One of the many reasons we’re super-pumped about this fall’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” the Disney animated feature set inside the world of videogames, is that preceding the feature is “Paperman,” a groundbreaking new short film by John Kahrs that ingeniously combines traditional hand-drawn animation with cutting-edge computer graphics. In short: it very well could be the future of traditional Disney animation. And thanks to Entertainment Weekly, we now have new details and images from the film (which just had a splashy screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival).
A charming period romance, “Paperman” follows a young man who runs into the woman of his dreams as he’s getting on the train. They share a “missed connection,” only to discover that the woman works in the building across the street from him. Thus begins an elaborate wooing process involving paper airplanes. It sounds truly adorable, and for such a simple story, it demanded a whole lot of technological firepower.
Disney developed new technology called Meander to create “Paperman,” which (in the simplest possible terms) basically wraps a two-dimensional drawing on top of a three-dimensional shape. “What you’re seeing is a very stylized CG layer [underneath], but the feel of the image is very flat and lives in between the two,” Kahrs told EW. He added that the process is “meant to celebrate the line, and bring it back up to the front of the image again.”
Kahrs came up with the idea for “Paperman” while working at Blue Sky Studios, the Fox-owned animation company responsible for the “Ice Age” movies, but the idea gained traction after Kahrs was moved from Pixar to Disney Feature Animation, where he got to work on traditional hand-drawn features. A true legend of Disney animation, the great Glen Keane, who created Ariel and the Beast (among many, many others) and retired from the studio this spring, helped get “Paperman” on track, as well. Kahrs told EW that Keane was instrumental in the process. “He was really a great help at the beginning, crystallizing and focusing the character design,” Kahrs said.
The emphasis on design was to create something that moved away from the realistic approach of most modern animation to something more stylized and romantic. Producer Kristina Reed, known for wrangling more difficult animation projects into workable fruition (and produced the film alongside John Lasseter), told EW that the “Paperman” project was “part of the larger conversation: ‘How can visuals look — other than moving slowly, more and more, toward photo-real?’”
From what we understand, there are many in the studio who see the process developed for “Paperman” as the future of hand-drawn animation – the trick, of course, is matching the style with a story that can benefit from it. (This isn’t something you could easily slap onto a princess story or fairy tale yarn.) The liberal mixture of computer animation and traditional animation has gone back to things like the climatic clock chase in “The Great Mouse Detective” and the opening titles of “The Rescuers Down Under” (which was also the first film to use computers to digitally paint every character and backdrop), but as Reed points out, the emphasis is different here. “If this short had come out with ‘The Little Mermaid,’ everyone would be excited about the CG,” Redd told EW. “Now here we are in the early part of this millennium, and what we’re celebrating is going back to the handcraft.”
Everyone will get to celebrate “Paperman” when it plays in front of “Wreck-It Ralph,” starting on November 2nd.