Is Disney’s hand-drawn animated legacy dead? Let’s hope not. The “Paperman” short may provide the answer for its survival. (See full short and featurette below.)
“Paperman,” which played in theaters alongside Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” is widely considered the frontunner for the animated short Oscar.
Utilizing a minimalist black-and-white look, “Paperman” merges computer-animation and hand-drawn more holistically than ever before, thanks to a new interface. It’s perfect for this dreamy mid-century tale of a lonely clerk who has a chance encounter with a beautiful woman during the morning commute in New York City. Determined to find her, he creatively uses a series of drawings on his quest.
In other words, “Paperman” is about the expressive power of hand-drawn animation to seduce us.
For first-time director John Kahrs, it was an opportunity to exorcise some old demons from his younger days in New York and to reinvigorate the hand-drawn process. As a result, he’s found a way of marrying old and new school approaches and has literally brought animators closer together at Disney, because the new technique involves drawing over the CG frames on a Cintiq, adding outlines, textures, even warmth with this digital in-betweening tool.
“When I was on ‘Tangled,’ it just seemed a shame that we had to leave those drawings behind because they were so charming,” Kahrs recalls.”And I thought about a way for the drawings to track along the foundation layer of CG. That was my original notion. I wanted to see that expressive line back up front on the screen. And I thought there was a new way we could do this. But it came about technologically in a way I wasn’t expecting, by people who are smarter than me.”
It was all very serendipitous. Kahrs had first pitched “Paperman” to John Lasseter more than a decade ago at Pixar, but the bold project didn’t get approved until after Glen Keane successfully merged 2D and 3D on “Tangled.” Keane would draw over the CG animation to get a more organic look and more emotional resonance. Kahrs realized this is what “Paperman” needed.
“John really liked the idea of a story that took place in these canyon-like spaces among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the idea that it would be in black and white and have a bold sense of light and shadow,” Kahrs continues.
At the same time, Disney was searching for a technique to leverage the “Tangled” experience. A young programmer named Brian Whited found the answer with his vector-based tool and producer Kristina Reed says it all coalesced around “Paperman,” with Jeff Turley art directing the photographic look of Manhattan and Patrick Osborne supervising the experimental animation.
“We would sit in dailies and John [Kahrs] would say it looked too CG,” recalls Reed. “Effortless lives in that nebulous space in between — put it back there.”
“I was after two things,” Kahrs admits. “We should totally confuse the audience and they should be totally accepting of it at the same time. When watching, it’s really difficult to tell if it’s 2D or 3D. But it’s an easy-to-watch technique. The best thing about 2D is the expressive line; and there’s a lot of appeal in the drawings. And the best thing about 3D is it’s so stable and dimensional and it doesn’t crawl and boil.”
Kahrs and Disney are definitely experimenting further with this potentially ground-breaking approach that empowers animators. Kahrs even hinted that it might find its way into a feature, which would mean the next iteration for hand-drawn. “It’s so fast and responsive and expressive and the power of being able to manipulate the lines after you’ve drawn them is nothing like I’ve seen before,” Kahrs marvels.
Like this year’s Oscar winner, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” “Paperman” taps a similar retro vibe. See if it delivers the storytelling goods as well below.