell from the new tree here. Glen Keane Productions started and we did it in conjunction with Google. They invited me up to Silicon Valley, their offices, and showed me a phone with a little screen on it and I’m thinking ‘why am I interested in doing animation for this little screen, when I’ve done animations all on big screens.’ Then I looked closer and it wasn’t a screen, it was a window; a window into a virtual world that when you look in it just opens up to infinity. It’s not the smallest screen, it’s the biggest one you could possibly have. You’re giving the audience a camera into this virtual world where they choose and follow. Regina Doogan, who runs a research division for Google, called ATAP, said ‘what would you do with this?’ I immediately started picturing two little babies and watch them grow, but they will eventually be a couple in life, but they do it in a circle – you have a choice; you can follow one or the other. When they go off screen – that’s usually a cut – in this case you can follow her or him and keep doing that and watch them grow and fall in love. I was thinking this and said ‘what do you want me to do?’ She said we just want to do something beautiful and emotional. I said ‘What’s the catch?’ She said ‘there is no catch – you push yourself creatively and that will push us technologically.’ And so now we’ve finished this first hand drawn animation on this this google device.

You were inspired a lot by your grandchildren – your granddaughter’s dancing classes and your son’s dog- was it nice having that family element? Having it really organic?

For me it really comes naturally. My dad was a cartoonist who lived at home – he based his comics on all of us kids and so it comes very naturally to me to rip off my family. My source of inspiration – watching our grandkids grow up and the way they crawl and videotaped my little granddaughter Matisse as she skips – and I studied the skip – I put that in the animation. My son as little boy, Henry, looks just like Tosh as a little boy in the movie and my grandson, Roman, I watched him crawl; there were a lot of baby butts and nudity! But it was such an expression of family love, but it’s not just a family, but a couple’s destiny and how you’re meant to be together- its really the story of two people and that as they grow individually and the affect one another each time their lives cross and they help one another become themselves.

In a similar way, the organic quality of your line is beautiful. There was no clean up but you had to make it negatively…

It started off after that meeting at Google where I saw the potential of this. Myself, my son, Max, and my producer went to a house we have near LA and were thinking about things and how we are going to do this. So, I was doing some animation of babies crawling and I gave it to Max – and he’s the production designer. He showed me this beautiful image where he had taken the graphite line on the paper and lifted it off and now the line was floating and it was white in an atmosphere. It was like celebrating the line – the line was an energy. As he says ‘every line that is made – it is a unique creative event never to be repeated ever in history. Every line is unique and so it’s really important that we celebrate your line.’ He’s watched my animations since he was little and he’s always valued the rough drawing. So this is the first time actually people are seeing my lines even though I’ve animated The Beast, and the Mermaid and Aladdin and all those characters, but those are clean up – somebody traced over my line and re- painted it – but this is the actual original drawing. There’s a personal energy that’s there. I guess it’s the work that I’m most proud of because it’s actually my drawings.

(© Google ATAP)

(© Google ATAP)

I suppose with the continuous animation you were drawing the background as well which I don’t suppose has happened much before. So do you feel like it’s imbued an energy in the world as well as the characters?

Well, we never wanted the line to stop. The line always had to be a living line. There has to be a movement and an energy to it and actually redrawing the backgrounds, which is what I did, every frame is being redrawn, so if you’ve got rocks or a scene of a park in New York city, that’s all being drawn in. We celebrated the movement of line throughout the whole thing. I guess I really relate to Windsor McKay, Gerty the Dinosaur, with him drawing the background, you look at that and go ‘that’s insane! Who would possibly do such a thing?’ Me! And then last night I had dinner with Richard Williams and Dick is probably the only other guy on the planet and crazy as me to do that. You have to really love drawing to do that and not look at it as a pain, but instead it’s a chance to express yourself.

And of course, you took it to another level – the computer guys asked you to do it 60 frames per second! How did you deal with that?

Well, after having an emotional breakdown… the first thing they said was ‘you know what would really help us if you would draw at 60 frames per second because that’s how it’s being projected on the phone – the screen is refreshing at 60 frames per second.’ I spent thirty-odd years thinking in 24 frames per second timing – how do you transpose that to 60? 24 doesn’t go into 60! Max and Jenny and I would go on and be like what in the world is this? How do you figure this out and our brains would hurt by the end of the day. I realised sometimes you look back and you find the answer of how you’re going to move forward, which is really the theme here at Encounters – looking back to look forward. When I started at Disney all the old guys had on their desks a metronome and that was because 24 frames per second was just as bizarre as 60 was for me. Their way of dealing with it was a metronome and suddenly I thought I could deal with that – it just takes more drawings – more chances to express yourself is a better way to think of it. Now my sense of timing has changed. If I animated in the old way, the timing would be odd; too slow. But now there is something fresh and wonderful about stepping into a brave new world of 60 frames per second.

