Behold the face that launched a thousand paper airplanes.

In the romantic animated short Paperman, an office worker tries to get the attention of the woman of his dreams by sailing handmade aircraft across the canyon of a bustling Manhattan street from his skyscraper to hers.

He’s folding a 2-D format into a 3-D shape to make an emotional connection — which is also a good way of describing how Walt Disney Animation Studios created the film.

Paperman is a hybrid that fuses the dimension and depth of digital animation with the abstract warmth of traditional line art. The result is a world seemingly sculpted out of sketches.

Click through to see three new photos, and the movie’s poster.

The technology used to create the short, which debuts Nov. 2 in front of Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, could be the first step in a long-overdue comeback for hand-drawn animation.

“Drawing can have a really powerful, visceral effect on the viewer. You can create anger and surprise or anguish with just a few lines of a pencil,” says director John Kahrs, an animator on The Incredibles and Tangled. “But it can’t just be the same thing it was. I think for 2-D to be revitalized, you have to figure out a way to make it new again.”


Hand-drawn animated films have been relegated to the sidelines over the past decade as digital films dominated the multiplex. Can Paperman change that? At the very least, it’s an evolutionary leap.

While hybrid animation has been around for decades (creating the giant, swirling clock gears in 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective and the sweeping ballroom shot in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast) this is the first major use of it to actually emphasize the retro charm of pen and paper.

The goal on Paperman was “to find a way to not leave the drawings behind in the final image,” says Kahrs.

In this image from the opening of Paperman, the man and woman meet on the platform for a city train — but fate interrupts before he can muster the courage to speak to her. (Fate will attempt to correct that mistake later on.)

Disney used new in-house technology called Meander to build the world of Paperman. First the characters and backgrounds were rendered digitally, and then hand-drawn art was layered over those shapes, giving the figures a kind of 3-D quality unseen in old-school animation. “What you’re seeing is a very stylized CG layer [underneath], but the feel of the image is very flat and lives in between the two,” Kahrs says.

The Meander program, created by Disney software engineer Brian Whited, allows the 2-D hand-drawn artwork to “stick” to the dimensional CG layer underneath. “A cynic would say it’s high-tech rotoscoping,” Kahrs says, referring to an old animation technique of tracing over live-action film stills. “Really it’s more than that. It’s meant to celebrate the line, and bring it back up to the front of the image again.”

The footage in Paperman was then passed back and forth between the 2-D and CG animation teams as they fine-tuned the look of the film — often to ensure it never looked too fine-tuned. “When the line artists would find a more pleasing silhouette, or a better method of expression, we would go back and push the CG into that shape,” says producer Kristina Reed (a former DreamWorks Animation production executive on such films as Madagascar and Over the Hedge.) Other times, she adds, Kahrs would say, “‘It looks too CG right now,’ and want to knock it back.”

It’s probably obvious from the lack of computers in this office, but Paperman is set in the analog past, roughly the middle of the last century. That stack of forms on his desk supplies the raw material he needs to fire airplane after airplane to the building next door. E-mail just wouldn’t be the same.

While the story is tinged with nostalgia, the film is trying to stretch the limits of what old-time animation can accomplish. “As exciting a time that we live in right now, with so many CG features being done, that kind of stylized photo-realism can’t be the only way that animation can look,” says Kahrs. “And I also think it’s okay to push on 2-D. The time has come to see what the future can be for that, too.”

If Paperman strikes a nerve with audiences, Reed says it’s “up to the next batch of artists” to figure out whether this style and programs such as Meander can bring about a renaissance for 2-D animation. “CG has stomped to the forefront, and completely owns the space of the photo-real image and all the surrounding area around that,” she says. “Paperman is, for us, a part of the larger conversation: ‘How can visuals look — other than moving slowly, more and more, toward photo-real?'”

In a world of gray, this tale’s only touch of scarlet can be found on her lips, which leaves a bright red kiss on one very important piece of paper. (You can see that on the desk in the previous image.)

The movie had help from Glen Keane, a veteran of hand-drawn animation who brought The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel and the title character of Aladdin to life (among others). It was one of his last projects before retiring from the studio this year. “He was really a great help at the beginning, crystallizing and focusing the character design,” Kahrs said.

“I didn’t want her to be too beautiful, because then she’d feel like she’s out of his league. And I wanted him to seem like kind of a normal dude, but still cute enough that she might date him,” the director adds. “When you see them together in the first shot, you should understand that it’s the first time they’re meeting, but you feel like maybe they’re already a couple.”

If the filmmakers had made Paperman without the hybrid technology, it might still be a sweet story — but the appeal of animation is as much about the technique as it is the tale. “If this short had come out with The Little Mermaid, everyone would be excited about the CG,” says Reed with a laugh. “Now here we are in the early part of this millennium, and what we’re celebrating is going back to the handcraft.”

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