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Oscar Favorites: The Hand-Made Tale Behind Disney's Gorgeous "Paperman"

Disney animator and director John Kahrs and software engineer Brian Whited talk about creating a new (old) style of animation for the Oscar-nominated short.

If photorealistic animation gives you the heebie-jeebies (think Beowulf or The Polar Express), you’ll find solace in films like Paperman. The six-minute, black-and-white, Oscar-nominated Disney short, which posted to YouTube last week, is a sweet love story that’s been evoking praise and smiley-face emoticons all over the blogosphere. The power of the short lies in the story, but the power of the story lies in the striking, pared-down animation style, which harks back to the golden era of 2-D animation. Director John Kahrs achieved the aesthetic by using a brand-new software program that he helped develop in-house. The result is quieter, humbler and, for some, more stirring than a lot of the flashier CG fare at multiplexes these days.

The story, set in circa-1950s Manhattan, follows a man (George) as he tries to track down a woman (Meg) who he met on a train platform. When he spots her in an office across the street from his own, he dispatches a squadron of paper airplanes, one by one, to catch her attention. His plan fails, but fate eventually draws them together. Call it a missed-connection success story in the days before Craigslist.

To appreciate the art of Paperman, press the pause button and look closely at George and Meg. You’ll find evidence of hand-drawn lines everywhere, from the texture of their hair to the creases in their clothes. Today’s slick CG usually scrubs out this sort of line work, but Kahrs saw Paperman as an opportunity to bring the hand-drawn aesthetic back into fashion. The idea took root while he was working on Disney’s 2010 Tangled alongside legendary animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast). Keane was constantly sketching over Tangled’s CG-animated figures with his digital pen. In the end, though, his line work was absorbed into the final composite—in other words, his drawing influenced the final shot but did not define it.

"It seemed like a shame to have to leave all those drawings behind when you go to the final CG product," Kahrs says. "[The final product] has all the beauty and the realism of the CG, but there’s something I really like about the texture of the line that a human hand has created."

In an effort to merge an old-fashioned aesthetic with modern technology, Kahrs teamed up with Disney software engineer Brian Whited, who was in the advanced stages of developing a program called Meander. "I was dealing with the interpolation of hand-drawn animation," Whited explains. "Everything has been CG-focused in the past couple of decades, so it’s trying to bring some of those computer algorithm principles to the old style of animation."

For the initial phase of the project, a dozen CG animators created the human figures and poses. The CG team then passed their draft on to 2-D animators, who finished off the characters with Meander. The program allowed the 2-D animators to digitally render characters in a way that captures their line work with precision. "You have artists that are very good at what they do, but a lot of times they’ll draw digitally and it just won’t capture what they’re actually doing," says Whited. "It’ll be a little lagging or unresponsive, or the curve won’t be quite as smooth as it would be if they were drawing it on paper."

Best of all, says Kahrs, Meander enabled 2-D animators to have the last word. "The final hand-drawn line paths are one of the last things that happens before it goes out the door," explains Kahrs. "It leaves all the artistic decisions very much up to the hand-drawn animators. They are the ones that really finalize the expressive quality of the image."

Paperman, which originally premiered as a lead-in to Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph last fall, is in Oscar contention for best animated short. View it on YouTube or in select theaters as part of the Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013 program.

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