Inside Disney’s New Animated Short Paperman
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.
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.