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Exclusive: “Paperman” Interview with Director John Kahrs

Seems like everyone is talking about Paperman, the new Disney short that recently premiered at the Annecy Animation Festival and is scheduled to be released with Wreck-It Ralph on November 2nd. I’ve seen the film and will join in with the chorus praising it for its innovative look, its touching story and its refreshing new take on Disney character animation. It’s a breath of fresh air–and one can only hope it portends good things for hand-drawn animators–and its enthusiasts.

Paperman pioneers a new technique that seamlessly merges computer-generated and hand-drawn animation. I recently spoke with director John Kahrs (formerly of Blue Sky, Pixar and since 2007, a supervising animator at Disney Feature, primarily on Tangled) about the production.

Cartoon Brew: How did Paperman get started? Is this part of the Disney Shorts Program?

John Kahrs: After Tangled ended, they had a gap between the ending of that film and the beginning of production on Wreck-It Ralph. Management was wondering: “Is there anything around to push the technology? Anything that we have that’s going to fill the space between films, to utilize as much of the crew as possible? I had ideas about maybe doing a bit of animation that involved 2D and 3D together. So I just pitched it and they were like: “Ok, let’s try this.” But they didn’t really know how far we were going to take it technologically.

Cartoon Brew: Did John [Lasseter] know how the film was going to look – that it would be in black and white? And what inspired the story?

John Kahrs: John didn’t really know what we were doing until I showed him the test—that finally got him on board with the technique and the technology. The idea for the story has been in my head since I lived in New York, when I was first starting out in my career. I was commuting through Grand Central Station, I was in my mid twenties and feeling like I should be enjoying living in the city much more than I actually was—and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t. New York is a pretty intimidating place; people have their guard up. It’s odd to feel alone while being surrounded by people all the time. Sometimes you can make random connections with strangers, and I started thinking about that idea. What if someone made a connection? What if this guy made a connection with a girl and he lost her, and he spent the rest of the story trying to get her back? You know, if they were really meant for each other… it’s fate. It’s romantic.

Cartoon Brew: I always like to ask this question: how long did it take from when you basically got a go-ahead, till it being finished. How long was that, about a year?

John Kahrs: Yeah, about a year. Maybe 14 months.

Cartoon Brew: So tell me about this new technique used on the film… how did it come about?

John Kahrs: It really came out of working so much with Glen on Tangled. Seeing all that drawing, being at Disney, being surrounded by that legacy. How exciting, and how much punch there is in the drawn line, how expressive it can be. And how hard the CG guys have to work to try to match that charm. I thought, Why do we have to leave these drawings behind? Why can’t we bring them back up to the front of the image again? Is there a way that CG can kinda carry along the hand drawn line in a way that we haven’t done before?

Ultimately, the problem was solved in a much more sophisticated way than I ever expected by teaming with Eric Daniels first, then Brian Whited who is a young guy and a world class programmer. He developed this program called Meander, a vector based drawing tool that gives the artist a lot of power to manipulate the line after you draw it. We discovered that he was programming this thing and building this software – and we just totally took it over, hijacked him and his program and got him on the project. It’s not like a texture map. It’s just like painting on the surface of the CG. It actually moves on a 2d layer that’s driven by the CG. And the greatest thing about the tool is that all of that drawing is right up front with the hand drawn animator; right there in their space so they can see what they’re doing. They don’t have to send it off on some blackbox that processes it and then it comes back. It stays right in front of them and they can see everything that they’re doing.

One of the things I’m most proud of about is that it really celebrates the line. I mean it’s right there on the forefront of the image. It kind of reminds me a little bit of a little of what Milt Kahl, on 101 Dalmatians, was pushing for with the Xerox line. He didn’t want his line to be sanded away. He wanted that original energy and the speed of his stroke and the expressiveness of the line to be intact. And as much as I loved Tangled—and I feel like we’re in a golden age right now with CG—all the studios today are competing with a stylized form of realism. I have to believe that’s not the only way that animation can look. I feel like 2D needs to come into the place where it can compete with a big blockbuster movie that has tons of CG and so forth. We have to push the processes and techniques and see where we can take them.

Cartoon Brew: There’s nothing today that looks like the original line drawings of an animator…

John Kahrs: When you see the pencil test version of Beauty and the Beast it’s so alive. It’s just magical. There’s some Mark Henn sketch, just two or three lines that make’s a head, and it can be totally alive and full of emotion – and you get that stuff so easily with the group of talent in the building here. In Paperman, we didn’t have a cloth department and we didn’t have a hair department. Here, folds in the fabric, hair silhouettes and the like come from of the commited design decision-making that comes with the 2D drawn process. Our animators can change things, actually erase away the CG underlayer if they want, and change the profile of the arm. And they can design all the fabric in that Milt Kahl kind-of way, if they want to.

