Why legendary Disney animator Glen Keane is making art for Google

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If you don’t know Glen Keane by name, you almost certainly know his work. As Lead Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios during a career that spanned 37 years, his talent helped bring about the second Golden Age of Disney films, as he’d go on to animate such iconic characters as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocahontas. His style is unmistakable, and — if you’re a millennial — your childhood would probably have looked a lot different if not for it. Google probably figured that much when the Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) gave Keane his most recent project, Duet. If you’re going to raise the bar, you might as well do it Disney-style.

By December 2013, months after he'd retired from the House of Mouse, Keane had signed on to animate and direct the short film, a love story about two youths, Tosh and Mia, growing up and leading parallel lives. It would be released as a Spotlight Story exclusively on Moto X devices — the series began with Windy Day earlier that year. This was a more ambitious project, though; when the short debuted at I/O last summer, ATAP head Regina Dugan made clear that the company had pumped as much computing power as it could into what looked like a traditionally animated short to turn it into an interactive feature.

If you're going to raise the bar, you might as well do it Disney-style.

Duet got its start on the second-generation Moto X last fall, but soon — and presumably because Google doesn’t own Motorola anymore — all three Spotlight Stories will make their way to Android and iOS. But before that happens, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is showcasing the film next week to celebrate Keane’s work as an animator, mapping out his esteemed career in the same halls as Monet and Warhol. I spoke with Keane about Duet, animation, and what’s ahead for the medium as technology.

What made you decide to get involved with ATAP on this project?

I was looking for the next creative garden to dive into, but I didn't know what it was going to be. So I was exploring various different, more traditional studios in Hollywood. Then this invitation came to go up to Google to meet Regina Dugan, who was the head of ATAP. I had worked with Silicon Valley once before in the '80s, and it was sort of exciting to step back into an entirely different creative world outside of Hollywood, but something that was just as stimulating. I was anxious to see what they were working on.

My first thought when I looked at the phone was kind of disappointment, because the screen was much smaller than what I was used to on the big screen. I said to Regina, "Well, what do you want me to do with this?" She said, "I just want you to make something beautiful and emotional." "Well, what's the catch?" She said, "There is no catch. This is going to be a gift from Google to any of the users, and we just want you to push yourself creatively, and that will push us technologically."

So that's when I started to develop this idea. Immediately it occurred to me that [what] I wanted was going to be hand-drawn, which to me is a very personal expression. It was like, as old-time technology as you could get, in terms of graphite in a pencil. Like drawing with charcoal on a cave wall.

It reminded me, actually, a lot of Winsor McCay 100 years ago. He had done Gertie the Dinosaur as the first interactive animation with an audience, and he also did it [by hand], where he was drawing the background for every frame. And it was courage to dive in and do over 10,000 drawings! That's how many it took for me on this film as well, over 10,000 drawings, so it was this marriage of technology and classic art.

Why distribute this on a phone? Was it the ability to share your art in a more accessible way?

I love the idea of being an animator in a system, a vehicle, that you can literally touch people in a new way, a very personal way. Literally, in the palm of your hands, you could have my animation. The thing is, the technology doesn't touch people in their hearts. It's practical kind of stuff, but to move somebody emotionally, that's what I really wanted to do. So now Duet will not only be on Moto X, but it will be coming out on all Android devices and the iOS system.

You mentioned the evolution of animation in the last 100 years, and you spoke to the limitations of having a phone and watching something. But this project is interactive, the phone is a window into the actual experience. Do you think this is the future of what animation can be?

Well, I think it's another branch. Animation, right now, is mostly in a very large studio setting where you have hundreds of people, up to 600 people working on a film. [Duet] was a very small, little crew, maybe a total of 20 people working on this, and it took us a year. And I think that there's much more individual expression in this kind of a medium, that there is that freedom.

