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In Search of the Perfect Pencil: Glen Keane and ‘Duet’

The legendary animator talks in-depth about bringing hand-drawn animation to the virtual world of Motorola’s advanced mobile phone.

Multiplex movie screens may be growing larger and studios have abandoned classic 2D animation in favor of CGI, but one veteran Disney animator/character designer is going back to the past - and forward to the future at the same time. After 37 years Glen Keane left Disney to, as he put it at the time “answer [animation’s] siren call to step out” and explore the “endless new territories” made possible by modern computer technology.

That siren’s call led him to Google’s (formerly Motorola’s) Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP) where he created Duet, a three minute and 43 second short exploring the dreams and imagination of two young children. The short was designed to demonstrate the ability of Motorola’s advanced mobile phones to explore a borderless virtual world on the other side of the phone’s screen, as if the screen was a window - a very small window - into that world and moving that “window” about allowed one to see action taking place elsewhere in that world…maybe I’d better let Glen explain things himself…

What first attracted you to this new medium?

I was at Disney for nearly 40 years when something like a bell went off. I felt I had to do something new, but I didn’t know what it was. Ed Catmull [Pixar’s co-founder and current President of both the Disney and Pixar animation studios] asked me “what you want to do?” “I don’t know,” I told him, “I just want to live without walls.” I was talking about my life; I didn’t realize I almost meant the creative, actual act of animating, animating without walls - that’s what this is.

There are no edges [to the frame, because there is no “frame” containing the animation]. Even though I’m still animating on a piece of paper, you have the freedom of being able to move anywhere up, down, at any angle at any time. Even if a character leaves [the phone’s window] they don’t leave, they continue to exist, which is actually closer to the way I think about animating anyway: If Ariel goes offscreen she doesn’t stop [existing]. I still see her in my mind, she’s still out there, she’s still moving.

I had dinner with a couple of buddies. One was telling me about - this was after I left Disney - something they were doing up at Google. “I can’t really explain it, you’ve got to see it.” So I was invited up there and they showed me this little device with animation Jan Pinkava [director of the Pixar short Geri’s Game] was doing, Windy Day. There was animation you could follow and I thought at first “this is a tiny screen, I want a big screen.” Then I realized it’s not a tiny screen, it’s a big screen – it’s a window to potentially the largest screen possible, in this infinite world.

[ATAP head] Regina Dugan said “I just want you to make something beautiful and emotional with this.”

“What’s the catch?”

“There is no catch, I just want you to push yourself creatively and emotionally and that will push us technologically.”

These are all things I wanted to try, I had no idea it was going to be this…boundary-less world of animation.

[The two characters - Mia and Tosh - are often not together onscreen; the person holding the device has to move it in space to locate the other character elsewhere in the virtual world they occupy. The animation can be viewed on YouTube at that unfortunately can’t convey the phone’s ability to follow them about their environment.]

Did you know Mia and Tosh would have this separation or did that come later?

No one had done hand-drawn animation in that kind of environment before. You’re really still limited working on that piece of paper. That was difficult - what happens when I’m animating a character and I know he’s moving and the audience will be doing this [Glen mimics someone moving the device trying to locate the character] and they’re going to eventually find the character the other side. How do you work the timing, how do you work the pacing when both characters are moving at different speeds? How do you predict it? What if the audience decides they just want to look at this other character? Am I going to lose this story?

I had this real fear of people feeling unfulfilled, the story broke for them because they made [the wrong] choice. There was a real sense of responsibility. The will of the viewer was constantly on my mind; I never had that sense [when I was working in conventional animation]. If I was animating Tosh running over here and little Mia was over there, there was a certain point I could feel in my gut: the curiosity of the audience - what’s the other one doing?”

I figured they were going to go over and see her. I allowed for moments when you would go and discover the other character. It was more of a feeling that instead of controlling the camera you were coaxing the audience - like a magician talking and looking at you; you’re naturally going to be looking at his hand, but he’s doing something over here and you don’t know. It’s much more a sleight of hand than an illusion.

