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Animation Trends: 3-D Papercraft/Cut-out Animation

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Recently three-dimensional paper sculpture/cut-out/origami has exploded as a major trend across multiple disciplines including animation, illustration and design. In an animation context, the factor that distinguishes this trend from traditional stop-motion is that the artist builds their own models/sets out of paper and other household materials. Two new books have been published documenting the movement in primarily non-animation media: Three-D: Graphic Spaces (Amazon link or book review) and Tactile: High Touch Visuals (Amazon link or book review ). One of those books even has Steven Heller’s name on the cover, a sure sign of fad status in the design world (seemingly the only design trend Heller hasn’t ‘discovered’ yet is our little world of animation).

In animation, one of the first major contemporary examples of paper sculpture was Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film from 2003. It remains a mighty impressive piece of work:

Another widely seen example of three-dimensional paper animation was Jamie Caliri’s “Dragon” spot for United Airlines which aired during the 2006 Super Bowl:

Caliri’s paper sculpture work is more mainstream than ever with his direction of the end titles for Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. The art director of the Madagascar titles was Megan Brain, whose paper sculpture animation has also been seen in segments of Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba! and Cartoon Network’s Class of 3000.

Animation artists all over seem to be enjoying creating paper sculptures. Last month Jon Klassen and his brother created an iceberg sculpture loosely based on Jon’s illustration concepts for this Royal Bank of Canada commercial.

Jon Klassen sculpture

Animation industry veteran Joe Orrantia is currently in the process of building an awesome-looking three-dimensional spaceship for one of his projects. He’s using PVC pipes, foam core, cups, and cereal boxes, while documenting the making of it on his blog.

Joe Orrantia sculpture

It would be an oversimplification to label the emergence of three-dimensional paper sculpture as a mere backlash to the mathematically precise aesthetic of CGI or the longing for a simpler more tactile art. At least in the animation world, a lot of artists are using digital technology to aid their three-dimensional animation projects. For example, The Seed, a sublime piece of work by Johnny Kelly, would have been much more difficult to create without the aid of computers. The ‘making of’ video below hints at how the production incorporated digital technology alongside paper and scissors:

And then there’s the wildly inventive My Paper Mind by recent Pratt grad Javan Ivey:

The film is entirely made of cut-paper imagery but Javan shows on the film’s “making of” page that he used computer animation tests to make sure it would look right. “Computers are dirty cheaters… don’t we love it,” he writes on his website. So true.

Before anybody gets too excited about having discovered the next big thing, it would be wise to give this trend a bit of historical context by pointing out that Bill Justice, X. Atencio and T. Hee were doing paper sculpture animation at Disney in the early-1960s in films like A Symposium On Popular Songs (1962)…

and the opening titiles for The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964)…

Then, of course, there’s Russian animator Yuri Norstein whose dimensional work with paper in a film like Tale of Tales (1979) seems to come from another planet entirely:

  • Good eye on this, Amid. I noticed it recently as well.

    Paper animation has been continuous pretty much since the Grant Munro days. It was a big commercial technique in the 80s, I can think of a few films by Veronika Soul and Maciek Albrecht (amongst others).

    The difference today -the trend, as it were -is that we’re seeing dimension to the paper. It exists in a 3D environment instead on a downshooter or 2 1/2 D multiplane.

    This comes from two things:

    1) the audience’s expectation of depth which has been cultivated by commercial 3D animation
    2) technology’s aid in rig removal, lighting, compositing and color correction (and the occasional 3D “cheat” like in the student film)

  • Tiger Aspect Prods.’ preschool series ‘Charlie and Lola’ does a fine job of using multiple textures as well.

  • Check out Julien Vallee’s work as well:

  • awesome spaceship!

    a high budget example that follows the paper trend: http://vimeo.com/2188162?pg=embed&sec=2188162

  • Any overview of origami films is incomplete without mentioning Garri Bardin’s critically-acclaimed film “Adagio”, made in 2000:

    Also, Yuriy Norshteyn does not work with paper cutouts, but with painted “cel” cutouts. You can see this by the way they shine under a lamp and the transparent edges. Some pictures of the process can be found over here:

    Using paper was the main method of Soviet animation up until the late 1930s, from “China in Flames” in 1925…

    …to the unfinished feature film “The Tale of the Priest and His Workman Balda” in 1933…

  • Thanks for this! The feeling that paper cut-out animation gives of a miniature theatrical event is so attractive and inspiring! I have used some of these techniques in my personal project, an interactive, ‘make your own Cartoon’ site: http://www.cut-ups.com ,hope you like it..

  • I’m very fond of the paper folding work of Michel Ocelot, especially Les Trois Inventeurs. A clip is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZdKG5SrHUA

    Didn’t the feature Twice Upon a Time use paper cut outs?

    And Terry Gilliam was a master of a simplified version of the technique.

  • Oh how I love Yuri Norstein, he is an animation God. He is the biggest inspiration and influence on the work I did in my undergraduate animation. Not that it at all comes close, but here is my youtube page if you are into cut out animation :)


  • The 1960 Paramount cartoon “Bouncing Benny” used cutout animation engineered by Paramount staff animators Graham Place and Otto Feuer. I think they must have seen what Atencio was doing at Disney and tried to do one of their own. I don’t believe the experiment was repeated.

    And how could you talk about cutout paper animation and not mention “South Park”? Granted, the character builds and animation are now pretty much all done on computers now, but those earliest pilot films by Parker and Stone were stop motion photography of cutout characters.

  • Check out Carlo Giovanni’s stop motion paper work.

  • Rio

    Absolutely one of the best posts I’ve ever read here.

  • yvette kaplan

    Thank you Amid, great post, happy trend. I’d like to add another recent example — a beautiful little children’s film by Gill Dolev, an Israeli artist I was lucky enough to meet in Scotland last year. It’s done like a children’s pop-up book and really impressed me. Happily, it’s been getting some notice at International Film Festivals in the Children’s film category. There is a website for the film that includes a trailer: http://www.happyduckling.co.uk

    And the whole film can be seen at:

    Enjoy! : )

  • r*r

    I’ve bought the THREE D book and it features animation as well – you can see some on the website http://www.three-d.ch

  • owen

    “Before anybody gets too excited about having discovered the next big thing, it would be wise to give this trend a bit of historical context by pointing out that Bill Justice, X. Atencio and T. Hee were doing paper sculpture animation at Disney in the early-1960s in films like A Symposium On Popular Songs (1962)…”

    before making a comment like that, it would be wise to give credit to someone OTHER than Disney. cut out animation has been around for a hell of a lot longer than Walt himself.

  • Georgie Retro

    Cut out animation is so very satisfying to make and watch :)

  • paolo

    And also Lotte Reininger’s shadow figures were cut-out…
    And I would like to remind that the oldest known feature animation, Quirino Cristiani’s “El Apostolo” (1917), was made with cut-out figures.
    And, a propos de Michel Ocelot: sunday at the Berlin’s Film Festival there will be the premiere of his latest feature, “Les contes de la nuit”, where he uses a shadow figures’ technique and which will be shown in 3D

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