For a short film, Disney’s Paperman has generated an incredible amount of buzz. The excitement was building even before it had a confirmed release schedule, but now that we know that it’s going to roll out with Wreck It Ralph we can really start to get carried away.
Word originally started to spread from just from a handful of screenings, when almost everybody who had seen it was a member of Disney staff. This film had even the seen-it-all insiders talking.
There’s two good reasons why. The first is that the film uses some pioneering, dazzling animation techniques. The second is that, for all of this new tech and jaw-dropping imagery, what makes the biggest impact are still the characters and the story.
The film has played a few times now, and the buzz has only grown after each. Amongst these screenings, the film came to London as a special treat for the VFX society and it was there that I was lucky enough to see it, followed by director John Kahr‘s presentation on just how this cutting edge project came together.
Then, after the show, Kahrs was kind enough to spend a while answering my own particular questions.
So here’s what I learned about Paperman, starting with the most basic of basics.
To begin with, the characters in the film were modelled as the same kind of three-dimensional, virtual puppets used in the now ‘traditional CG’ film, as exemplified by Pixar or recent Disney.
Using these models, the scenes are blocked out and the first animation pass is done in the ‘normal’ fashion. So far, nothing has wandered too far from what you’ll have seen in your Toy Story behind-the-scenes supplements. But then we get to the special twist.
Because now there’s an overlay done, wherein an animator gets to draw with the electronic equivalent of a pen, and directly onto their screen. They create a 2D animation drawing ‘on the top’ of the 3D ‘puppet’ and then the software ties these two things together.
The 2D illustration, which can use all of the techniques, and therefore have all of the charm, of the old-school hand drawn look, is wed to the underlying 3D model and its animation rig.
The end result of this new technique is incredibly fresh looking. It would be reasonable to argue that this new “best of both worlds” approach is the biggest CG breakthrough since Pixar first started making movies.
The new piece of software, given the misleadingly casual name of Meander, is an exciting new box of tricks that can open up all sorts of new, exciting worlds for CG toons. We’re only getting started with the beautiful, black and white city of Paperman.
The film has a story that’s all the sweeter for its simplicity. George and Meg lock eyes for the first time on a train platform, but the daily commute means their meet-cute is over almost as suddenly as it began. Later that day George is amazed to realise that Meg works in the office across the street. Sadly, she doesn’t notice him. With only a stack of paper, and under the watchful eye of his boss, he hatches a plan to try and get her attention.
Disney’s last, and very different, approach to blending 2D know-how with CG was seen in Tangled, thanks in no small part to the ambitions of that film’s animation director Glen Keane. After I saw Keane make a few appearances in Kahrs’ Paperman behind-the-scenes slideshow, I wanted to know the extent of his involvement in the short.
Kahrs told me:
Glen was really into trying something new and pushing for something that’s new and cool. He’s always up for something like that. He’s exceptional at design and translating discussion of character into drawing and then taking those drawings and translating them into sculpture and then translating that into animation. That difficult transition between drawing and CG, he’s really good at that.
He was involved very much in the beginning, but I think that as we got going, the responsibilities shifted around quite a bit. I guess he moved off to other stuff.
And indeed, Keane has now moved on from Disney to work on his own projects. But Paperman is a remarkable final addition to his legacy at the studio. You’ll see his hallmarks in the character designs, which he worked up alongside fellow designer Jin Kim.
Kahrs told me:
I let the character designer Shiyoon Kim and, to a large extent Glen, help tremendously in defining the design of Meg. The way Shiyoon and Glen articulated their ideas is amazing. Glen, for example, would say ⊃3;Well, the upper lip is too long, you need to shorten it⊃2; and Bam! He arrived at that in two seconds. He assessed what was wrong, and what the change should be and then he draws what the change should be.
And Shiyoon, he’s much younger but a blistering talent. He’s always drawing from a million different sources but some of it just comes totally from the gut.
I wanted the character to feel like he wasn’t too plain, so that when she saw George again she’d say “Oh there’s that guy again. I remember him, he’s cute” but he also had to be kind of endearing, and humble.
She had to be beautiful, but not so beautiful that she’d seem unattainable. They had to seem to be at a peer level, like a couple that were made for each other, and that they’d have a long life together. That’s just a matter of balance. There’s a slight nerdy geekiness in her, just a touch of it, in the way she moves and acts, and in him, his lanky design and his self-defeating way.
One word you’ll often hear in animation circles is “appeal” and the characters in Paperman definitely have it. It’s a visual characteristic that Disney and Pixar have mastered. But what is it exactly ? I asked Kahrs to try and pin it down for me.
