The unique styles of Oscar-winner John Kahrs (Paperman) and Kevin Dart (from boutique design and animation studio Chromosphere) are on show in a new animated short called June made for ride-sharing service Lyft as part of the company’s ‘Driver Appreciation Day,’ which took place yesterday.
The seven-minute short, which can be viewed below, tells the story of a lonely Chicagoan widow who shares a ride in a Lyft car and is inspired to share parts of her life at the same time.
Cartoon Brew spoke to both Kahrs and Dart about the origins of June, how their past work influenced the project, and about giving the short film some extra dimensionality. The piece is accompanied with concept artwork used in the creation of the film.
Kahrs worked at Pixar for several years and then moved to Walt Disney Animation Studios to animate on Bolt, Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, and Frozen. He eventually directed the innovative cg/hand-drawn hybrid Paperman, released in 2012.
Meanwhile, Dart was an art director on Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe and Dreamworks’ The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show before he branched out with some regular collaborators to form Chromosphere.
The origins of June
June was conceived by Lyft creative director Ricardo Viramontes and produced by Gennie Rim via Broad Reach Pictures. Kahrs says Viramontes ‘cold-called’ him with the idea for a short story about a Lyft drive.
“He already had a strong framework of a woman, a single mom who lost her job and was struggling to make ends meet,” said Kahrs. “That character kept evolving and changing – she got older and eventually became from this neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago.”
That area of Chicago became the centerpiece of the short after Kahrs participated in a research trip there with a few real-life Lyft drivers. “The last driver we were with drove us around the Bronzeville area, which is just south of Downtown Chicago,” said Kahrs. It’s just a very historic, very African-American location, with a very deep heritage to it. It had very specific spatial relationships with the buildings and empty lots next to them, and the elevated train and the skyline in the distance.”
Kahrs then sought out Dart specifically for June after following his work for a number of years, particularly a piece called Forms in Nature, which was a nod in general to mid-century illustration styles, and in particular, the work of Charley Harper.
“Kevin was totally into June right away,” recalled Kahrs. “He saw my pitch and it wasn’t even completely boarded yet. I think he really loved the idea that the camera was very alive and there was a looseness to it, and it can have all this geometric design and can live in a world of paintings that are flat, but can also have a live real camera dimensionality. And a sense of photographic light and shadow.”
When Dart was asked to come on to June, originally as art director, he was just transitioning to running Chromosphere full-time. He then ramped up to a crew of around 25, mostly made up of freelancers working remotely from locations including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom.
“We spent a month and a half doing early development work and designs,” said Dart. “There was an animation test that we produced early on as a proof-of-concept. Then full production lasted a little over three months.”
One of Dart’s main attractions to working on June, for which Chromosphere was ultimately responsible for design and animation, was the opportunity to work on a film that appeared at first to have a 2D aesthetic but in fact was full of dimension.
“That’s something we’ve always been interested in as a group of artists,” he said. “One of my main collaborators is Stéphane Coëdel and I’ve been working with him since some of my earliest films. We’ve always been interested in this idea of taking really graphic 2D designs, but then applying photographic semi-realistic treatment to them in the way they are composited and filmed. I feel like we keep pushing that feel.”
“We also did a bunch of 3D work on the film,” added Dart. “A lot of the characters are 3D and the sets are 3D, and we would do some hand-held camera movements in 3D that really helped lend to the dimensional feeling. Even on shots that are just 2D backgrounds, we would try to do things with subtle parallaxing and skewing of the elements in Photoshop to bring that depth to it.”
For Kahrs, this was both an intended design element and one of the many reasons he brought Dart to the project. “Those are all the things I feel very strongly about,” he told Cartoon Brew. “During Paperman, for instance, I loved the idea that it’s just in black and white, but the tones are picked so carefully and accurately that there’s almost a photographic Gestalt to it, for lack of a better word. I think Kevin’s color sense is fantastic, and it was kind of like moving in Kevin’s world and letting him run with that color and his own amazing design sense.”
In the end, June feels like one of those unique commercial films that will have wide appeal, owing to the talented artists behind the work. For Dart, in particular, it is still early days in Chromosphere’s life and he is looking at every available project to find the right mix.
“We’re still trying to find our real identity as a studio and the most desirable projects. This project with John and Lyft was a really perfect scenario. It had all the stuff we like to do, a really interesting graphic style mixing in a lot of new technology and giving us the freedom to work with different artists.”