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Inside Disney’s New Animated Short 'Paperman'

Director John Kahrs and Producer Kristina Reed take us inside Disney’s new 2D-CG hybrid animated short.

"Meg" concept art. All images ©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Discussions about animation these days seem to focus more on technology than art, more on computers than sketch pads.  As John Kahrs, the director of Disney’s latest animated short, Paperman, tells it, coming off of Tangled, surround by so many amazing artists, he wanted to work on something that captured the inherent beauty of the drawn line. The result is something uniquely satisfying and altogether brand new.

Paperman, which has its world premiere June 4th at the Annecy International Animation Festival opening ceremonies, tells the tale of a lonely man, his fleeting encounter with a beautiful woman and the challenges he faces trying to find her once again.  I had a chance this week to speak to both John and Kristina about the film.

Dan Sarto: What is the genesis of the film’s story? 

John Kahrs: It goes back to when I was living in New York City, in the early 90s.  I was working at Blue Sky Studios as an animator.  I was commuting through Grand Central Station, expecting that my life, for some reason, should be better than it was.  It had something to do with the random connections you sometimes make with people. Complete strangers. Most people have their guard up. But every once in a while you’ll make eye contact, then you’ll lose it, and you often wonder who those people were.  Paperman’s story centers around a guy who makes a connection with this girl on his long commute.  Then, he loses her. The story really is about what happens when he tries to get her back and make that connection again.  How would the fates reward someone who tries really hard to make that happen?

DS: Can you describe the new hybrid animation technique used to make this film?

JK: Hybrid is really an appropriate description. We brought together as best we could the expressiveness of 2D drawing immersed with the stability and dimensionality of CG.  It really goes back to working with Glen Keane on Tangled, watching him draw over all the images.  Just being at Disney, surrounded by so much drawing, it seemed like a real shame that we had to leave those drawing behind when we finished our shots.  There is such a power and expressiveness in the drawn line. It’s such an old method for human beings to create art, to express themselves.  I thought, isn’t there a way we can bring that expressive line back into animation again? 

That was the impetus behind the production.  I had some pretty silly ways I thought that could be accomplished, but ultimately, we came up with a pretty awesome technological solution.  The drawn line tracks the surface of the 3D underneath, but it does so in a way that has never been done before. 

"George" concept art.

DS: How was this new hybrid technique developed?

JK: Tangled is an example of stylized photorealism.  CG for some time now has been working within those confines. Tangled is an amazing example.  It’s like a shining, beautiful, delicious and awesome version of it.  But, I have to believe that’s not the only way animation can look.  Drawing is such a part of the Disney’s DNA, it seemed like there had to be a way to bring that drawn line, the expressiveness, back into the image. This just seemed like a good fit for this project.  I could see other ideas not working as well.  In this case, they didn’t serve the story. 

DS: Does the look of the final film match up with your original visual concept?

JK: I think it’s much better than what I originally envisioned.

Kristina Reed: Along the way we stumbled upon a young programmer Brian Whited, here in the building, who developed software that allowed us to do more than what John had envisioned. 

JK: Brian was working on this vector-based drawing tool. You can make drawings that are resolution independent and you can manipulate the lines after you’ve created them. That’s what gives us the power to move those drawings around. Ultimately, the end product really lives happily in the space between 2D and 3D. The viewer may be confused as to how that’s done, but I think they’re delighted with the result.

Paperman concept art.

DS: Will the success of this hybrid technique on Paperman lead to an expansion of its use on other projects at Disney?

KR: Definitely.  John has already been asked to explore other environments where this technique can be applied, other looks this can stretch into.

DS: What’s the driving force behind the continued production of shorts at Disney?

KR: From Disney’s very beginning, shorts have been a main thrust of innovation.  It started with synchronized sound on Steamboat Willie in 1928.  We were the first studio to put color in animation on Flowers and Trees. The multi-plane camera was used for the first time in the 1930s on The Old Mill. That ended up being used for Snow White. We have a rich history of using shorts to further new ideas. This dovetails beautifully with how we viewed Paperman. In addition, the other reason we make shorts is to groom new talent.  John Kahrs is a first time director.  Jeff Turley, our art director, was just a trainee four years ago. It’s exciting to watch young talent learning to supervise.  Those are the two main thrusts of shorts within Disney.  Pushing technical innovation and pushing development of talent.  For those reasons shorts will always play a role here. They’re not necessarily all earmarked to be released with feature films the way Pixar has done consistently. Putting them out into the world is not necessarily our primary goal.

DS: Describe the incubation process for shorts.  Why did you make Paperman as opposed to any of the other shorts that had been pitched?

KR: We have a whole studio filled with artists dying to make shorts. Pitches happen constantly. At the time Paperman was being considered, there was a lot of conversation at the studio regarding taking advantage of the talent in our hand-drawn team as well as the CG team.  Coming out of Tangled, seeing what Glen Keane had been able to do, how could we continue that legacy? That was the conversation that went on when we took on Winnie the Pooh. So Paperman was a natural extension of that exploration and discussion.  How can we blend these talents together? How can we get the best of both worlds? It’s a given computer graphics are moving towards photorealism.  But, like John said, what are the other visual frontiers we can explore? When you see the film, you’ll see we haven’t even begun to explore all the ways this technique can be used.

Another "George" concept art image.

DS: How long did it take to make the film?  What type of crew did you put together?

KR: The film took a little over a year to make. Our core team was less than 10 people. What would happen is whenever there was a blip of availability of other artists, we would grab them and use them for a bit. Then they’d go back to whatever project they’d been working on.

JK: Part of the design of making shorts is that they’re supposed to be done between productions. Part of the year spent making Paperman was me, by myself, storyboarding and re-boarding for three months. There was one person on the short, then eight.  Then all of a sudden, I’m told, “You have 14 animators for six weeks.  Go!” So, we had to get all the CG elements done in that amount of time. It’s hard to really measure, but there was a pretty small core group at the center of the film’s production.

DS: John, what’s next for you?  Will you be traveling the festival circuit in support of the film’s release?

JK: I’m doing three things. One is animating on Wreck-it Ralph. I’m also supposed to pursue more with this hybrid technique. That will probably happen in the fall. The third thing is I’m doing the festival circuit with Paperman.

DS: Kristina, what’s next for shorts at Disney?

JK: I’m not sure I can talk about it! [laughs] I’ll just say this is the first of many attention grabbers. Sorry I can’t share more.

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Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.

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