Can you talk a bit about the characters?

They’re real people. My own family enters largely into my work. We had two little grandchildren just born, baby boys. There was a lot of crawling around the floor at that time, so I was animating them, filming them, drawing them - a lot of baby bottoms.

I knew the feeling of holding those babies. To me I was animating a lot of my own self in the boy. I love nature; I loved to climb rocks in Arizona when I was a boy. We didn’t have a waterfall [as in the cartoon].  I wish there was waterfall but that was very much me. That’s what I wanted my grandsons to be like.

Mia was a girl who - I always had flying dreams. I always figured ballerinas wanted to fly. There’s one point where she’s dancing and leaps as a little girl, but for a moment she goes into slow motion and the music rises. She [flies gracefully] something no little girl could really do, but she does it, it’s her vision of what she wants to be.

I didn’t want Mia to be of any particular race; she’s just a girl of the world and she wants to dance. She’s pirouetting, she’s more of an Asian, Arab kind of facial quality to her. I wanted her to be more like that, so there’s no color to skin, things like that. The whole idea was to animate something that anyone in the world - no matter who you were - could relate to the experience of the character.

Did you work on paper or on a tablet?

It was all on paper. When I first got to Google one of the programmers said “it would really help me if you could animate at 60 frames per second.” “Sixty frames per second? That would really help you, but what about me?!” I spent the last 40 years thinking at 24 frames per second. I didn’t know how I’d do it, I mean timing wise. I had a schedule, I had to get this done, but learning at a whole different rhythm at the same time.

Then I remembered the old guys who taught me animation - Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, the “nine old men.” They all had metronomes on their desks. I realized 24 frames per second must’ve been just as weird as 60 is for me, because none of them had animated before. The way they solved it was just the click of a metronome - 24, [Glen snaps his fingers] 24 [snap], 24 [snap]…I just needed to think 60- 60- 60, 30-30-30…

I downloaded a metronome app. That really helped me leap over into that next realm. Now I think in terms of 60. I like the idea I have more drawings to describe [movement]. I didn’t actually have to do 60 drawings for one second, I could do 30, shoot them twice and get 60 frames

Did you have any inbetweeners working with you?

Yes, Sarah Airriess was my assistant. She’s a phenomenal artist in her own right and an animator and had the ability to follow my style. I knew her at Disney and asked her to work with me. She was ready to leave Disney and move to London. “Wait,” I asked her, “before you move to London can you do this thing with us at Google in Silicon Valley?”

We searched everywhere for the right pencil. It was important because it had to be an expressive line. When I’m animating I’m thinking of the line I’m making as sort of a seismograph of your soul.

You put something down and you feel it - that energy is there. My son Max who is the production designer really knew and valued the line, my drawing over the years [as did] my daughter Claire, who also did the color on the film.

It was a family project.

Yes, and my dad was a cartoonist.

Yes, so I’ve heard. [Glen’s father was Bil Keane, creator of the still running Family Circus comic strip, now drawn by Glen’s brother Jeff]

Sara and I did thousands of drawings – we both ended up with braces on our hands.

You suffered for your art.

Yes, and it was all on paper. We searched everywhere for a pencil that had that soft quality. Every time I found a pencil that I liked at Disney over the years, the manufacturer would stop making them the way I liked, they found cheaper ways to make them and they became shaly.

We searched everywhere. Gennie Rim, my producer found the best pencil imaginable in Japan - a Mitsubishi pencil, which apparently Miyazaki uses as well. It draws like butter, there’s calories to the line, you get a fat drawing. Absolutely wonderful.

They say your signature reflects your personality; I’ve always thought that extends to an animator who’s drawing on paper - the line is also a reflection of his personality. It sounds kind of like what you’re saying.

It’s funny how if you hold a pencil, the design of a pencil, it’s an extension of your arm, which is an extension from your body to your heart. I see it as [travelling] from my heart to the pencil to that line. When you draw, it’s really taking something from inside and putting it there.