I don’t think you can talk about appeal very easily because it’s one of those “You know it when you
see it” type things.
So, I guess we should take a look at George and Meg so you can know it now you see it.
Paperman certainly has a wonderful look, but I asked Kahrs why he wanted this style. Could he not have told this story with the same CG techniques we know from, say, Up or Finding Nemo?
A lot of the time, we make these movies because they’re things we think would be cool. We make the movies that we want to see.
I think, for me, there’s a sense that, we’re in a golden age of CG right now, there’s a great push to get better storytelling, better imaging, better art direction and better animation, better design work, and it’s all happening. This wave has been going on for the last ten or fifteen years now and I’ve been riding on that wave and I’ve loved it, it’s been a fascinating
journey, but I have to believe that kind of stylised photorealism isn’t the only way that animation can be, that there’s a way of celebrating that line, the primal energy of the hand drawn line.
Of celebrating the way that a mark can create emotion, the way that drawings can communicate emotion, it’s a wonderful
thing. Also, in terms of 2D, I think it’s okay to push that medium too, to do something new and fresh with that as well. I had this silly idea that you could have drawings and CG smushed together, lots of silly ideas about what would happen technologically. Ultimately, the solution was something I didn’t expect.
I wanted the film to live on a knife edge where the audience is confused as to whether it’s 2D or 3D, and yet totally accept it at the same time. I was wondering if we achieve that.
This blend of looks is only possible because of the blend of techniques. I asked Kahrs to explain specifically the pieces of technology they used, allowing them to input hand drawn lines as computer information, right into a set of CG data.
What we’re working on is a Cintiq and for us, it’s the best you can get. It can pay attention to pressure and pen angle, though we would leave that option turned off most of the time.
A menu offers us different line textures. Do we want that sleek sinuous line that gets thick and thin like a calligraphy line? Or a more brushy, thick stroke that we’d use to roughen up the transition between light and dark? There’s a small arsenal of textures and tones.
I think a lot of artists would argue that you should always have a connection to pen and paper. First of all, you have it as a unique thing. There’s something special in that you’ve just made a drawing and you can hold it and give it to someone and it’s the only one. You can scan it, but there’s a true original. I know there’s a romance still to that idea, for me.
Watercolour, for instance. The way watercolour works and the artistry and nuance you can get from people who are really good at watercolour, no one digitally is even coming close to what’s possible with the real watercolour. I have no idea why we’d even want to solve that problem because it’s still just so nice to have the original watercolours.”
But as special as the look and technology of Paperman might be, they exist simply in the service of the same, crucial thing: that love story.
I think a lot of these things blossom out of the story in a natural way of pushing the characters to the limits and these visual ideas tend to come on their own terms, to serve the story.
And, yes, film – some would say particularly animation – is a visual medium, but the sounds of Paperman are crucial to the storytelling too. I asked Kahrs about the music and sound effects, starting with the all-important sounds of George’s paper.
Some of it is sandpaper, which I was totally surprised by. The sound work was done by Laurent Kossayan who did the sound for Amelie. We went to his studio and he had this bag full of paper planes, wrappers from party city and just a million different things. Things that made little wispy sounds, things that made heavier sounds. And he had all of these different weights of sand paper, because they have a little more resonance and depth.
I never thought Paperman would be like a Fantasia short where the music is driving it absolutely from beginning to end but there is a moment where the music is really driving the film and we pulled all of the sound way back and it really became secondary. You feel the driving emotion of the music and it carries you right up towards the end and past the end.”
The score by Christophe Beck has certainly got that Whistle Test factor. It’s something you could whistle on your way home. Don’t ask me to hum it, but I can still conjure it up in my imagination now.
Both this technique and the Meander software are just starting out. It’s been rumoured that Disney veterans, and directors of the Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog, John Musker and Ron Clements are interested in exploring this new approach for their upcoming feature film.
I asked Kahrs about the future of this new “third way”.
There are a lot of different looks still possible with this technique that haven’t even been touched upon. I’d love to see other artists and other directors take it off in a new direction.
What we thought we were doing at first was just using this technique to put the line work in, but a lot of what we were doing was paint decisions of tone and colour. You could push that idea even further, towards a moving painting.
Indeed, it seems like animators could push off towards just about any 2D look you can imagine. Paperman itself could have looked like just about any painting or drawing or art style you can name, had Kahrs and co. decided. It’s just so that they chose a story and characters that benefited best from this beautiful, 50s-tinged look.
A nice juxtaposition to the shiny, digital world of Wreck-It Ralph. They’ll make a great partnership.
Look for Ralph and Paperman in US cinemas this November, and in the UK next February.