Dr. Toon: Married on Paper
When Disney’s Paperman won an Academy Award this past month (the studio’s first win for an animated short since 1969), Disney had more to celebrate than simply copping a gold statue. The studio also rejoiced over a wedding. You may think you know where this column is going: an analysis of how 2D and 3D animation wedded through use of the innovative Meander program developed by Brian Whited. Actually, that is only one facet of the story.
Although the animation technique is indeed a fascinating subject, the use of “vector-based drawing implements” and “final line advection” underwent exhaustive discussion in countless other articles, including an excellent one by Dan Sarto on this website. I assume that readers on this website already understand how the short was constructed and how unique the results of Meander-ing truly were. What I really want to discuss in this column is how many vectors (not the drawn type) converged to produce a historic short.
We begin by revisiting an earlier Disney film, Tangled. The last hurrah of master animator Glen Keane was a source of inspiration to future Paperman director John Kahrs, who came to appreciate the artistry of hand-drawn animation during an age when no one but students and independents used it any longer. It was common expectation during the past decade that any animated feature released would consist of CGI. Disney itself declared that The Princess and the Frog would be the last 2D film the company would produce for the foreseeable future. If there had truly been a battle between the two technologies, 2D seemed to be the verifiable loser.
That was, until Whited’s Meander program married 2D and digital by allowing animators to draw and revise artwork by hand over characters and backgrounds first digitally created. The resultant blend of animation was bandied back and forth between a CGI and a 2D team until a startling hybrid of the two emerged.
As much as Paperman looks like a hand-drawn film, one can easily discern the digital base underlying it, and the effect is uncanny. As Kahrs put it, “For 2D to be revitalized, you have to figure out a way to make it new again.” One Academy Award and countless other accolades later, it is safe to say that goal was reached in full. Yet, that is only one marriage. The second was the union of technology and capital.
The total production costs of Paperman are not readily available, and to them we must add the costs of promotion and publicity. Considering that the film was in production for at least a year (fourteen months by some accounts) and utilized novel technologies, it is quite probable that Paperman is the most expensive short in animation history. Although those in the industry could make some educated guesses, it really doesn’t matter; what does is that only a corporation like Disney had the financial resources to invest in such a film.
While Paperman was in production and later making its debut at the Annecy Animation Festival, DreamWorks animation was planning and executing extensive layoffs. 350 of 2,200 employees are slated to be cut by December of 2013. Some of it was the toll of having Rise of the Guardians (2012) flop, some of it having to do with postponing other films. DreamWorks animation may eventually recover, but it is almost certain that they could not have spent a year and (possibly) millions on an animated short. Thus, the marriage of capital and technology counted for as much as the marriage of 2D and 3D hybridization in Paperman’s success.