Is it really the end of the line for hand-drawn animation at Walt Disney Studios?
That was the conclusion that many in Hollywood reached late last year. All they had to do was compare Winnie the Pooh's meager ticket sales with the boffo box office that Tangled had done worldwide, and it then became obvious that CG had finally officially fully eclipsed hand-drawn animation at the House of Mouse.
But that wasn't how John Kahrs saw this situation. As the supervisor of animation on Tangled, John had worked closely with industry legend Glen Keane. And Kahrs watched as Keane had actively pushed to make sure that this CG retelling of the tale of Rapunzel had the look and feel of Disney's classic hand-drawn animated features.
"Glen would literally draw over our work. He'd take a tablet and a stylus and then show Disney's CG artists how they could make their poses stronger, how the staging of individual scenes could be improved by just drawing a few lines right on top of their scenes," John remembered. "And as I looked at Keane's hand-drawn lines on top of those CG scenes, I have to admit that I liked what I saw. Those few rough lines that Glen had drawn really added a lot of power, clarity and emotion to those scenes. Which is something that CG scenes sometimes lose as they go through the clean-up phase of production."
Now it might surprise you to hear a guy who has spent his 20-plus year career in animation (which started when John got hired by Blue Sky Studios in 1990 and then transitioned to Pixar in 1997) working almost exclusively in CG talking this way about hand-drawn animation. But Kahrs is the first to admit that -- when he moved from Pixar to Disney in 2007 -- the DNA of the place just got to him.
"I have to admit that when I began working for Disney, I just fell in love with the hand-drawn line. And seeing as Walt Disney Animation Studios has this long tradition of producing hand-drawn animated features... Well, I wanted to do what I could to make sure that more of those great line drawings that Disney artists produce during the preproduction phase of our new CG projects actually wound up on screen in the Studio's animated feature films and shorts," John explained.
So Kahrs wondered: Was there a way that Disney could possibly combine these two types of animation that then played to both of their strengths, adding the dimensionality and fluidity-of-movement that CG has with the power and emotion, which the very best pieces of hand-drawn animation often have?
But in order for that to happen, Disney was going to have to come up with a whole new way of doing animation at the Studio. More to the point, Kahrs and Co. was going to have to produce a film which then demonstrate how CG and hand-drawn animation could be combined to create a brand-new type of storytelling.
"So I got together with Kristina Reed, this producer at Disney who's not afraid to tackle tough projects. And then I roped in Brian Whited, who wrote this amazing piece of software which then made it possible to combine CG and hand-drawn animation in just the way that I'd imagined," John said. "And with a very small team at WDAS, we labored in secret for almost nine months on a short that we hoped could be usde to showcase this new production technique."
Mind you, before this project could finally officially be greenlit, Kahrs and his crew first had to convince John Lasseter -- the Grand Pooh-Bah of animation for both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios -- that what they were trying to do here wasn't just some gimmick. That this hybrid form of animation really could become a bold new way to tell a story.
To John's credit, once he saw their test footage and realized that this wasn't just CG somehow being shoehorned in with hand-drawn animation but an entirely new way to tell stories with animation, he immediately got on board and enthusiastically supported this project.
How enthusiastic was Lasseter about this CG/hand-drawn hybrid? So enthusiastic that John decided that Paperman (FYI: Paperman is the title that John Kahrs chose for this charming black and white short. Which details one man's epic struggle to reconnect with that beautiful young woman he had a chance encounter with NYC's Grand Central Station) should have its world premiere held at this year's Annecy International Animation Film Festival.
So Paperman premiered at Annecy's opening night back on June 4th. And there was such a positive reaction from animation fans to this CG / hand-drawn hybrid that John and his team actually found themselves with overflow crowds whenever they did Paperman -- related presentations at this year's fest.
This whole experience -- as you might expect -- has been very gratifying to John Kahrs. Who's now looking forward to seeing how Paperman will be received when this CG/hand-drawn hybrid makes its stateside premiere this Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Which will then be followed this Fall with a wide release in theaters when Paperman is paired with WDAS's next big theatrical release, "Wreck-It Ralph."
So what's Kahrs' favorite part of his Paperman experience to date? It's not that the animation fans at Annecy were so enthusiastic about this new short. Or the constant questions about whether Walt Disney Animation Studios is going to produce any more CG/hand-drawn hybrids. Or even the people who have been asking if Walt Disney Records is planning on releasing a Paperman soundtrack.
"No, what I've liked best about this experience is that Glen Keane -- the Disney artist who actually inspired this CG/hand-drawn hybrid -- actually helped design our two lead characters for Paperman, Meg and Charlie," John stated.
Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is that Glen Keane (who recently wrapped up his 38 year stint at Walt Disney Animation Studios by working on Paperman) was -- back in 1983 -- one of the driving forces behind the Studio's first very attempt to create a CG/hand-drawn hybrid. And to really pile on the irony here, Glen's partner-in-crime on Disney's Where the Wild Things Are test (which was a one minute-long proof-of-concept to see if Maurice Sendak's Caldecott Medal-winning children's book could indeed be turned into an animated featurette) was another promising young animator that Walt Disney Productions brought on board back in the 1970s.
Maybe you've heard of this guy? John Lasseter.
So to Kahrs' way of thinking, it's just kind of fitting that -- nearly 40 years later -- that Keane and Lasseter (who were really the pioneers at Disney when it comes to combining CG and hand-drawn animation) both had a hand in the creation of Paperman, that new animated short which proves -- at least as far as Walt Disney Animation Studios is concerned -- they're now nowhere near the end of the line.
Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, NH. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation and themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company.
Jim is currently working on a behind-the-scene history of the development and construction of Disneyland. For his more immediate musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.