By Sean Z.
Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin created the first Google Doodle on August 30th, 1998. It was their out-of-office message, informing people that they were attending the California music festival Burning Man. Since then, Google Doodles have grown considerably. There are over 500 Doodles per year, with many running only in specific countries and regions. The VR Google Doodle celebrating Georges Méliès was even nominated for an Emmy in 2018.
Colin Duffy was a Producer on the Google Doodle team, and worked on the recent Champion Island Games doodle that ran during the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to notable animation and music, the Champion Island Games doodle had multiple, fully playable games. Following its publication, The Beat spoke to Duffy to learn more about Google Doodles.
Duffy joined the team as a producer four years ago, and has worked on Google Doodles involving “engineering, interactivity, music videos, things more complicated than a static piece of art.” Duffy has an impressive resume. He began his career at Dreamworks Animation with How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar, before moving to 2K Games and eventually Disney, where he worked in Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) on Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. He joined the Doodles team after his friend Nate Swinehart, an animator on the team, referred him for an opening. Both worked on the Champion Island Games Doodle.
Doodles begin as ideas from Google employees – anyone in the company can submit an idea for a Doodle, celebrating holidays, events, people (though only non-living people), and more. The ideas are collected over a year in advance, with the team finalizing the schedule for the following year in late summer of the current one.
Duffy explained that once submissions are collected, art directors and a team of 12 artists review each one. The goal is to diversify as much as possible, which includes representing minority groups and covering a variety of topics. Google also reviews the requests for legal clearance (to ensure it doesn’t have to secure rights from any estates). Once topics are whittled down to about 500 from the initial set, artists on the Google Doodle team will claim which they are most interested in working on, and production begins. Individual, non-interactive Doodles take about 12 weeks to complete.
Additionally, Duffy said the team strives to handle each Doodle respectfully and authentically. Google consults employee resource groups within the company (such as Pride at Google, Black Googler Network, Disability Alliance, etc), and these groups are included in development meetings and in project review. Then, artists with specific identities and experiences work on these Doodles. For example, in 2018, Google contracted artists for its Women’s Day Doodle, which included eight individual animations and stories. The company didn’t have eight women animators on the team at the time, so it outsourced. Similarly, for Veterans Day, Google hired vets to illustrate a Doodle.
This practice is also common for country holidays. “If we’re doing Argentina National Day, but we don’t have any Argentinian artists on the team, we want to make sure that the art is as culturally resonant as possible, because it is specifically focusing on that country. So, we’ll find an Argentinian artist to work on the Doodle for a couple of months.”
Duffy said people are surprised by the number of regionally-specific Google Doodles. “If there’s an artist who was really popular across Europe, and never scratched American culture, then maybe only Europe will get a given Doodle,” he explained.
The team also has volunteers globally who help consult for their areas and markets. “If we can’t hire guest artists, we at least run every topic through folks in that area, to make sure we’re getting things right,” Duffy said.
In the early days, Google would take submissions for art over Twitter, Duffy explained; in fact, one of his co-workers got their job by replying to a Tweet. Now, things are a bit more formal and Google keeps a large database of artists in various countries, with links to portfolios. Sometimes those are added by people reaching out to the team directly, but often artists recommend other artists.
Interactive Doodles are handled a bit differently than the rest, because they require so much more work. An interactive Doodle can take 6-9 months to make, compared to the 12 weeks required for a static doodle. Duffy said Interactives are often built in partnership with external studios: “We made a Mr. Rogers doodle a couple years ago, and we worked with a puppeteering studio in LA to animate those puppets. The artists on our team would do storyboards and character designs, and the puppeteering company did the actual creating of the puppets and filming them.”
The game section of Champion Island Games was built by the Google animation team. “Nate, the creative lead, is a big gamer and a big fan of Super Nintendo games… We consulted with some people in Stadia at Google. We watched a lot of YouTube videos on game design. And while we probably didn’t do it as elegantly as a game designer might have, the end product was well-received,” Duffy explained. “Nate had done the Halloween 2018 doodle, which was a multiplayer game, but the Champion Island Games Doodle was the largest we’ve ever done. I have to give a lot of credit to our engineers on the team. They helped build the framework for us.”
Over time, the Doodle grew in scope. “We found a chiptune artist on YouTube who does Nintendo remixes, and we asked if he’d like to help out.”
In 2019, Google sent members of the team to Japan to research folklore and architecture. “We went on a bit of a road show,” Duffy said. “We went to anime studios in Japan to try to find the right one for the intro and cutscenes.”
When the Olympics were postponed last summer, the team expanded on its original idea, building in more games and new quest mechanics., “It was always the intent to have a high-def, film-quality anime into [the doodle] as an ode to Japanese culture,” Duffy said.
While Google made the initial protagonist design, their partners at the anime studio, STUDIO4°C, provided feedback. The original character was a fox, but the studio “suggested we change it to a cat, because they said they were more common in Japan.” Duffy said the Google Doodle team wanted a female protagonist, so the team went with a calico cat, Lucky, because that coloring usually indicates a cat is female. “The studio [STUDIO4°C] did a lot of the heavy lifting with choosing which stories we depicted, as well as providing character designs for most of the other characters,” Duffy said. Animators Nate Swinehart and Sophie Diao took the studio’s character designs and created pixel art from them.
Champion Island Games might be the biggest, most complex Doodle to date, but Duffy said it isn’t his favorite. “I feel like I have two competing ones. For Earth Day in 2018, we interviewed Jane Goodall in person about conservation efforts and made it a Doodle about her life, as well as celebrating the Earth and what people could do for conservation. It was exciting to work with a production company to get cameras and lighting and a location to interview Jane Goodall, who was incredibly humble and personable. That was a really fun one.” he said.
“The other favorite I have was celebrating the Mbira. It launched in May 2020, and it’s a game Doodle about celebrating this instrument from Zimbabwe that has a pretty rich culture. That Doodle was very challenging, but it’s probably my favorite Doodle, because we went on a research trip to Zimbabwe for a couple of weeks to interview and listen to the music of this instrument and find people who made it and people who played it, and the venues that it was played,” Duffy continued. “Because it was a game, our team had to go and do our best research to make sure it was as authentic and respectful as possible. It was challenging, but fulfilling.”
You can read more about the Champion Island Games (and play them) on the Google Doodle blog.