Where High-Tech Meets High Art

Animation Magazine - - Spotlight -

For­mer Dis­ney main­stay Glen Keane dives fear­lessly and suc­cess­fully into the mo­bile world with an emo­tional in­ter­ac­tive dance called By Tom McLean.

Glen Keane had a ca­reer to which almost any an­i­ma­tor in the world would as­pire. Start­ing at Walt Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios in the 1970s, he learned the craft di­rectly from some of Walt’s Nine Old Men and de­signed and an­i­mated such iconic char­ac­ters as Ariel, Aladdin, Poc­a­hon­tas and Ra­pun­zel. But in 2012, the day came when Keane de­cided it was time to go, to cre­ate the per­sonal and ex­pres­sive art he had as­pired to in his youth.

“There was al­ways one more character that I just couldn’t not do,” says Keane of his 37year ten­ure at Dis­ney. “And pretty soon, nearly 40 years has gone by and, I think, at a cer­tain point a bell goes off and you re­al­ize if you’re go­ing to do that, you bet­ter do it now, while you’ve got a lot of en­ergy. It was just the right time.”

Keane didn’t know the path he’d set out on that day would lead him to cre­ate Duet, an in- ter­ac­tive short an­i­mated ex­pe­ri­ence cre­ated in con­junc­tion with Google’s Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy and Projects group and de­signed to be viewed on mo­bile phones. Fi­nally re­leased ex­clu­sively in Novem­ber on Mo­torola phones, and com­ing soon to all mo­bile plat­forms, the lin­ear “short-film” ver­sion of Duet has been a smash hit at fes­ti­vals and made the short-list for Os­car con­tention.

Duet, cre­ated from draw­ings Keane drew in pen­cil on pa­per, tells the story of Tosh and Mia, a boy and a girl who follow dif­fer­ent paths from birth to ma­tu­rity and even­tu­ally into each other’s arms. The app al­lows the viewer to use the phone screen like a win­dow into a true 360-de­gree 3D world and follow ei­ther character through space from start to fin­ish on their jour­ney. Few who have seen ei­ther ver­sion have re­mained un­touched by the joy­ful emo­tion and sheer beauty and qual­ity of the an­i­ma­tion.

“There was al­ways some­thing in me that was al­ways look­ing for that — I don’t know what it was; some­thing per­sonal and very ex­pres­sive,” Keane says.

The road to mak­ing Duet was com­pli­cated, though sur­pris­ingly quick given the num­ber of tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions that were re­quired to make it a re­al­ity. The project be­gan when con­ver­sa­tion at a din­ner with fel­low an­i­ma­tors John Kahrs, Doug Sweet­land and Ro­drigo Blaas turned to a new tech­nol­ogy Sweet­land was work­ing with that al­lowed the au­di­ence to con­trol the cam­era.

In­trigued but need­ing to see it first, Keane was con­nected with Google ATAP, headed by Regina Du­gan, for a demo.

Du­gan, whose ca­reer in­cludes serv­ing as di­rec­tor of the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency, says the goal of ATAP for Google is to use tech­nol­ogy to al­low peo­ple to view art in the most pure way pos­si­ble. “When

ex­e­cuted well, all the tech be­comes almost in­vis­i­ble,” she says. “That’s what we seek: the tech in ser­vice to the story. From our per­spec­tive, when you get that com­bi­na­tion right, work at the edge of im­pos­si­ble, ex­e­cuted at 110 per­cent, it’s both beau­ti­ful and badass.”

“The pur­pose of (Google ATAP) is to do this skunkworks R&D depart­ment that tries to match tech at the edge of what’s pos­si­ble in tech and in­ter­est­ing ap­pli­ca­tions of the tech in gen­eral,” says Rachid El Guerrab, tech­ni­cal project lead for Google ATAP.

“All I could see is this is a tiny lit­tle screen,” Keane says. “I looked at it closer and re­al­ized it’s not a screen at all — it’s a win­dow into this in­fi­nite world. You’ve got the cam­era and you have free­dom — and yet the an­i­ma­tion is all out there for you to follow. It seemed like such scary free­dom. And I think I’ve al­ways been drawn to the scary; I’ve been drawn to the thing that makes me feel like, wow, I could re­ally fail at that.”

Keane had formed Glen Keane Pro­duc­tions and re­cruited his son, Max Keane, him­self an an­i­ma­tor with ex­pe­ri­ence in mul­ti­ple an­i­ma­tion tech­niques and short-form projects like com­mer­cials, and for­mer Dis­ney pro­ducer Gen­nie Rim to the company.

The first at­tempts at com­ing up with an idea for Google were too tra­di­tional, Keane says, lead­ing to a more emo­tional at­tempt at com­ing up with an idea.

“I talked to Max and he says: ‘ Dad, how long has it been since you’ve an­i­mated just for the joy of it? For­get about Google. For­get about pre­sent­ing to any­body. I would just like to see what you would do, just for the fun of it,’” Keane says. “It’s funny how you just need somebody like your own son to tell you that.”

That led Keane to pick up a pen­cil and start draw­ing. His mind went to his grand­chil­dren, which led to the images that open Duet: a baby learn­ing to crawl. A quick test an­i­ma­tion was put to­gether in three days and shown to the Google ATAP peo­ple, who in­stantly agreed to do it. “So we ended up go­ing up to Sil­i­con Val­ley and cre­ated a lit­tle an­i­ma­tion stu­dio in the pro­gram­mers’ world,” Keane says.

Tech­ni­cal Chal­lenges

In the nine months it took to cre­ate Duet — dur­ing which Max Keane and his wife be­came par­ents them­selves — Keane and crew faced con­sid­er­able cre­ative and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.

