Paperman is an Oscar-winning short, directed by John Kahrs.

It tells the story of any two people who share a moment on a train platform, only to never see one another again.

But, without spoiling anything, I have a feeling that things may go different, thanks to a healthy dose of Disneyfication.

Watch the nuance of each frame. With 117 shots in the film, Kahrs’s team focused on the composition of each shot.

Also, aside from the narrative plays on light and shadow, each frame has hints of hand-drawn animation.

What you see is actually built on an entirely new 2-D/3-D animation system called Meander, which layers drawings on top of 3-D figures.

When your brain tries to dissect each frame, reasoning how someone can possibly draw on 3-D in 2-D, you’re bound for a mental meltdown.

But ultimately, if you just soak in each frame for the visual paradox that it is, you’ll really enjoy the film.

Co.Design

Why This Oscar-Winning Disney Short Looks Like Nothing Made Before

Director John Kahrs had a vision for his animated short Paperman. There was just one problem. The technology to make it didn’t exist yet.

A Pixar film is a beautiful thing. Long after Toy Story’s 3-D novelty wore off, artists refined their techniques, so Up could make us cry. But in these computer-generated worlds full of perfect shapes and gradients, we inevitably lost some of that old Disney magic--the nuance of incredible, hand-drawn lines. “Isn’t there a way we can bring that hand of an artist back?” John Kahrs thought.

At the time, he was working on his storyboards for Paperman--what has since become Disney’s 2013 Oscar-winning animated short. It was going to be “an urban fairy tale in a beautiful world of light and shadow,” showcasing the latest in CG technology like global illumination and radiocity (light-based physics). But another thought had been haunting him. Working on Tangled alongside legendary 2-D animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), Kahrs watched Keane sketch on top of the CG animations during the production process. Software allowed Keane to reshape 3-D figures with his pen strokes, but ultimately, his beautiful lines were lost in the process. It seemed like such a waste.

Late in the storyboarding process, Keane’s vision for Paperman was born anew. What if it could be a hybrid of the old and new schools of animation? What if it could be 2-D and 3-D at the same time?

Kahrs began investigating that possibility in the only place he could, Disney’s R&D department. He lucked out when he met software engineer Brian Whited, who had already been working on a new piece of animation software called Meander that specialized in 2-D interpolation (using software to reason out gaps in sketched animations). With modification and refinement, it just might work.

“You hear people talking a lot about innovation--innovation comes out of necessity,” Keane says. “The necessity in this case was we had to figure out how to have a CG underlayer that dragged these drawn lines on top of it.”

Eventually, Meander proved capable of stunning feats. Today, an animator can draw a frown on a protagonist’s hand in one frame, then, several frames later, draw a smile. Meander can both track the position of that hand in 3-D space, and it can fill in the gaps, turning that frown into a smile, naturally. But much of Keane’s emphasis was tweaking the feel. In classic Disney animation, the character outlines do something called boiling, as the imperfections in cel after cel stack up--and they’re important, subconscious cues to the experience of animation feeling authentic.

“It’s part of the human hand,” Keane says. “Those were the sort of small details that we were big on pushing one way or another.”

Following months of preliminary testing, the team had developed two test shots that they thought were compelling. The last step would be to take a meeting with John Lasseter and the rest of Disney studio leadership and sell them on the aesthetic.

“I think John was a little bit skeptical. He’s a smart guy. He’s seen all these painterly effects. His concern was, does it get in the way of the storytelling, or is it a way of immersing you in this world and telling the story of the characters?” Keane recounts. “Once he saw these tests, they all sat up and noticed that this wasn’t just some cheap trick.”

Indeed, Paperman is amongst the most stunning animations we’ve ever seen. It combines new aesthetics with standing traditions, marrying the tangibility of CG with the human grit of a pen on paper. And in a poetic turn of technology, it was actually the 2-D animators who got to put the finishing touches on each frame of Paperman. All of those beautiful lines that started the animation process would end it, too.