I remember having a conversation with Eric Larson. He said “you need to see your drawing before you draw.” I said “actually, I don’t.”

“Well of course you do; how could you draw if you don’t see it?”

“I don’t, know, but I don’t. I don’t have an image in my mind of what I’m drawing. I have a feeling here. [Glen points to his heart]. What does it mean when you point here? I think it’s something deeper than an intellectual thing. I find that it’s in the act of drawing that I discover [what that image is].

There are times when I’m animating, like Tosh running along. I knew I had to get him to the tree, I had no time left, and he’s running along these rocks, across the field… it’s 5:30 in the morning, I’m getting up early to get this thing done… at a certain point I realized Tosh doesn’t want to go to the tree, he wants to run in the field - so I let him.

The characters take on their own life and you have to follow that.

Yeah, so I’m watching him and I realize there’s a fallen tree in that field. He’s now hanging on that and rolling in the grass and the birds fly by. The whole thing [just] happened—I didn’t know it was going to happen when I sat down that morning.

I assume you couldn’t cheat that it was [originally]15 feet to the tree and you could make it eight. Was everything locked into this virtual space?

This was more like a visual poem, and there was a lot of freedom of space. If I wanted to extend a space as long as I wanted him to go, I’d just keep him moving and moving as long as I needed. I would need to consider the other character was moving the other way. But I found myself with an enormous amount of freedom, because if we needed to stretch some space we could fly elements [about].

I would animate the background too so the lines would appear - the grass that Tosh is running in, I’m just drawing it in and as he’s running I’m just fading the drawings out and drawing them less and less. But all the backgrounds are drawn on the same paper as the characters. It was very much like what Winsor McCay did with Gertie the Dinosaur - 10,000 drawings as well. As a matter of fact it was Gertie’s 100th anniversary while I was doing Duet

Because Gertie’s background was redrawn every frame it’s quivering as if it were alive.

They had an energy. We did it all the way through, that’s why the line never stops. If you look around the tree there’s this slight movement because it’s all being redrawn, nothing ever stops.

The idea that action is taking place in virtual space behind and in front of you at the same time reminds me of the 360-degree World’s Fair-type movies. Did that enter your mind?

Very much so. I was aware of any three-dimensional work I had seen. What hit me though was how important the story is and not to lose the story thread; we had to think differently about the story.

Instead of linear, with the story here [Glen points to a space directly in front of him], here [his hand moves sideways a distance] and ending there [his hand moves further over], this was two spiral staircases. I thought of it very clearly as a double helix that you could hop from one story to the next. Both characters were living their own lives, but they could intersect – you could hop from one and follow the other one for a while, but you never could, if the spiral staircase was here, leap from this point down to that point on the other one.

It was like a poem, stanzas, you could always hop over in that poetic moment, like when she leaps out of the tree she goes into this water experience, like she’s growing up and she’s swimming, so he goes into surfing. There are similar kinds of experiences they’re going thru as they grow.

Where did their names come from?

Tosh was a name, I searched everywhere for what was a good name. Someone who had visited a Japanese friend of mine in Paris named Yoshi sent me an Email. Spell Check turned it into “Tosh.” She said “Tosh says hello” - I like that name, yeah, Tosh is gonna be his name. Mia was a name that felt like it could be any culture, anywhere. I just wanted her to be a universal girl.

You talked before about line being an extension of your heart. I’ve talked to computer animation people who say they’re able to recognize who animated a character based on the character’s motion. Even if you’re just manipulating a rigging the animator’s personality still comes through, but you no longer have that actual physical contact with what you’re creating. Was that part of your decision to move on, you saw that CGI was taking over Disney and Hollywood animation?

Any time I see technology cross my path it forces me to be a better artist. When I was a kid I didn’t draw to make a drawing, I drew to make the paper go away and the world became real - I was with the dinosaurs. Anytime CG has come in - that first test I made with John Lasseter on Where the Wild Things Are [combining a CGI environment and 2D characters] meant embracing that dimensionality.

