Disney’s top secret black and white Paperman animated short premieres Monday at Annecy. I haven’t seen the minimalist Manhattan chance encounter yet that blossoms from afar between a dreamer and a beauty through the power of drawings, (it bows locally later this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival), but I spoke last week with director John Kahrs and producer Kristina Reed. From what they told me and from what I’ve glimpsed in these concept drawings and videos below, it could be a game-changer for hand-drawn animation. In fact, it’s a new holistic hybrid of 2D and 3D, thanks to an interface called Meander that they “hijacked” for the project from a young Disney programmer named Brian Whited, which was then refined by animator Eric Daniels and others. It’s a vector-based tool that empowers the animator with digital in-betweening and puts the drawings back on the screen. They literally draw on top of the CG frames, adding outlines, strands of hair, pupils, folds in the cloth, according to one anonymous post I read online.
“When I was on Tangled, it just seemed a shame that we had to leave those drawings behind because they were so charming,” Kahrs recalls. “And I thought about a way for the drawings to track along the foundation layer of CG. That was my original notion. I wanted to see that expressive line back up front on the screen. And I thought there was a new way we could do this and there was. But it came about technologically in a way I wasn’t expecting, by people who are smarter than me.
“I was after two things: We should totally confuse the audience and they should be totally accepting of it at the same time. When watching, it’s really difficult to tell if it’s 2D or 3D. But it’s an easy to watch technique. The best thing about 2D is the expressive line; and there’s a lot of appeal in the drawings. And the best thing about 3D is it’s so stable and dimensional and it doesn’t crawl and boil.”
The devil’s in the details and the details are what makes it effortless. “We would sit in dailies and John would say it looked too CG,” Reed adds. “Go back. Effortless lives in that nebulous space in between — put it back there.”
Paperman was initially pitched to John Lasseter more than a decade ago yet it didn’t go into production until after Kahrs worked on Tangled. The idea stemmed from living in New York years ago and wondering what it would be like to lay eyes on a beautiful girl and then romantically pursue her. ” Coincidences and fate, I guess, and how the fates would reward somebody that tried to reconnect with somebody that they thought was meant for them,” Kahrs explains. “John really liked the idea of a story that took place in these canyon-like spaces among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the idea that it would be black and white and have a bold sense of light and shadow.”
Kahrs was so inspired by Glen Keane’s draw overs on Tangled — the way “he doesn’t concern himself with the technological headaches of changing the profile of an arm or a neck or a shoulder. He just draws it and there’s a directness there that those 2D guys really enjoy,” Kahrs continues. The studio was trying to leverage the marriage of 2D and 3D and Reed says it all came together around Paperman, with Jeff Turley art directing the mid-century photographic look of Manhattan and Patrick Osborne supervising the experimental animation. The six-minute short will play in 3-D with Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 2).
Kahrs and Disney are definitely interested in experimenting further on a feature with this aesthetically intriguing blend of hand-drawn and CG: “It’s so fast and responsive and expressive and the power of being able to manipulate the lines after you’ve drawn them is nothing like I’ve seen before.” I can’t wait to see Paperman for myself.