Check out all of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films at Co.Create.

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23 Comments

  • simhedges

    Just make the females' eyes a bit smaller.  In Tangled and Paperman, they take up half the femail character faces  - it's creepy and offputting.  Dial it back a bit.

  • Neil08

    As Krzystoff suggests, the large eyes harken to Anime, the look of which can be traced back to manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka, who was heavily influenced by Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. In this way it's come full circle.

    Not really creepy and offputting, just a stylistic choice. Certainly not as creepy as more exaggerated stylistic exaggerations out there.

  • krzystoff

    the oversized eyes hark to the Japanese Anime tradition, which has grown wildly popular in English-speaking animation/games/toys over the last decade or so.  smaller, more natural eyes would be more sexy and appealing to adults, but to a child the large eyes reflect innocence.  this particular clip is likely intended for an adult market, but perhaps the animators are now so accustomed to designing 'cute' characters, it slipped past the keeper.

  • et

    that's why i loved that short so much. it was reminiscent of Beauty and the Beas.I wish Tangled was made with this. I had seen drawings they were working on, it added something. But hopefully Disney will create something using this technology. Can't wait.

  • Dreux Donelan

    Mark, you're likely too young to remember, but Beast Wars' 'Beast Machines' series used a similar groundbreaking process to create a similar surreal look (only in color) way back in the 90's. Nice how Disney takes full credit for 'inventing' the style today.

  • Raeven

    Dreux (Cool name by the way), I believe you're mistaken... I used to watch Beast Wars and what they used was nothing more than color or image mapping: simply applying the images of textures or details overlaid on CG forms. This produces detailed or "textured" forms that are flat.  In other words what you are looking at is a 3D form that looks as though someone pasted a printed picture of fur on it.  Imagine you print a picture or a drawing of fur (like a 5" space of a bear's back) and then you glue that picture you printed on a vase.  There would fur on the vase but it would look flat and unrealistic.  Beast Wars looked essentially like painted cars.  Like a tiger or leopard print realistically painted on a car; still flat.  Disney's program Meander, allows the hand drawn lines to flow OFF of the form thereby creating a completely different look.  If you go back and look at Beast Wars on YouTube or Hulu, you'll easily see what I mean.  I hope this helps. 

  • Raeven (also, a cool spelling, btw), thanks for your take on the pros/cons, I will now have to dig out my old BW/BM DVDs and check out what you mean. Waaay back, when BM was current, I remember reading about their technique, and I thought they described a process that was a cross between Cel Shading and digital rotoscoping, but I cannot find the link, as the company responsible (Mainframe Entertainment) changed hands a number of times, and its assets now belong to Xing-Xing.

  • Maureen

    Now, if they could create software that paints the story as the writer writes it.

  • zach thoren

    I desperately want Meander. When I was in 3D animation school, the only technology we had was able to Cell Shade, but little else in the way of 2D/3D hybrid. Meander makes me want to animate again.

  • Johnny Leon

    It was a film that made me want to smile and laugh but the music is what brought the emotion together. I absolutely loved this film. 

  • Spineishigh

    Nice article.
    "draw a frown on a protagonist’s hand in one frame" seems to me like it might be a typo?

  • Raeven

    No, it wasn't a typo.  It was one of the short demo reels used to illustrate the technology.  You can see it on YouTube or look up some other articles on Paperman and you'll see the video embedded.  I've come across that same video several times now in researching the film.

  • Mark Wilson

    Ha, it's actually not! Watch the second embedded video to see exactly how that works.

  • krzystoff

    this is a huge leap forward for Disney, if they are planning to get back some of the hand-drawn cell animation style.  the results are pretty fine, but this is not new, as suggested -- Informatix released a program called Piranesi in 1997 which could do precisely the same thing for still images, and there are now many plugins for Adobe After Effects / Premiere that can add a similar touch to animation.

  • Monnamortondesign

    This was great! Love the animation, love the story! ADORE the drawing!