Making Duet : A Conversation with Glen & Max Keane

By now I’m sure you’ve all seen Duet, Glen Keane’s latest edition to an ever growing body of inspiring work in animation. If you haven’t, treat yourself now. If you have a Moto X phone, watch it on device. At CTN Expo, Glen opened the show by talking about the production of Duet and some of the discoveries, challenges, and joys of directing his first short film. I was invited to sit down with Glen and talk about the film.

I knew Glen would be busy answering all sorts of questions at CTN about his Academy Award short-listed film leading up to award season. There’s already a lot of information about the film in other interviews as well as the behind the scenes video Google ATAP recently released (which I’ve embedded below).

It was important to me that I ask different questions. Glen has such passion in his voice when he describes his experiences, you can see him re-living them in front of you; this made my job simple. Ask interesting questions, and just listen.

Working with Family

Duet was the product of a small group of intelligent and talented artists and engineers. Among them were three members of the Keane family. Max Keane, Glen’s son, served as the film’s Production Designer. His daughter Claire is credited with the film’s Color and Costume Design. Max joined us for the interview and we were lucky enough to have him chime in from time to time.

Daniel: Can you talk about the experience of working with your children on Duet?

Glen: Well, there’s one of them, right there [Pointing to Max]. I thought from the very beginning, what I really found important for me was someone who understood me to work close by on this. Especially with a project where I don’t understand the technical world that I’m stepping into. I have to have somebody that can actually speak both languages, at least to some degree. And Max’s background was a lot more involved with CG, hand-drawn, puppet animation – everything. He’s done so many commercials. So he was very fluent in both worlds.

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Left to right – Jan Pinkava, Rachid El Guerrab, Glen Keane, and Max Keane.

These “bridge people” like him were really vital, and the fact that my son was one of them…I said, “Can you come and help me with this?” And he did. But what I didn’t know is that he and I are different kinds of people. I thought, “Oh, well Max is just like me so we’re going to see things just the same.” But it’s not that way; we are very different people. And I know for me, when I can’t figure something out, my approach is…well, I can draw, and I’ll draw my way out of it. I’ll just figure it out by drawing. And as we were trying to figure out how the story was going to go, both characters moving in different directions, and how you plan all that, my mind was spinning. Max’s mind was spinning, and it came down to [me saying], “Ok, Max I’m just going to go ahead, and I think I’m going to animate.” Do you remember that day?

Max: Yep. I think I had the idea that if he just moves forward and starts animating, we’re going to hit this point where there’s a lot of work done, and we’re not really sure how that’s going to fit. So we’d try to convince him to board it out at least to some degree so we could start to see where in 3D space these things are going to live and how that’s going to function. So that was kind of the big day, where I was like, “Let’s just start putting the pieces out there just to get a sense of the train that were going to be on.” Because I knew you [looks to his father] were really chomping at the bit just to get in there and start animating and exploring these characters.

Glen: Yeah, I knew that for me I would solve things when I started animating, but I wasn’t really worrying about all the train wreckage that would happen behind me. And Max was the guy that was going to have to deal with all that. He said, “If we can just do a pose test of the whole show and then they can put that on the device, then we can start to see it.” So we did that. But I remember our conversation. First I said, “I think we just need to animate it.”

Max is quiet and thoughtful, and he went back to his desk. I started animating, he taps on my shoulder, and he’s looking at me really intense. He said, “We have to plan all this out or we’re going to go off a cliff.” So I can see it in my son’s eyes; he means this. I need to listen to him. So I said, “Okay, okay, we’ll do that.” It was really important, and we never would have made it if we’d done it my way. It was just really helpful to have him. The surprising part was that he’s my son, and I assumed he’d see things exactly the same way I do, but it’s a good thing we don’t.

Claire and I had worked together on Tangled already, so I knew her strengths. She has a gift for color. She’s just pitch perfect. So I asked her if she would do the color for this. And what was most important for me was having both Max and Claire who both respected and valued my drawn line – they’ve just grown up with that. I would go over Max’s drawings when he was little, and I would go over Claire’s drawings. We just had a very natural way of going over and working together.

