This Valentine’s Day, don’t even bother going to the theater for a chick flick. The most romantic film of this year is six and a half minutes long and can be found online. “Paperman,” Disney’s newest animated short, combines hand-drawn animation with CGI to tell a story that is as beautiful as it is aesthetically breathtaking.
The story begins simply enough: a young office worker, living alone in a big city, runs into a pretty girl on his morning commute and promptly loses her as she boards a separate train to work. Having been unable to get her off of his mind all day, the young man (named George, according to the ending credits) is amazed and thrilled to see his perfect stranger (Meg) again—in the office building across from his. Desperate to get Meg’s attention before she slips away again, George begins folding his paperwork into airplanes to glide across the street to her window. However, as George discovers, it takes more than a few crisp folds to get the girl, and the story goes from sweet to wondrous as fate intervenes to bring two strangers into each other’s paths again.
“Paperman” is the directoral debut of Disney animator John Kahrs, who worked most recently on Disney’s “Tangled”, drew inspiration for the story from his own experience of living in New York City as a young animator. The idea simmered for several years before Kahrs turned it into a full-fledged animated short to premiere before “Wreck-It Ralph”, which came out in the fall. The sweet story, however, is only half of the triumph of this wonderful little film. The new animation style lends an element of nostalgia, purity and innocence as it hearkens back to the classic hand-drawn works of Disney’s earlier years.
Kahrs was reluctant to make the film a work of pure CGI after working with Disney animator Glen Keane on “Tangled”. Keane, who had worked on classic Disney films such as “The Little Mermaid”, created masterful sketches of the concept art. Kahrs felt that it would be “a real shame” to leave the sketches behind once the time came to move forward with the animation. Kahrs told Animation World Network in an interview that the desire to keep the “expressive line” of the hand-drawn sketches became “the impetus behind the production.”
The new program animators used for this film is called Meander, which Kahrs described as “a vector based drawing tool that gives the artist a lot of power to manipulate the line after you draw it.” As he told Jerry Black at Cartoon Brew, “It’s just like painting on the surface of the CG. It actually moves on a 2d layer that’s driven by the CG.”
Some of the closer shots in “Paperman” reveal just how exquisite this hybrid animation is. One can actually see the pencil lines in the contours of the characters’ faces and hands. The movement is fluid and natural. Although typical hand-drawn animation looks two-dimensional, the CG blend emphasizes depth and layers to make the short look like it really could be in 3D, even though it is not. Not to mention that CGI animation has always had great difficulty in getting hair to move in a natural way, as any special feature on any Pixar movie will indicate. It may seem like a small detail, but the blended animation of “Paperman” captures the soft, natural movement of hair perfectly, particularly when Meg is in motion or gets caught in a breeze.
Having covered the animation technique itself, the viewer can turn his or her eyes to the fantastic details that flesh out the black-and-white short. The instant connection George and Meg share is emphasized by the color scheme: the only splash of color in the whole short is the red of Meg’s lipstick, which ends up on one of George’s tax forms which he eventually turns into a paper airplane. Additionally—if you can bear to tear your eyes from the star-crossed lovers for a moment—you’ll notice that George and Meg are the only characters with distinct, appealing features. George’s boss and coworkers have blocky, hardened faces with eyes made opaque by glasses, and the strangers on the street have hardly any features at all. Meg and George, on the other hand, have wonderfully distinct features that make their faces even more expressive, running the gamut of emotion throughout the short.
To top it off, Christophe Beck’s score is simply wonderful: light, airy and at times so hopeful it is almost painful. It synchs perfectly with the emotional tone of the story at any given moment, completing the love story much the same way that the score for “Up” does in the first ten minutes of the film, which, like “Paperman”, tell the story without words.
Since Disney released “Paperman” on the Internet, I have been showing it to people nonstop. I have not met a single person who has not fallen in love with it at once, and most of my friends have watched it with me multiple times. One friend told me that she “grinned like a madwoman” throughout the whole thing, and another was moved to tears. I myself nearly cried the first time I saw “Paperman” before “Wreck-It Ralph” because I found the short so beautiful. “Paperman” is short and sweet, hopeful and gorgeous. As an animated film of any length, “Paperman” comes closer to perfection than anything I have ever seen.