Is that what you want to do next? You’ve been pushing boundaries quite a lot – you worked on Paperman and now this, so you’re very much getting computers and 2D to work together harmoniously. Is that what you’d like to continue doing?

I’ve always found that any time technology crosses my path, it forces me to be a better artist and I’ve always seen myself as an artist first and animator second. What I didn’t want to do was just give up my pencil. That’s like saying to a violinist ‘you know, playing on the strings – you don’t need that now, we’ve got synthesisers’. The world was a better place for a Stradivarius and the world is a better place for a pencil – graphite on paper. But, is there a new way that you can express yourself as an artist with a pencil – how can a computer, how can technology come in. I feel like we are still just exploring where that’s going to go. I don’t at all believe that hand drawn animation is over. I feel like it is now liberated to become something much more expressive. If you think of a Disney animation, the style of it, the look of Bambi for example. It’s beautiful. But it’s design looks that way because of a technical limitation – they had to paint on cells or draw on cells – because you had to be able to see through the paper – well now on a computer you can animate in a style like Degas. Everything is possible and I love that. I love the personal expressive medium that artists today can be really pushing forward into moving animation from a big studio realm into much more personal artistic expression.

Back to the 60 frames per second. Instead of just dividing or multiplying, you used it as giving a line more life as there are more frames per second to be alive in. You mentioned yesterday that there’s a scene where Tosh is running towards some boulders, and you just let it go. He’s jumping over a log – do you feel that’s nicer with more frames? Do you feel like you are more free?

Well, it’s not only the 60 frames per second, it’s also the nature of a medium where there is no cut. I think the longest scene that I animated before Duet was maybe 20-30 seconds. That’s a long scene of animation. Well, this was five minutes of unbroken time of animation, just continuing with three characters moving in three different directions – it was mind-boggling! But when I got my head around it, I found it was very freeing to think in terms of the character is running through real space. So when I’m animating Tosh running across those boulders, I’m just drawing boulders coming in and when he leaves they go off – they disappear and actually the line just fades away. It’s much more like a vignette or visual poetry. To a certain point I’m watching him, and I’m up at about 5am animating this scene where Tosh is going to run to a tree. I know he’s going to get to a tree and I’m going to have him run across this field. I remember the drawing the foot stepping forward but something in me said ‘he doesn’t want to go that way’, that’s too much of a straight line – when I was a little boy I’d never run in a straight line – he wants to go this way so in that drawing you can see the foot straight out, and I erased and drew over the top of it and started turning his body into the field and he started running deeper into the grass and I suddenly knew he wants to jump and, is that a rock? And as I’m animating it, I’m discovering this as if I wasn’t even thinking at all. Oh, that’s not a rock, that’s a log. Oh, it’s not a log, it’s actually a tree that’s fallen down. Now he’s jumping and I’m just hanging on to the pencil, watching this little guy run and rolling through the grass. Now he’s lost in the grass and birds are flying out, which reveals where he’s at. Finally he gets to the tree, but it was in the process of getting there that the entertainment was. This is something that’s so vital for an animator to express himself spontaneously and to feel the inspiration of the moment, like if Degas was painting or Van Gogh, he didn’t sit down and figure it all out before he painted, he responds – the artwork speaks to you, and you take that inspiration and you build on it. It’s like a wave that rushes up and you are moving with it. That’s the kind of freedom that I think animation should be starting to open more doors that way. That little scene never would have happened if it had been storyboarded out and you actually had a production schedule. It’s the kind of thing that I hope my animation in the future will hang onto that aspect of doing.

(© Google ATAP)

(© Google ATAP)

Of course when you reach the tree then, finally, there’s another whole technical challenge because the tree is 3D and when the app is released you can explore the tree while the characters wait for you. What was involved with that? Did you liaise a lot to get the angles right and the perspective?