But Claire was down in Venice beach, so most of her work – because Max had to be up there to work with the team, so he was up there in Silicon Valley – but Claire was down in Venice beach, so we worked a lot by internet. She would fly up at times and we would really zero in, very focused on just how to add the color to it. There’s a beautiful little piece that she did with the ballerina on the stage, where the light and the glow was just magical to me. It was one of those things, a feeling that I knew that I wanted to convey, a real simplicity to it.

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Claire Keane served as Duet‘s Color and Costume Designer.

Through the whole thing we kept thinking simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. If we get too complex it’s just going to fall apart. How much color can you put on the character, and not have it overtake the line? It’s like it’s a really wonderful spice, but a little too much of it and you can’t taste the salmon any longer. Just enough, just enough…So we decided that we’re not going to put color on the flesh. We tried that with Claire, and it worked, but ultimately it came down to just the clothing was going to be the aspect of color.

Claire came up with this beautiful way of following this rainbow pattern all the way through with Mia as she grew up. And Tosh was more of neutral toned rainbow that she worked out. I think because we’d already worked together it was very easy to connect in that way. It’s pretty wonderful to have that connection, me with my dad, and knowing that both of my kids are doing that. I can’t help but think that Max’s kids are going to draw. Already Henry, his little two year old, is inspiring to me.

Daniel: Was your nephew, Jason, ever available to make it even more of a family affair?

Glen: Well, at that point he was already out at Blue Sky working on the Snoopy show. But I remember times where all of us, we were in Paris for Jason’s twenty-first birthday, and we were sitting up at Montmartre. Everyone had a sketchbook, and we were all drawing, including Jason and Max and I. It was pretty wonderful to share that with the family. But what was really surprising was Max’s wife, Megan. She doesn’t draw. But here’s this whole family that draws, and we’re sitting around drawing. Megan’s got a sketchbook and she starts to draw us. This girl has this incredible gift for drawing which we didn’t know about. It’s not sophisticated, but she has this ability. If she was to do a drawing of you, Daniel, it would look just like you, but it would be whatever quality you wished no one noticed, and that’s the one thing-

Daniel: So she’s a caricature artist?

Glen: It’s more than a caricature, it’s like it draws your soul. It’s weird, isn’t it?

Max: It’s slightly disturbing, and so accurate it hurts. It’s like, “Oh, I do look like that.”

A Monumental Task

Duet tells the story of girl named Mia, and a boy named Tosh. They grow from infants, through adolescence, and into adulthood, crossing paths many times along the way. Google ATAP has mentioned on more than one occasion that Glen, along with Lead Animation Assistant, Sarah Airriess, and Team, produced over 10,000 drawings for Duet. This didn’t phase him.

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Duet‘s main characters, Mia (background) and Tosh (foreground).

Daniel: What was the difference, in terms of scale, of working on Duet to some of the more challenging animation assignments you’ve had during your career at Disney?

Glen: I love to draw, so I don’t look at drawing, and have never looked at drawing, as a pain in the neck in any kind of way. Quantity doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s like, okay, give me more notes to sing. I love to sing. It’s a joy. I always felt that on every film that I ended, I was just not ready to stop. I felt like I just got to know Tarzan or Beast or Ariel. And because we had to rush it through and get it done so fast, I had to give scenes to people that I wanted to animate myself. So there was always this kind of sadness at the end of the picture, that I just didn’t get enough time.

Glen drawing the tree to scale. He referred to it as the centerpiece of the short.

Glen drawing the tree to scale. He referred to it as the centerpiece of the short.

On Duet, this was pretty much the first time I think I ever realized that they never stop. There was no cut. I would animate Ariel off the scene, and I knew that I wanted to keep animating her, but I couldn’t. But in Duet, I never did stop, I just kept Mia moving, and I grew her right out of that point of her being six years old to eight years old, to ten, to twelve, and it was very satisfying. I felt like I was satisfied with that growth of her character. It was really a very fulfilling completion then when they, both Tosh and Mia, are standing on the cliff together.

The only thing  was I just had to stop the story. The story certainly could continue on. At one point I thought of her being pregnant on the edge of that cliff. But that might have been comical that you see a kiss and then…

Daniel: Or dying in each others arms as an old couple?

Glen: Yeah, it could keep going as grand-parents, and then you’re dealing with death. Let’s just leave it at that.