First was com­ing up with a story. “How do you ac­tu­ally plan this story when two things are go­ing on at the same time?” says Keane. “You have to be con­scious of both of them. Though you’re an­i­mat­ing this one, you know the other’s go­ing to be com­ing up and meet­ing there and you’ve got to plan it so it ties at just the right mo­ment.”

His first in­stinct was to for­get try­ing to plan it all out and solve the prob­lems by jumping

right in to an­i­mat­ing it. But Max Keane put the brakes on that idea and said they needed some kind of sto­ry­board, an­i­matic or other plan to help the rest of the team get on board.

“Every­body had an opin­ion and it was to­tally col­lab­o­ra­tive, which I think helped us in the end,” says Max. “The idea of putting ev­ery­thing up on sto­ry­board on the ac­tual de­vice was, I think, re­ally help­ful for us.”

“Ev­ery­one liked the idea ex­cept me,” says Glen Keane.

“Ev­ery idea pre­sented a tech­ni­cal prob­lem or dilemma of, what if the viewer looks away?” says Max. “Quickly, it was ap­par­ent that this (in­volves) a lot more than just plan­ning out what’s hap­pen­ing.”

Pre­serv­ing the es­thetic of the images as hand drawn was im­por­tant at ev­ery step of the pro­duc­tion. Rim says the “agree­ment with Glen from the be­gin­ning was we won’t touch any of your images, we won’t al­ter them, we’ll just honor them and the line.”

To which Keane says they oc­ca­sion­ally went a lit­tle too far. “There were lit­tle cof­fee stains and they’re like, ‘ We’ve got to keep that,’” he says with a laugh. “But they re­ally val­ued the orig­i­nal line and I was so happy with that.”

Another ma­jor tech­ni­cal is­sue in­volved the back­grounds. One fea­tured a tree that Tosh and Mia climb and pause to look at each other. With the viewer able to look where they please, that meant the en­tire tree had to be cre­ated in the vir­tual space. Keane’s fi­nal draw­ing of the tree was enor­mous — eas­ily large enough to cover the floor of a medium-size room.

Other back­ground is­sues were a bit eas­ier to deal with: fad­ing them in as the char­ac­ters en­ter and out again as they leave.

Mov­ing Against the

Grain

Yet another ma­jor tech­ni­cal is­sue was that the char­ac­ters had to move through space and across sta­tion­ary back­grounds — the op­po­site of typ­i­cal an­i­ma­tion.

“The team that was work­ing on the 3D as­pect of it — Matthew Ours­bourn and Derrick Lau — they would take the an­i­ma­tion, and be­cause Glen is an­i­mat­ing ev­ery­thing in place, the character is cen­ter and the back­ground is mov­ing, and counter-an­i­mated it so the back­ground was static and the char­ac­ters were mov­ing,” says Max.

El Guerrab says the big­gest tech­ni­cal chal­lenges were find­ing a way to com­press the images to ren­der on a mo­bile phone with­out los­ing any de­tail, and that with ev­ery frame be­ing hand-drawn, it had to be able to present Keane’s pre-ex­ist­ing im­agery prop­erly with­out the flex­i­bil­ity of­fered by CG images and mod­els.

That posed chal­lenges cre­atively, as well, Keane says.

“The cre­ative choice was to give the au­di­ence the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting lost, which is pretty scary be­cause you don’t want them get­ting lost,” says Keane. “But you want them to ex­pe­ri­ence free­dom. So we tried to pre­dict move­ment, where, if a character like Tosh is in the tree and he’s go­ing to jump down, you don’t just sur­prise the au­di­ence by hav­ing him jump out. You have him look­ing back, like he’s look­ing at Mia, where she went. As he’s start­ing to get ready to go, he’s be­gin­ning to move down, so some­where in your mind you know he’s go­ing down — but he’s waited just a beat be­fore do­ing it. You do lit­tle things like that, so you don’t lose them.”

The char­ac­ters’ meet­ing points also were dif­fi­cult. “We fig­ured th­ese would be meet­ing points and places to choose: I’m go­ing to follow the girl, now; I’m go­ing to follow the boy,” says Max. “But what we re­al­ized was the speed at which they come to­gether and cross, though it feels right and ap­pro­pri­ate on a locked frame when you’re fol­low­ing it, it’s like half a sec­ond and the character’s gone. This is a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about time and in­ter­ac­tion of char­ac­ters.”

Speak­ing with Keane on the day the Duet app was first re­leased to Mo­torola phones, he says it was amaz­ing to hear from peo­ple all over the world the dif­fer­ent ways they had dis­cov­ered the story, ex­pe­ri­enced it and been touched by it.

The im­pli­ca­tions of the tech­nol­ogy be­hind Duet are sig­nif­i­cant, and Keane him­self says it can’t help but af­fect his fu­ture projects. “It was won­der­ful to be in a world where the rules no longer ap­plied,” he says. “What’s it go­ing to be like when I go back to the tra­di­tional way now that I’ve learned another lan­guage? I don’t think I will just for­get this. The long­est scene I an­i­mated at Dis­ney in those 40 years was maybe 20 seconds long, and this was over five min­utes of un­bro­ken an­i­ma­tion of two char­ac­ters, and you never felt like it was too long. I’m re­ally cu­ri­ous how this is go­ing to ap­ply in new sto­ries.”

Op­po­site, left and above are ex­am­ples of the pen­ciled an­i­ma­tion and the fi­nal images from Duet. Be­low, the draw­ing of the tree is mapped out on the floor.

Glen Keane Max Keane

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