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Oscar® Tour SoCal Day 1: ASIFA-Hollywood Screening and Q&A

The SoCal leg of Oscar® Showcase Tour kicked off with a screening Monday night at Woodbury University, sponsored and organized by ASIFA-Hollywood.

(From left to right) John Kahrs, David Silverman, Tim Reckart and Fondhla Cronin O'Reilly in the theater lobby. Behind them are the cookies. All images courtesy of Dan Sarto.

By Dan Sarto

The Southern California leg of Acme Filmworks’ and AWN’s annual Oscar Showcase Tour kicked off with a screening Monday night at Woodbury University, sponsored and organized by ASIFA-Hollywood.  Frank Gladstone brought boxes of cookies, containers of coffee and his unflappable and eternally upbeat demeanor.  The cold wind and threat of rain did nothing to damper the crowd, which filled the Fletcher Jones Theatre almost to capacity.  After he introduced me, sharing the fictional story of my childhood spent roaming the streets of India, I then regaled the audience with the story of the first time I met Frank, literally bumping into him within a huge room at the castle overlooking Annecy’s old town, stuffed wall-to-wall with people celebrating the release of DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.  I told the crowd, as I tell you now, the next time you meet Frank, ask him to tell you the “Seamus” joke.  And be prepared.

After the screening, John Kahrs (Paperman), David Silverman (Maggie Simpson and “The Longest Daycare”), Tim Reckart and Fondhla Cronin O’Reilly (Head Over Heels) took the stage for a 45 minute Q&A.  Some of the highlights:

Question: Why did you choose to do your film in black and white?

John Kahrs: Because it was cool [laughter].  Partly because it looks cool and partly because I’m a pretty avid photographer. I had a few darkrooms over the years. I did a lot of black and white photography.  I have a lot of respect for Berenice Abbott and the WTA photographers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. How it forces you to tell your story with a lot of compositional clarity, make great compositional decisions. John Lasseter asked, “Are you going to do this in black and white?”  I said, “Yah” and he said, “Good.”

Question: Can you tell us if you storyboarded your films?

Tim Reckart: One thing we [the filmmakers] all have in common is our films don’t have dialogue. I totally bypassed the scriptwriting stage and went from an outline straight to a storyboard. That process was torture. I had a deadline of a week and a half. My girlfriend, who in some ways inspired the story, helped me storyboard.  At 4 am, we were working together on Skype and emailing Photoshop files to each other. Those storyboards became animatics that we workshopped with faculty at school. We were still adjusting into animation, adjusting little bits of the story, trying sequences out.

JK: Paperman was very tightly boarded. I’m OK at it. I get by. For every thousand drawings I do, there’s one that is OK. I’m slowly getting better at it. For Paperman, the most enjoyable part was taking the boards, which already had a lot of the things I’d picked up over the years watching films get created at Pixar, just about the mechanics of filmmaking and directing the eye, and working with all that stuff in one layer, then working with the storytelling and emotion in another layer, and laying it out with the art director.  We were going for things like, when things are dynamic, there are a lot of diagonals, and when things are static, there are a lot of horizontals and verticals. George [the lead character] is always in the darkness and then he’s always in the light.  A lot of these decisions emerged as we built every shot to mean something with all those layers coming into it.  Like when the plane comes into the alley and lands.  There’s that vertical slice of light. Jeff Turley, the brilliant young art director, was saying the darkness is almost closing in on this guy’s life.  He’s walking into the darkness off to the left as he’s walking away from everything. But he’s dragged back into the light. It was really fun to watch someone take those puzzle pieces we had built and put them together in such a nice way. When he designed the shot with this vertical slice of light I was like, “Is this allowed?  This is so cool!” He’s the kind of guy that just runs with these ideas very aggressively and I’m happy I got to work with him.

The lively Q&A lasted 45 minutes.

Question: Can you talk about how you came up with the unibrow baby character design?