Sculptural Drawing

It’s been almost ten years since Clay Kaytis interviewed Glen. In the 2006 interview, Glen mentioned the term, “sculptural drawings,” to describe an area animation has yet to fully explore. Liking animation history to fine art history, he said we haven’t even entered the Renaissance period, let alone Impressionism. At the time I was a student, and this concept was hard for me to grasp, but over the years it’s become clearer what he was talking about.

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Glen took every opportunity to turn the characters and rotate around them, as shown here when Mia does an extended pirouette.

Daniel: How much have you been able to explore animation with sculptural drawing? Were you able to experiment with this concept on Duet?

Glen: I’ve barely touched it. I shaded my drawings when I would animate, and people would ask, “Why are you shading Beast? Why are you shading Ariel?” Because I’m happier that way. I’m trying to create this sculpted thing. So even though that would be lost when it was cleaned up and painted, my drawings tend to have shadows and stuff on them. I feel like on Duet, I got to do some sculptural drawing in that we could follow around [the characters], and in turning them around, but there’s so much more that I want to pursue.

I’ve always felt like drawing was a little bit more like – if you look at Rodin, and you look at his sculptures, you feel like you want to put your hands on them. Anytime I go and see a Rodin sculpture, I’ve got to put my hands on it. So I can feel the way he felt about the back, and the sculpture is like canyons in the back. But that’s only half of his thing, because then you look at his drawings, they’re like very liquid flowing forms. You understand his sculpture by looking at his drawings. Because there’s a fluidity in his sculptures that’s happening in his drawings. And there’s something in between those, that’s the thing that I really want to capture.

Degas had the same struggle with doing his ballerinas. He would do a sculpture of it, he would take photos of the sculpture, and then do drawings and pastels. Whether they were doing pastels or sculptures or drawings, these guys were experiencing the same feeling of sculptural drawing.

Glen Keane Productions

On March 23, 2012, Glen Keane left Walt Disney Feature animation to pursue his own interests. Shortly after, Glen Keane Productions appeared online. What was he working on? I had the good fortune to be a part of Windy Day, and once I heard of Glen’s arrival at Motorola, I knew what his first project under his new banner would be. Recently Glen wrote, “Throughout my 40 year career as an animator I have benefited each time new technology crossed my path because it invariably forced me to become a better artist. In a similar way, Duet has stretched all of us creatively who worked on it.” It only makes sense for Glen to keep pushing the medium forward.

Daniel: How do you intend to move forward with Glen Keane Productions? Will you always be pushing the limits of technology?

Glen: I have a feeling we will. I mean, I know that’s where we’re going. Not because I want to go necessarily, and conquer new worlds of technology, but I just know that the only way were going to realize these things is by finding a blend CG and hand drawn that serves each other’s purpose, and the ideas that were experimenting with right now, this idea of visual poetry…Duet is defined more as a visual poem than a traditional story line.

In Duet you have two characters whose lives are growing up parallel, almost like two stanzas of a poem, and they reflect on each other. She’s diving in the water, he’s surfing. He wants adventure, she wants to fly. There’s no dialogue, and they are circling and touching one another’s lives in parallel ways.

Mia on her journey to becoming a great dancer.

Mia on her journey to becoming a great dancer.

And the vignettes disappear. As they animate out of them, they just disappear. If you wanted to go turn and look at the rocks that the boy was just climbing on, they’re gone, because they’re no longer needed. It’s more of that kind of freedom of visual storytelling and poetry. And I know that will probably come into play technologically as even now Max and I are playing around with some visuals…It’s really marrying this art world and storytelling world in way that personally I’m really interested in.

Overcoming Challenges

Everyone struggles with art, even the masters. It’s always inspiring to hear someone talented talk about their trials and tribulations. How they overcome the odds when they hit their own limits. Since the sole purpose of this blog is to inspire you, the reader, I thought it vital to close out the interview in this fashion, and explore this reality with Glen.

Daniel: What advice do you turn to when you face a problem you can’t solve?

