Disney’s charming short film up for an Oscar this year, Paperman, is a nostalgic return to the tradition of 2-D, hand-drawn animation that also embraces what modern 3-D animation technology has to offer.
The short is a little urban fairy tale about a man who attempts to capture the attention of the woman of his dreams with paper airplanes he launches from his skyscraper office to hers. It was made with new in-house software called Meander that enables a hybrid approach to animation, where characters and backgrounds are drawn over an initial digital layer.
To see that innovative new animation method in action, check out the EW exclusive video below, a progression reel displaying the process of creating one shot in Paperman.
SPOILER ALERT! Do yourself a favor and watch the entire six-and-a-half-minute short here before watching the reel below that reveals a key moment in the film.
This shot is near the end of the film, when the flurry of paper airplanes finally reunites Paperman‘s sweet couple, Meg and George.
“Here Meg revels in seeing all these messages of love all flying around her and kind of knowing that this guy is behind her, but she still kind of wanted to linger on seeing just the magnitude of how many attempts he had made to try to get back to her,” first-time director John Kahrs told EW. “And then she finally turns, knowing that he’s going to be there – this person that she’s meant to be with is back there. So I knew I wanted it to be a big moment in the story, this culminating shot before the final meeting.”
Read on for what Kahrs had to say about some of his creative decisions and the work that went into each phase of animation displayed in this progression reel.
Storyboards: Kahrs, who developed the story for Paperman, also drew the storyboards.
Layout: Kahrs described this part of the process as “building the spatial relationship between the camera and the character. Where is the camera? Where is the character? And what are the angles and what lens are you using and so forth.”
CG animation: The 3-D computer animation is done first as a kind of base model or skeleton for the 2-D animators to later draw on top of – though there’s far more detail and expression in the character at this phase than a skeleton would have. “I always tried to get as much performance out of the computer-generated animation pass as I could because that’s kind of like my home position,” said Kahrs, who was an animator on such films as Tangled, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.
Hand-drawn key poses: Next, the hand-drawn animation comes in, here done by Hyun-Min Lee, the lead animator for Meg’s character. “Whenever those lines start showing up, I get really excited,” Kahrs said of bringing in the hand-drawn animation. “[The 2-D animators] have such good taste, and you see that skill and that finesse that they have with the line coming rushing back into the image again. It kind of charges it with artistry again, and I love that part of the process.”
Hand-painted lighting: This shot was “the brightest, the most white-hot, blown-out one of them all because it’s the max brightness before they finally come together again,” Kahrs said. “Meg is always in the light, and George is always in the dark, and then at the end they kind of merge together and all of the tones are represented in that final image.”
Hand-drawn hair animation layers: Hair, along with natural elements like water, smoke and fire, is one of the most difficult things to animate, but the air swept up by all the paper airplanes surrounding Meg made animating individual pieces of her hair a necessary task. “We waited till end to do that shot because [Lee] knew it was going to be tough, and she was going to re-animate all those layers of hair,” Kahrs said. “You can see some of that in this next pass where she’s starting to work out the motions of these different layers of hair and how much of the CG she’s going to use to track the lines on and how much she’s going to erase it away. She did a spectacular job animating all that hair blowing. That’s something that I’m really proud of because it’s the hand-drawn animation just shining on its own, and it merged very seamlessly with the CG animation.”
Hand-drawn layer complete: Some more final touches, and Lee’s work on the shot is done. “I’m glad the the 2-D animators are some of the last people to touch it before it goes out the door,” the director said, “because they have a great eye, they know how to make characters appealing, and they know how to make images really sing.”
Final composite: Lastly, the shot goes to the compositing team who “would put a little film grain back on it, put on some light effects and some motion blur,” Kahrs explained. “It kind of seals it all together.”
Paperman is among five films nominated for the Academy Awards’ best animated short. The Oscar telecast airs live on ABC Sunday, Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET.
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