Well, you still have the limitation. All creativity happens because there are limits on what you can do which forces you to be creative. So we have the limits of a piece of paper that’s this [gestures] big, but when a tree is actually huge, how do you draw that? The way we did that was created a mosaic where these little squares were all branches because I’m animating the characters climbing through the branch, and I just kept drawing on another sheet of paper and another sheet of paper and another sheet of paper. Eventually we had the entire floor covered in this huge drawing of two trees because she climbs a tree, he climbs a tree and then both trees cross. You probably thought it was one but it was actually two. When they see each other the audience sees both of them, but you can actually now go and explore the outer regions of this tree and the music fades away, and you hear it on the device, just the sound of the wind and the leaves and the characters are waiting for you to come back and when you do, then she stands up and starts to do this little walk across the branch to leap into a pond. He then jumps off into some leaves and goes surfing and she goes swimming and eventually they connect again. You have that complete freedom to follow whichever character you want.

The music is a good point at this point because they both have their own individual tracks, don’t they? The music changes…

Scott Stafford is a genius. You have to be able to be writing music for one but at any point you as a viewer can go ‘I think I want to see this character’ and you’re lead by curiosity, but the music is playing this, but he’s got to now have a piece of music that is ready for you to switch from this one that’s playing and fold right into that theme. I have no idea how he does it! It’s really this amazing house of cards he’s created in this composition and it’s a very emotional soundtrack with real instruments. We used two Stradivarius and one was a six-million-dollar instrument. He wanted it to feel very hand crafted in the music just like we did with the visuals. I feel like it’s just as much Scott as it is myself up there performing on the screen.

Yes, and it’s beautifully synchronised as well. That moment when Mia leaps, and she’s quite young, and she grows. There’s a sort of sigh in the music. Did you have to work very closely then to get that just right?

Well, Scott and I talked a bit about those moments – vision moments – where she is revealing who she wants to be. Could she really dance like that at that age? No, probably not. But this is the way she imagines herself. I did a lot of studies of little girls dancing in ballet classes and thee way they hold themselves; they’ve got these little lima-bean bodies and they are holding their arms up and they picture themselves as a prima ballerina and they imagine themselves leaping like a swan, but they’re just this little ‘meep’. I thought I’d animate her desire and so that was that moment there , and eventually she really does become that swan, that prima ballerina.

Skwigly test-drive Duet at this year's Encounters Festival

Skwigly test-drive Duet at this year’s Encounters Festival

Both characters are very free spirits. She’s imagining herself as a beautiful ballerina, and Tosh is out there climbing and exploring…

He’s all about nature and immersing himself in the world. I as a boy grew up in the Arizona desert and was always climbing this mountain near our house with these big cliffs and as he’s climbing the rocks along this waterfall, I felt like I was re-living my days as a little kid climbing the rocks. I could feel the heat on my hands as he was climbing the rocks. Stuff like that makes the whole thing real to me and if I believe it and the audience believes it, then as an animator that’s what you’re trying to do; to get somebody else to live in the skin.

I did sense a bit of Tarzan in Tosh! So you’ve taken the animator out of Disney but Disney’s still …slightly… in the animator?

I really struggled about leaving Disney because I felt like a baton had been passed on to me by the masters of animation, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, Eric Larson, and I thought ‘how can I leave?’ And I realised I wont leave; they’ll come with me and I’m going to take Disney places they never dreamed of going. I’m taking the same skills of storytelling through character and animation to Google or wherever we go next. I think Walt would be happy about that.

I think he would – he was an innovator. I think he’d be very pleased. So are you planning on staying at Google then?

Well, I’m an independent contractor with Google right now and it would be wonderful to continue doing work with them. At the moment we are waiting to see just how this plays out. This is a whole new thing for Google and for me. But that would be a delight to continue working with them.

It feels almost a bit like a new medium because it’s a window – as opposed to a film – it’s a window into another world.

And it’s a new way of storytelling that I think also translates not only to just this screen, but even if you did it on a big screen, it’s a way of telling stories more visual poetry even in scripting, storyboarding, the structure of stories can be so much freer. In three and a half minutes, you can still bring an audience to an emotional moment where so many people say ‘I was crying at the end. I felt like I was holding back tears’. We spend 90 minutes at times trying to bring somebody to that point and this can do it in a shorter piece – its much more expressive. That’s why I say visual poetry.

Keep your eyes and ears on Skwigly for more Glen Keane/Duet coverage in the lead up to the wider release. In the meantime you can learn more about the making of the project in Google ATAP’s behind-the-scenes video below:

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