On the other hand, I don't think it will replace doing stories for the movie in theaters, but I do think it will influence how you tell stories for those movie theaters. Like right now, I'm trying to apply some of the things I've learned in doing Duet in a long-form version of animation. This idea that you have no cuts, that if you need a closeup, you just move the character in closer, that the characters live on in a much more poetic way, that one character can be experiencing a parallel experience as the other character and then you have a choice to go back and forth. It's just a whole different model of storytelling, more like a visual poem.

That must be a long process though, to consider every angle for however many characters for a feature length project, like what you're currently working on.

I think that with Duet, I didn't have to think of every angle. I just had to draw the character from the angle that I chose, and the viewer had a choice of being able to follow one or the other. It was more of like an illusion. I'm just moving that animation in front of you wherever you go. That's the amazing technology with this. It looks like it's out there, but we are quickly moving animation to wherever you turn and it's existing in that space.

"There's an emotional impact that the audience feels by seeing that hand-drawn line."

Basically, all of it has to come off of a flat piece of paper, which I'm really interested in. I mean, I love drawing. Drawing is more, when I make a line, I think of it as a seismograph of my soul in a way. There's an emotional impact that the audience feels by seeing that line. I want to keep that going in whatever it is that I do. I see myself as an artist first and an animator second.

Like so many kids of my generation, I grew up with your films at Disney. But it seems like you're really excited by what you're doing now. Were you ever personally excited in this way about your previous work?

Oh, yeah. When I was a kid, I would draw not to do a drawing as much as to make the paper go away. I could live in the world I was drawing. And anytime technology has crossed my path, it's forced me to become a better artist, to believe in that world.

It's always been about make-believe for me. It's always been about believing in the character I animate. So for my Ariel, I was living in her skin. I love characters that believe the impossible is possible. And you animate the inside of a character. Even Ollie Johnston, my mentor, would say, "Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking." He was always encouraging you to crawl into the skin and live inside the character, and animate that. And that's been the course of my whole life, from the Beast, to Tarzan, to Pocahontas or Rapunzel. I am those characters. So I found that with Tosh and Mia in Duet, I was really animating my own experience growing up. I always loved dance and imagined, "Wow, to fly, I think that's what a dancer wants to do." So Duet was very much like my own experience all the way through my career. It just comes out in a more of a virtual world, and I'm very interested in continuing to explore this virtual world technology.

Do you feel like the technology of today allows you to get deeper into that world?

Yes, I do. I believe I can enter into that in a deeper way. But the idea of having the audience having the choice? That's a scary thing. Duet was scary, [having] to give control to the audience, and I had to learn to replace controlling the camera with coaxing the audience to follow where I wanted them. The way I see interactive storytelling, it's more like a dark ride at Disneyland, like Pirates of the Caribbean. You set the audience on a rail, and they're in a boat, and you're taking them along a journey, because you have to take people through an emotional experience. But on that boat, people are free to look around and travel and look up, look down, look to the right, look to the left, look straight ahead, and you are taking them on a course that they're experiencing freedom, but you are still being the guide of that story. That's where I think interactive storytelling is going to go. More of the dark ride equivalent in animation.

Why is that experience scary as an artist and an animator?

Composition is incredibly important to me, learning about the whole crafting of design so there's a real balance and beauty in composition. I will work over and over and over again just to compose the character and the background and the staging just perfectly. And giving the camera to the audience so that they don't actually have to end up there, that's sort of disturbing. And Jan Pinkava, who had developed the first Spotlight Story, Windy Day, kept encouraging me to embrace the technology, because I kept wanting to go halfway there. Like, "I know better than the audience, I will control it for them." But he'd say, "No, no, it's important that they have freedom."

So, what I trust now is that there is a certain sense of rightness that you are being drawn to as a viewer and that you naturally — almost like a magnet — want to follow, because there's a beauty to the composition. Emotion and the movement and the lighting are telling you, "Come over this way," like a magician is guiding the eye of the audience. It's much more [like] a magic trick. You are the illusionist, and you are guiding them, and they're making a choice, which makes the whole experience that much more magical, because you chose to follow this. That's a pretty wonderful thing.

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