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Veteran Animator Glen Keane on His ‘Duet’ With Google

At first blush, it might seem an odd pairing between veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, an artisan of the traditional hand-drawn style, and Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP), but their collaboration for Google’s Spotlight Stories initiative is a true “Duet,” marrying Keane’s traditional-style elegance with ATAP’s mind-blowing interactivity.

The short film has already garnered an Annie Award nomination and it’s on the short list for an Academy Award nomination as well.

Keane himself was skeptical when the partnership was pitched to him. “When I first looked at the phone and saw how small the screen was, I thought this wasn’t going to be for me,” he recalls. “I realize now that I was wrong on that.”

The screen is pretty small —  5.2 inches on the Moto X and 4.5 inches on the Moto G 4G LTE — but for users of those phones, the film is much bigger than the version seen on bigscreens for awards qualification and online since June.

An interactive version of “Duet,” a hand-drawn, lyrical look at the intertwined lives of a boy and a girl from birth to adulthood, was downloaded to millions of Motorola phones on Nov. 18. Users could follow either character or examine the various settings from various angles depending on how they moved their phones. The interactive “Duet” will be rolling out to other mobile phone platforms after the first of the year.

Keane now tips his hat to the technology. “I could never have told this story without the technology,” he says. It’s the tech that opens the film up to mobile viewers by allowing them to follow either character or “you can just decide ‘I want to go see up into the sky.'”

Getting his head around the tech, though, was Keane’s biggest hurdle. First off, the techies spoke a different kind of language than did Keane and his son, Max, who was production designer on the film. At first, “They didn’t understand what we were saying and we didn’t understand what they were saying,” explains Keane. “Then we realized that they think in algorithms: If this, then that. And I started to realize that all the decisions we were making creatively were sending them down this algorithm.”

Video: The Making of Duet

And while Keane and company got a few lessons in programming, the programmers got to participate in a life drawing class, so they could get a better idea where the artists were coming from.

And drawing is what Keane and his animation assistant Sarah Airriess did quite a lot of because the programmers needed the roughly three and a half minute film to be a mind-boggling 60 frames per second, quite jump from the 24 frames per second Keane was used to. “Max and I would drive home just struggling with this 60 frames per second,” Keane recalls.” That translates to 60 drawings per second and that’s a lot of drawings. “The big missing piece was that every frame was being held for two frames,” explains Max Keane, “So 24 to Glen actually meant 12 frames and when we found that then that gave us a common ground.”

“Twelve goes into 60 five times,” notes Glen. “And that was the Rosetta Stone.”

They worked out with “Duet” technical project lead Rachid El Guerrab what frame rates they could use. “He went down this list: 10, 15, 30, 12,” recalls Max. “He said 12 and it was like, ah-hah! We can do 12. It was like a lightbulb.”

Ultimately Google ended up using 10,555 frames, a lot of drawings for Keane. “You probably threw out 2,500 other ones in the process,” Max reminds Glen.

“I don’t think of it as drawing after drawing after drawing,” Glen Keane says. “I think of it as a melody.”

Keane relished another difference that the making of “Duet” opened to him. “There are no cuts. And I love that idea. A seamless unbroken conversation with the character that you’re having. And if I needed a close up, I would draw them closer. There was such freedom of movement.”

Keane is hoping to carry his new insights into his next venture. “I really love the freedom of this type of storytelling and I’d really like to keep exploring that,” he says.

Despite his long and storied career in animation, “Duet” is Keane’s first time as a director. He was at Disney and directing “Rapunzel”(later renamed “Tangled”) when he had a heart attack in 2008, and had to step away from the director’s chair. And now that’s he’s left Disney, he’s ready to explore more on his own. “I have some ideas I’ve been cooking for a long time,” he notes.

But another project like “Duet” isn’t what he has in mind. “I don’t want to say that I wouldn’t do another one. It was fascinating and wonderful,” he says. “But I’m not driven by the technical side of things. I’m driven by the artistic, the need to say something. And I have some ideas that I really want to say. And that’s where I want to focus.”

But he’ll always be thankful for his brush with technology. ” I never could have told this story without that technology. It just would not have gotten there. That’s the wonderful, surprising thing.”

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