Glen: I remember Ward Kimball said, “I can draw anything I can take apart and put together.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of cocky.” But he’s right, if you can take it apart, and put it back together, you should be able to draw it. Wow, that’s really awesome. What confidence he goes through life with knowing that. So I felt like with Duet, I was hitting my limit in terms of my knowledge of ballet as she is dancing, because I’ve never danced like that. So it was really important to talk to Benjamin Millipied a little bit and get to see that. And studying ballet. I find there’s always some way of getting that knowledge.

Benjamin Millepied was brought in to consult with Glen on the dance moves in Duet.

Benjamin Millepied consulted with Glen on the dance moves in Duet. Photo source: Paris Match

Climbing the rocks…I spent a lot of time climbing the mountain next to me as a kid out in Arizona, and I knew that feeling. I could feel the heat on the rocks, and that whole thing was very visceral and personal for me. I knew that, that feeling. Artistically, I think I have to subscribe to Ward Kimball’s thinking. I’m just confident that I may not know right now how to do it, but if I can take it apart and figure it out, I can do it. I’m very confident with that. That was the problem with that one moment [I mentioned earlier]. I was like, “No, we’re going to figure this out!” But I didn’t realize how many people you take with you over that cliff.

During Glen’s presentation at CTN, he showed reference of refracting light effects dancing in water (similar to the video below). Glen was determined to animate this with line during the films aquatic portions.

Max: It’s like the water. What you were saying in your talk. You just wanted to look at that water, look at those shapes, look at the patterns, and just try and understand it. Though it could have been done proceduraly and nobody would have known the difference…It was that quest of, “How do I communicate that through line?”

Glen: That’s a great example. Literally that is the best example. I mean, I do not understand that. I looked at that and thought, “What in the world?!” And I kept watching it and watching it. Finally, I couldn’t understand. I knew that there had to be ridges of water, with light refracting, and causing those little patterns, and that it would flatten out. I figured okay, that’s what’s happening. But it’s moving in this crazy way. So all I could do is just watch it, and watch it, over and over again, and then quickly turn it off and start to animate it. As fast as I could, I just animated it without being logical about it. Just from the feeling of it.

Daniel: Were you looking for any kind of patterns while observing it?

Glen: I was. I saw these things moving in two directions at the same time. And I didn’t know how to do that. So I started drawing it. It was very much like Picasso says, “I am always doing that which I don’t know how to do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” And I did it, but I can’t tell you really what it was still. And that’s what I was left with. It’s okay; there can be things that you don’t even know how to do, and that’s not a reason for not doing it. You can still try. It’s better to draw mystery, you know? There is mystery and appeal with just the right proportions that are magic.

A look at the Boxer mentioned below.

A look at the Boxer mentioned below.

Like, drawing the dog, this Boxer – a Boxer’s head is crazy – a wacky design. They look like Gorillas with these wide eyes, they’re just wacky looking things. You just don’t naturally design a boxer, that was the hardest thing in the world to try to draw. For me this Boxer was a real mystery.

The Future

Outside of my interview with Glen and Max, there was no mystery as to what the highlight of CTN was: The Google ATAP directors panel. Represented by all the key players, it was a look at the short history of the three films produced to date: Windy Day, Buggy Night, and Duet.

From left to right: Glen Keane, Scot Stafford, Rachid El Guerrab, Mark Oftedal, Doug Sweetland, Jan Pinkava, and Charles Solomon. Photo courtesy of Kevin Vlk, who at this moment turned to me in excitement and said, "It's like the Avengers!"

From left to right: Glen Keane, Scot Stafford, Rachid El Guerrab, Mark Oftedal, Doug Sweetland, Jan Pinkava, and Charles Solomon. Photo courtesy of Kevin Vlk, who at this moment turned to me in excitement and said, “It’s like the Avengers!” I couldn’t have said it better.

Jan Pinkava presented Windy Day, the film that introduced the technology to the world. Mark Oftedal presented Buggy Night, which left the audience in fits of laughter. Glen Keane presented Duet again, which left everyone wondering how anyone could improve upon the beauty they had just witnessed.

Google has already announced Justin Lin’s involvement in a live-action short for the fourth Spotlight Story, and with many more in the works, this platform is surely building to something that will revolutionize the industry. I’m glad I was in on the ground floor. I’ve enjoyed the films they’ve produced since, and I’m waiting in anticipation to see where they go next. One thing is for sure. Duet is quite the act to follow.