Cartoon Brew: The hand of the animator. That’s the thing, unfortunately, missing in some of today’s CG films. Are you developing any other shorts or maybe planning a feature in this style?

John Kahrs: Every time I show the film, the lights come up, and the first question is “Are you working on a feature that looks like this?” I think we are going to move toward that direction – but we’re not quite there yet. I’ve been asked by John and Ed [Catmull] to pursue the technique. Take it to the next level. And I’ll let you guess what the next level is.

  • Yes please! Very interested to see what this 2D drawing of a 3D image looks like in motion.

  • tony

    I saw it and I agree with the praises about the look. It looks impressive and fresh. It is visually stunning and we have to applaud the concern to bring the 2D line back and use the 3D differently for mainstream animation.

    However, I realised that all the buzz around that film was justified for its technique.

    But a film isn’t all about technique…

    My main concern was the story, the main twist took me off completely. It started so well but they had to use this Disney-ish trick. I also preferred the look of the background characters, much more interesting and different, without the big Disney eyes (and style) the two main characters have.

  • “I’ve been asked by John and Ed [Catmull] to pursue the technique. Take it to the next level. And I’ll let you guess what the next level is.”

    Let’s see…

    In the 70s, the “next level” would’ve involved Xerox.
    In the 80s, Disney’s idea of “next level” was live action romantic comedy.
    In the 90s, a star-studded voice cast, a Top Ten pop song, and Happy Meal tie-in or two.
    In the 00s, it would’ve been about CGI, “realistic hair,” and an over-abundance of crowd scenes.
    In the 10s, 3-D ev’rthang.
    In the 20s…

    Well, you heard the man, “GUESS”!!!

    • DJM

      I want an animated, adult, modestly budgeted, stylized romantic comedy. Oooohhhhh….yes I doOo…!

      • nhaar

        There is no such thing as an amazingly budgeted animated movie!

  • Owen

    I saw Paperman at the Disney screening in London in June. It really struck a chord with me, both visually and storywise. I’m hopeful that a typical audience, who aren’t animation geeks, would sit through a feature length animation in the same technique.

    • tony

      This ties up with my comment.
      I saw it at the same screening, which was exactly for animation geeks. Obviously, all the questions and focus were about the technique. Which is maybe why you’ll remember it…for some time, until the technique moves on to something else. Because the story wasn’t strong.
      The typical audience won’t care about the 2D line traced over the 3D, it will get hooked, or not, by the story.
      I might sound harsh, but don’t get me wrong, i found it stunning, I just think it fell flat storywise and a bit sappy. But maybe there was too much buzz and secrecy around it and my expectations were too high.

      • Alberto

        I saw it at that screening as well, and I absolutely loved it, storywise

  • This all sounds so …exciting! Now about a feature length film….is it possible to set up a ..I don’t know, a couple million dollar kickstarter? hah! Totally would fund a feature length film if they have something like that they plan to hopefully work on…possibly…maybe…please? No rush though.

  • luca

    great! I can’t wait to see it.

    I have to say Japan has been mixing 2D and 3D in very interesting ways for a long time now. I’m thinking mostly about the studio 4C most experimental shorts, especially the ones in genius party and genius party beyond. Those films also play with not linear/abstract story lines, mood pieces instead of story arcs, which is also something that disney hasn’t done in a long time.

    I also disagree when you say that there is nothing today that looks like the original line drawing of an animator, I would say that’s true for mainstream american studios but that’s such a small (and uninteresting) part of animation. it’s good that disney is catching up with what kids are doing in places like japan and france but I wouldn’t say they are pioneering the medium anymore. But I haven’t seen the short so I’m ready to be wrong and pleasantly surprised. I hope the story isn`t sappy.

    • GhaleonQ

      I’ll cosign all of this comment. However, I’m intrigued by how this meshes with the general Disney style. Studio 4C is often jittery and the “bodies” of the characters or foreground objects are often very insubstantial. That’s great, but it’s not how Disney feature animation works. I think the Gala short is a great template that works similar to what I can see of this short.

  • I’m still confused about what the technique actually is. It all sounds really interesting, though.
    Is it similar to what Polder Animation did recently with “Now You Know It Anyway”? That film had an interesting combination of 3D and 2D lines.

  • SKent.

    Between this and Frankenweenie, Disney seem to be pushing B&W this year. That shows a certain ambition, and a faith in the audience. Good luck with that.

  • Scarabim

    “How exciting, and how much punch there is in the drawn line, how expressive it can be. And how hard the CG guys have to work to try to match that charm.”


