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Glen Keane's revolutionary new animated short will change the way you think about movies

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Glen Keane is a Disney legend, an amazing artistic talent who began his career in the 1970s by bringing Pete’s Dragon and The Fox and the Hound to life. In the late 1980s and ’90s, he was a primary creative force in the Disney renaissance, animating starring characters in blockbusters that included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin

In 2012, after nearly 40 years at Walt Disney, Keane decided it was time for a change. “I am convinced that animation really is the ultimate art form of our time with endless new territories to explore,” he wrote in a farewell letter to his Disney colleagues. “I can’t resist its siren call to step out and discover them.”

Three years later, he’s delivering on that promise of “endless new territories.” Duet is an elegant, hand-drawn animated short that is bursting at the seams of the possible. Presented below, in the conventional viewing format to which audiences are accustomed, it’s a sweet minuet between a boy and a girl, from the first tentative steps as toddlers to the romantic leap into adulthood. But Duet was built specifically by Google to be something revolutionary, a story that needs to be experienced via a smartphone, not just seen.

Later this spring, the short will be a free download on all Google smartphones, which serve as portals to an entirely new entertainment experience. Imagine a movie screen that exists 360 degrees around you and above you. Imagine dual, overlapping adventures that are unfolding in front of you and behind you, and now imagine your smartphone is the camera that allows you, the viewer, the freedom to point and watch the story as you see fit. Essentially, you become the director of Duet—or at least the smartphone conveys that feeling of creative authority and independence—with Keane playing the metaphorical role of Prometheus.  

It’s truly an eye-opening experience, which words alone fail to adequately describe. Nevertheless, EW and Keane recently spoke to discuss Duet and what it might mean for the future of animation. 

EW: Any description of Duet really doesn’t do it justice. At work, I just handed the smartphone to my co-workers without instruction, pressed Play, and before you knew it, I had a crowd of smiling people who wanted to try it. Once you hold it in your hands, it kind of clicks. It’s an eye-opener. It’s a window into a different way to experience film. What was that moment for you?   

GLEN KEANE: When I first saw Jan Pinkova’s animation from Windy Day on this little device, it was a little bit like Alice drinking from the bottle and entering into this whole other Wonderland. You experience it; you don’t just watch it. Regina Dugan had invited me up to Google and showed me that device and I was looking at it, and my first thought was, “That screen is really tiny. Why do I want to give up a big screen for that?” But after watching I realized, “Well, actually, it’s not a screen at all. It’s a window into an infinite virtual world.” The biggest screen possible. So I said, “What do you want me to do with this?” She said, “I just want you to make something beautiful and emotional.” You never get someone just telling you that. An executive usually has got something else on their mind, so I said, “Okay, what’s the catch? What are you trying to sell?” She said, “We’re not selling anything. This is going to be a gift. From Google. It will just arrive on people’s phones. We just want you to push yourself creatively, and that’s going to push us technologically.” 

With tech, you’ve always been open to trying different things, like the Where the Wild Things Are test footage you did with John Lasseter in 1983. But this was beyond that, because your mind is accustomed to working a certain way. Was this type of technology easy to wrap your head around or did you have to retrain your entire creative process?  

I’ve always liked the idea of moving into something I don’t understand. Picasso said, “I’m always doing that which I don’t know how to do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” I’ve always been drawn to that myself. Really, leaving Disney was about, “Something is out there and I don’t know what it is.” Ed Catmull was saying, “Well, Glen, what do you want to do?” “I just want to live without walls.” And I was thinking of just outside a studio wall and all that, but I didn’t realize that was actually going to come to pass in terms of animation—animating literally without a frame. There are walls, no ceiling, no floor. And yet, it’s all on a square piece of paper. But it’s much more of a magic trick. It was a very scary thing, animating in an environment where the audience has the camera. I’m used to controlling it, because I’m the storyteller! I’m the director! But I had to learn to give up control. Jan Pinkava kept encouraging me because he could see the fear in my eyes. He said, “Just embrace the technology, whatever that means to you.” I go, “Okay, so they have freedom, so how do I control?” He’s like, “You don’t. You coax. You’re like a magician.” Somebody looks over there while you do something over here. It puts a lot more [responsibility] on the storyteller. As you’re animating, you have to be very aware of audience curiosity. So the whole time that I’m animating Tosh climbing up this little hill, I realize that in the audience’s mind, they just saw that little boy with that little girl. And there’s this moment like, “What’s going on with her?” And I knew that there had to be this swing back at that point. 

Tosh is the boy’s name? 

Yes. Tosh, Mia, and the dog’s name is Bo. Bo was my son’s boxer. He’s got the longest life-span of any dog. 

Your father’s comic strip famously reflected you and your siblings. 