David Silverman: The unibrow baby came up several years ago when we were talking about Maggie having a nemesis that’s a one eyebrowed baby, for a one time, one-off gag. There wasn’t a lot of design. Actually, we designed the character eating the paste. The first gag was making him very skinny as if he was a heroin addict [laughter]. I first showed it [the story reel] to Al Jean the day before I was going to show it to Jim Brooks. Al said, “It’s great, but the one change I would make…” this is the night before I’m going to show it, “is I think it would be funnier if he was more an Augustus Gloop-type baby instead of a heroin addict.”  I said, “Well, I don’t have time to do that but I’ll give Jim that note.” I put down the phone and thought, “Hmmm. I’ve just made what was a funny sketch into a crack baby.” I ran in to Erick Tran and said, “Just do me three poses of this and we’ll drop it into the reel.” So we got it in.  That was a smart choice.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with your character designs?

JK: I felt that they could be Disney, but in a very slender, more old school way. I used [101] Dalmatians as a jumping off point.  But there’s a lot of Ariel in Meg because Glen [Keane] was in there messing around, pushing that design to get it to work.  A lot of what we did on Tangled taught us a lot about fitting baseball-sized eyes into humans [laughter].  It’s actually not very easy.  I could go on and on about how to make these things work in CG. Actually, you can break those rules nicely when you go back to 2D. But I’m very happy.  George was kind of tough. I wanted him to seem like he was dateable [laughter].  He was a big-nosed guy but there was something cute about him. They [He and Meg, the female character] would seem like peers, that she would go for him, in that Adrien Brody kind of way [laughter]. But there are a lot of other faces in there. A young Anthony Perkins or Roger from Dalmatians. When you give your design to some of the designers, to finalize them, they are probably looking at a whole bunch of other people you never even thought of. And they won’t ever tell you. I almost don’t want to know.

Question: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on your films?

JK: For Paperman, it was doing the hybrid of 2D and 3D together.  It was something I wanted to see, that line come back into animation.  I wanted to do it in a certain way. We did do it, but I had a rather silly idea about how it would be done. The technical people at Disney did an amazing job of figuring it out. We were testing that and trying to figure it out for five months before we even showed John Lasseter the first tests. We didn’t know what he was going to say about it. That was a big hurdle.

The animation is first done in 3D and then drawn over on a digital tablet by 2D animators.  Then those lines that are drawn are dragged around by the CG layer underneath them through a vector-based drawing tool that drags vector-based line work on a pixel layer where each pixel is driven by a motion vector. That’s why it has that flat, drawn quality to it that retains the drawn line.

Most of the audience stayed for the entire Q&A. Very little texting going on.

Question: Why did you choose not to have dialogue in your film?

DS: [Pointing to Fondhla Cronin O’Reilly] She knows the answer!

Fondhla Cronin O’Reilly: From a budget point of view, it’s cheaper [laughter].  Actually, it was a natural choice for us.  We didn’t feel we needed any dialogue to tell our story.

TR: When you’re talking about animation and what you can do with images in animation, dialogue is actually quite inefficient. You can get across an idea in words but you can’t get across that idea with a lot of emotional baggage and the relationship implied there.  In terms of telling a rich story in a short amount of time, images are the best way to go.

JK: It also makes the film incredibly portable, so you don’t have to do anything to show it around the world. I personally like visual storytelling. I like the homework you have to do to make it work. There’s a scene in Poltergeist where the camera pans away and then pans back and all the chairs are crazily arranged on a kitchen table. I love the thrill of the work you have to do as an audience member to put that together.  Dialogue can be incredible. A movie full of dialogue can take you on an incredible journey. But there are other ways of telling stories.

DS: When I think of the classic Disney shorts, sure they had voices, but the majority were pantomime.  When you think about it, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, they all had distinctive voices, but majority of their cartoons were pantomime.  Of course, Roadrunner and Coyote, pantomime.  Tom and Jerry, pantomime.  A lot of Tex Avery cartoons are primarily pantomime.  There’s a big history of pantomime in Hollywood cartoons. I also think a lot of animators are influenced by the great silent comedians.

Question: Did your final film come close to your original ideas?

JK: The reason the film is called Paperman is because, there used to be, in that alley, what formed was a man, and his job was to bring them together. He was a hero character.  He flew around the city, very mysterious.  When he finally got them together, his work was done, so he disintegrated into the wind, with this kind of bittersweet lifecycle. But whenever I pitched it, people would go, “Whoa, whoa! Who is this guy? I don’t like him!” [laughter].  So I killed him off.