    CG is great. But the raw energy, the humor, and yes, the CHARM that good classic Disney or Warner Bros. 2D animation possesses is missing in it. Plus every human being looks like it’s made out of rubber. “Brave” is especially guilty of that. Honestly, my first reaction to the human characters in that film was “ew”. The rubbery, Cabbage-Patch skin textures are off-putting, not to mention the fact that everyone seems to have the same skin tone. That was bad enough in the otherwise-excellent “Incredibles”. It’s really rampant in “Brave”. I couldn’t help thinking how much better the characters would look in 2D. And not because I’m a 2D addict or true believer. Designs that have charm and personality in a 2D drawing sometimes look rather monstrous when brought into the third dimension.

    Anyway, I can’t WAIT to see Paperman. This…could be the greatest thing ever. A way to marry the incredible range of 3D with the organic power of 2D. What a treat and a feast for audiences who are starving for the old Disney animated magic. Incidentally, there’s a rumor floating around about a Mickey Mouse movie being developed at Disney…what if this Meander program were used for it? That could be amazing! I hope the gang at Disney is way ahead of me on this…I really do…anyway, bless you Messrs. Karh, Daniels and Whited. You’re helping to bring back Disney animation in a big way. I think Walt would be very proud of you.

    • wever

      How do I like this more than once?!? HOW!??!!?

    • Ermy

      A Mickey Mouse movie utilizing this new technique would be awesome! As nice as some 3D animation has gotten, Mickey really looks best when he’s hand-drawn.

      • SKent.

        Wait, so we’re thinking that Disney’s 2d animation is great, but they need a technological solution before they can make another?

        This is reminiscent of the kind of thinking that was prevalent when Dreamworks 2d department was in the midst of its demise. Remember ‘tradigital’?

        The reason CG took off wasn’t just because it was shiny and new, it was because Pixar gave it a good reputation and people came to associate the technique with good movies. Perhaps 2d has such a tarnished reputation that it’ll take some sort of technological facelift like this for audiences to give it a second chance?

      • I have always loathed the term ‘tradigital.’ I hope it is left in the 90s. Hand-drawn animation is hand-drawn animation, whether on paper or on the computer.

      • Nic Orizaga

        yeah I was thinking Next Level would be the Epic Mickey movie that’s not been confirmed nor denied…

      • Ugh, I remember when after Spirit was released and Jeffery K said something to the tune of “we can make 3D look like 2D, and I call it ‘tradigital'”, like he was so desperately trying to coin a new and lasting term in the CG industry. Though little did he know that toon rendering had been in use for more than two decades prior.

      • Vik

        Films like Dreamworks’ “Shrek” and Blue Sky’s “Ice Age” were also responsible for the popularity of 3D animation and I’m not so sure that everyone would refer to those as “good movies” of the same caliber as Pixar’s. Each of the 3D films are enjoyable in their own way but ones like Disney’s “Tangled” really pushed the envelope in terms of the new technologies involved in 3D animated films.

        It would be exciting to see Mickey Mouse back in a feature-length film that utilized more new 3D developments incorporating 2D elements. It could be another way they could market the film in order to intrigue the fickle public. I remember how big a shot in the arm “Roger Rabbit” was to the animation industry back in 1987 (partly due to the use of classic animation characters) and a 2D/3D Mickey feature film might do the same.

  • Barney Miller

    I think it’s incredible that they are trying new techniques over at Disney and I’ve heard great things about the film. However, when I look at the characters I see Ariel and Prince Eric staring back at me.

    Even earlier Disney films that Kahrs references (101 Dalmations) are more pushed. It’s like drawing Ariel with a 4B pencil on one sheet of paper and doing the same drawing with a blue Colerase on another and saying “see, look how different she looks!”

    Judging from Kahrs comments on the video and other things I’ve heard about Lasseter’s taste in character design, it seems that they believe that pushing the characters any further than the modern Disney standard will make them inaccessible to an audience.

    It’s certainly a matter of taste- I just wish that if they’re going to spend all this time creating new tools to maintain the life of a rough drawing, than let’s see how far you can go while still keeping the audience emotionally invested.

    • “However, when I look at the characters I see Ariel and Prince Eric staring back at me.”

      Shouldn’t be too surprising, Glen Keane was a character designer on “Paperman.”

    • This is the one down side with Glen Keane as a character designer. His characters ALWAYS look the same. I love him as an animator – don’t get me wrong, but he’s got a style that has defined what the look of a traditional Disney character has become known for. Aside from that, I think the cartoon looks original enough for me….but I’ll wait til I actually see it in action.

  • Mike

    I was really excited to see this short given how stylized and far from the Disney norm it looked. Now that I’ve seen the main characters, especially the woman, well….I’m wary. Hope I’m wrong, but suddenly it looks a lot more conventional.