Me, I was Billy in Family Circus.  

So who were the inspiration for these characters? 

The little boy Tosh is very much like my two grandsons, Henry and Roman, who were both crawling around just as we were beginning to start. I had so many videos. The whole thing is an experience of me holding little babies’ baby butts. The soft skin, I knew what that felt like. And I guess I relate to myself as Tosh. He’s a boy who wants adventure. He connects with nature. Growing up in Arizona, I remember climbing rocks. And Mia, I wanted her to be somebody from anywhere on the planet. The whole thing is about putting animation into the hands of anybody who has a cell phone, anybody in any corner of the world. I wanted Mia to represent that desire for any girl to dance—to really fly. Even her facial design as she’s pirouetting, she’s more Asian or Arab. I didn’t want this to be about two white people, though we didn’t put any color in the skin. There’s a point where she’s running along and she leaps. She slows down and using the 60 frames per second that we were animating at, where she slooooows down and it’s like, this is animating desire at that point. And then watching her grow up to become this ballerina. Really, she wants to fly. That’s what dancers want. And she explodes into these birds that are up there.  

Sixty frames per second is a brave new world for animation, since most, if not all, hand-drawn films are conceived in the traditional 24 fps. Was that your biggest challenge?

The 60 fps was really the first hurdle thrown at me the first day. The programmer said, “You know, it would just really help if you could animate at 60 fps.” I was like, “Well, that would help you, but I spent 40 years thinking 24.” But I remember my mentors had metronomes on their desk, and for them 24 frames was just as weird as for me at 60. And they solved it with just 24 [snapping fingers] 24, 24. And I needed to switch that to 60 [snapping fingers slightly faster] 60, 60. It took me maybe three weeks and I was into that rhythm. That was a huge challenge, but it was the wrapping my mind around a new storytelling paradigm [that was the biggest challenge]. It was no longer linear. It was two spiral staircases, a double helix storyline rather than a linear straight line, where the audience could hop from one to the other. It was more like a visual poem. 

The musical score is doubly important in a project like this, because there is no dialogue. How did you collaborate with Scot Stafford on it?

Scot Stafford’s music was essential for the whole experience to even happen. You’re giving the audience a lot of choice, in my mind, to ruin the experience potentially, and the music had to tell you where [the story] was going so that you wanted to follow [the characters]. He was phenomenal, and the miracle really of being able to write something that works no matter what [the viewer is] doing. You can look away as he’s building, building, building, and it’s able to keep going so that when you come back, it flies right back into formation. 

Once you experience Duet, you immediately imagine all the potential possibilities—not just five-minute shorts but theatrical features with Occulus Rift headsets. Like, can you imagine the Beauty and the Beast ballroom scene with the headset on? Is that reasonable or is that crazy? 

It’s crazily reasonable. [Laughs] What’s wonderful is having pulled out of the gravitational pull of Hollywood, you spin out into this other orbit—a place where there’s no formula to storytelling and animation. There’s no tracks that have been set. With Google folks, I’m sitting next to programmers, and they just want to know what it is that you want to do, and they’ll figure out the code to make it happen. That’s an environment where really truly you need to set your imagination free, because they are asking to be challenged. I think that that’s really where the future is going to be going and this Silicon Valley [spirit and tech] transplanting itself in different cities, like L.A. and New York. Sections of that kind of thinking will attract new animators coming in, and the new filmmakers will be working in virtual reality environments.  

I imagine leaving Disney was in many ways terrifying. You grow comfortable at a place where you’ve had success, and you were at Disney for 38 years. Was that decision frightening? 

Yeah. I had read a quote by von Goethe where he’s talking about: You need to take that step, but it’s not until you take the step that you will find all of the resources there. It’s not going to happen before, though. You’re not going to get the comfort of, “Come over here and work for us. You want to do something new? Here’s something really new.” That would be nice but life isn’t like that. I was about to work at another big studio that wanted to do animation, but I just realized, “What am I doing? This isn’t it.” I had to back out. Our house was sold, and we’d moved into a apartment down in Hollywood, near our son and his kids. Life was wonderful and life was totally scary, and then I had dinner one night with a bunch of buddies. We were just talking and one of the guys told me about this crazy thing up at Google. So I go up there, and it never would’ve happened had I not left and taken that step. I remember we had this guy come into Disney once, and he was having the animators play-acting. He said, “Okay, suddenly, the doors of your secure studio are closed and you no longer have a job. What are the impressions—first thought?” And each person was like, “Panic.” “Blackness.” It got to me and I said, “Open window. Freedom. Joy.” And I just needed to do that. Now I’m on this journey, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out. There are ideas that I have, but I don’t want to leave behind the things that I’ve learned and discovered doing Duet

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