I’ve always been drawn to the computer. But I know in my heart I’m an artist first who’s an animator. I cannot let go of the pencil - I think it’s the most elegant tool ever invented by mankind, and the more complication you put between that point and my heart – I don’t need it, don’t want it - let me draw.  My experience on Tangled was trying to bring a drawing sensibility into it.

Leaving Disney was not about a frustration, “hey they’re moving too much into the computer.” I’ve always loved computer animation; it was just this desire [to move on]. I remember Ed Catmull asking me “what do you want to do?” “I just want to live without walls.” This is a way of experiencing that open freedom creatively - you see, I never intended to be an animator. My portfolio was sent accidently to the school of animation at CalArts, but I wanted to get into the school of painting

 I guess part of me has always wanted this adventure of not knowing where you’re going to go creatively. My favorite book is Art and Fear [by David Bayles and Ted Orland]; I give it to everybody who’s going to work with me. It’s a wonderful book that describes the commonology all artists have about fear. You feel like everybody else knows what they’re doing but you, and how important it is to be on that edge of discovering something new. Picasso said “I’m always doing that that I don’t know how to do in order to learn how to do it.”

I felt like that’s what I needed to do. I felt like computer animation had already been around long enough to feel stodgy. We know what that’s like - what’s new, where can we take it beyond that? That’s where I’m exploring now.

Are you working on other projects using the same technology?

This idea of a virtual world is really fascinating to me. I’m beginning to explore that. I have some ideas that are longer form. I think it would be interesting to take the things I learned from Duet and do a longer form story. This idea of visual poetry is fascinating to me, that you can still arrive in three and a half minutes to an emotional level that we sometimes don’t get to in a 90 minute feature.

I wonder about that, developing stories along those lines and also working with music - more of a virtual world with music and animation together, hand-drawn animation in [three] dimensions. So I’m playing around with that. It’s wonderful to have stepped out of Hollywood and into Silicon Valley and everything that’s possible out there.

Do you find it a creative atmosphere, or is it more tech-oriented? Do the tech people have an appreciation for what you’re doing?

It’s more like they really need you. They’ve got these incredible resources and power behind what they can do; they need artists to come and say “let’s do this, let’s try that.” And they are really creative and willing to dive in and do it. During Duet I taught figure drawing to the programmers and they would teach me about algorithms - there was a constant exchange of ideas.

I suddenly had an image of animators hitchhiking and holding signs reading “Silicon Valley or Bust.” 

I don’t think you’re far from it. Silicon Valley is reproducing itself in different cities like New York and Los Angeles.

They call it “Silicon Alley” here.

I don’t think everybody has to move to San Francisco, but to move into that neighborhood, that environment with the programmers who are incredibly creative with their algorithms and their formulas for figuring out new ways of compressing data [is amazing].

The fact that you can be watching Duet, and you turn, “I want to see the character there.” Well the character’s not really there; the computer can pull that information together, put it on the screen, so that by the time you get there, there it is. This is all just on your phone, this is really phenomenal, and they’re refreshing the screen at 60 frames per second.

That was the wonderful thing about ATAP at Google. The other technology that was being developed in that little think tank, you couldn’t help but be part of it because you’re an artist there. I found that everyone else is just as creative as you are, but with their keyboard, their ideas. Everyone is drawing on the wall - every wall was a surface for expressing formulas and drawing.

It sounds almost like being in an immersive environment, [a real life] Duet.

We were right next to Moffett Field, watching aircraft and helicopters landing. There was this gigantic hanger where they used to have the dirigibles, the blimps coming in, except all that was left was its skeleton, its ribbing. I was working on Duet, which was taking the oldest known form of expression - no different from drawing on a cave wall - and the newest technology and making something new. I’d look out the window and there were hovercraft coming in and landing, and just beyond it that dirigible hanger. The technological advances that were happening there and here were always about the old and the new coming together to make something really truly wonderful. 

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.