  • Lala_Marin

    I guess now I have to see Wreck-It Ralph.

  • I can’t wait to see this and I hope it brings 2D back. I always found it ironic that CG “killed” 2D, but stop motion is still happening.

  • Frank Ziegler

    You know what technique really showcases the 2D line drawing? 2D animation.

    • ^
      What Frank Z. said. Seems kind of obvious doesn’t it ?

      I’m really looking forward to seeing Paperman and if that’s what it takes to bring drawings back to the big screen, well , ok … but let’s not forget that as a technique hand-drawn animation isn’t “broken” , it doesn’t need to be “fixed”. It needs to be set free from always having to be cautiously looking back over it’s shoulder at what was done in the past.

  • Whatis?

    So would this be considered rotoscoping, or frame by frame toon shading?

  • Love the character designs.

  • e

    I too saw this in London and liked it….

    But this whole thing about it being about bringing the drawing back into animation only goes so far –
    one of the questions at the London screening asked who had authorship over the animation? Who is the driving force behind the performance?

    Although they wouldn’t come out and admit it, the answer is the CG animator. They are the ones animating the characters.

    The drawn side of it is glorified clean-up. They are working over the top of an existing pose already laid out by the CG animator. There is very little if any scope for them to really animate the scene as they would like to. One example shown afterwards where drawn animation enhanced the CG animation was where the 2D animator had gone in and embellished the hair movement and animated extra stuff on top of the CG animation, but this is a rare example of the 2D guys getting to do ‘animation’ and even then it’s a small one. It’s no different from being given a ruff drawing to work over with your 0.3 pencil.

    Another thing that struck me watching the film was that it still felt CG’y. It was *too* smooth and lacked the imperfections that drawn animation has. A much vaunted ‘motion betweening’ tool (pfft) that smoothly inbetweened a line between two set points can be partly to blame. (And Disney – Flash has done this for years so I wasn’t sure why you were so excited about it…?)

    The chance to work over the top of CG animation with drawings is just like what a clean up artist would do – embellish, polish, push and enhance. It’s not 2D with CG. It’s CG animation since that’s where the performance is being driven from. Nothing wrong with that but this is all a bit of a red herring and not the breakthrough the Disney hype machine would have us believe.

    As said above – I enjoyed the film and it looked nice, but what’s wrong with pencils and paper?

    • a sad 2D animator

      I couldn’t be more agree…

      I saw it in Paris, it’s a beautiful movie, but no doubt about it, it’s a CG movie with some sort of 2D clean up on it. It looks like 2D but without being 2D AT ALL.

      When I heard John Kahrs speaking about how they created this process, I could only think of CG people trying very hard to make 2D animation without having to learn to draw and how to animate in 2D. Or like if 2D animation no longer exists or like if anybody can animate in 2D anymore…

      Or the story of how Pixar guys killed 2D animation at Disney. It almost started and ends at the same place…

  • ctrayn

    The design is gorgeous, but the story seems really, really close to Signs (a 2009 short film). Can anyone who went to the screening of Paperman attest to how different the two films are in practice?

    • Alberto

      Apart from the fact that he notices her on an office across the street, both films couldn’t be more different

      • Pirjas

        Please, not only did they rip the story they we’re to lazy to even change shot choices and composition which at times is a direct overlay. Even the character design is similar.  

        • Antoine

          Just saw Paperman…

          The story is similar, shots are similar, character design is similar, acting is similar… It made me think of Signs as soon as the short started: the music is similar too… I’m shocked! I can’t believe Paperman has been nominated at Academy Award…

          And I don’t even want to talk about the technic used for this film. Sad…

  • Julian

    On one hand I love that Disney is attempting to innovate and recall traditional animation. Innovation was something sorely missing from Disney the past decade or so (I hated the way they simply threw in the towel in regards to traditional animation instead of attempting to make fresher, more innovative/original or simply better 2D animated films).

    On the OTHER hand I would prefer my hand drawn animation….HAND DRAWN instead of a quasi 2D treatment molded from 3D elements. I don’t have a problem with the technology itself since it can likely create visual textures not available to traditional alone but from what I hear it doesn’t quite adequately capture the flavor of hand drawn animation. There’s nothing like actually putting a pencil to paper.

  • Johnathan Milestone

    It would be nice if they would release their Siggraph paper. But looks like that is not happening.

  • AlienXS

    What about this inspiration, then? :)

    • Ashim

      This is much closer to ‘Paperman’ than ‘Signs’! I still think the resolution of Paperman is more magical than these two shorts.

  • Guest

    You’re taking it out of context… I believe what was said here was that the thing he’s most proud about is that this is a 3D Technique that really celebrates the 2D line drawing.