Oscar Winners in Review – Paperman



I imagine a few of you may well be taken aback from the title. Oscar Winners is this supposed to be? Oscar winners, you say, but what the HELL is Paperman? Well, allow me to explain slightly angry hypothetical reader – ‘Paperman’ is beautiful, short, animated and Oscar winning film making. Rather than spend all of my time in this little retrospective review series focusing on the big awards, the one that get all the attention I thought I would also try and give some (albeit limited) publicity to films that win the awards but have the bad luck to win the awards that nobody really seems to care about.

So ‘Paperman’ is the winner of the Oscar for best animated short, and as with most “minor” awards the best animated short is usual a good place for higher-ups at studios and in the industry generally to keep an eye out for promising talent and maybe give some of the struggling future success stories their first big break. Somewhat unusually, or maybe just counter intuitively that wasn’t the case here as the film had the backing and production money of Walt Disney and was directed by John Kahrs. For those of you not intimately familiar with the hierarchy and inner workings of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood (that would include me but thank the Lord for google) Kahrs is one of Disney’s animators who has taken a leading role in animating things like Tangled (2010) all the way back through Disney’s history to ‘A Bugs Life.’

So, rather than be a break-through piece maybe the best way to think about this is a respected creative artist being given a little more freedom to try something outside the limitations and demands of producing a smash, big-budget Disney movie. Then the question has to be, what’s new about this? Is it the writing?


The plot follows a business man who falls for a woman that he sees and then spends the rest of the film trying to get back in touch with. It’s a sweet, but rather slight story but that isn’t what makes this film so good. What makes this film so good is that it quite possible changed how animated movies are made from now on. I mentioned before that the director was one of Disney’s animators and one of the reasons that Disney has been so successful for so long when it comes to their animated features is that they are constantly developing new techniques. Back in the early nineties they were at the fore-front of CGI  animation and ‘Paperman’ uses a brand new in house piece of technology called Meander. In the director’s words what the new technology was there to do was to bring together ‘the expressiveness of 2D drawing immersed with the stability and dimensionality of CG.’

Now, brace yourselves because here comes the technical bit…

The technique that makes the difference is called final line advection and results in every artist having much more control over the final product. Starting from a CG ‘base’ animation things like folds in fabric, hair and textures all come from a 2D drawn design process. In effect animators can ‘erase’ the CG and draw in things by hand – changing profiles, changing how clothes look and so on.

To make up for the somewhat dry technical detail, here’s a picture of a cat.

The end result is that this is a gorgeous looking film, perfectly matching the sweet romantic plot with heartrendingly romantic drawing and animation. There is an edited down version on YouTube which gives a good sense of what this is like but if you get the chance please check out the proper version. It’s a great movie and an incredible example of matching form and content that Disney are getting better and better at in their animation. It’s wonderful to watch because it was clearly done by people who really cared about the film they were making, and how it was put together. I may not have said much about the plot, but it is a well written and imaginative take on what could have been something quite generic.

So, does it deserve it’s Oscar? HELL YES.

What’s more is nice to see yet more evidence (where it needed) that 2D drawn animation doesn’t just match CGI but can, when done well, actually be better than using just technology. On another note, it’s all too easy and far too common for film fans to become hipster about good cinema. Y’know the sort, who sniffily declaim the work of big studios as just there to generate profit and not really ART. Well, those people finally have a short designed to shut them up. It was made by one of the biggest studios in the world, by a man who has worked on some of the most commercial successful animated films ever made. Together, they produced this – which wasn’t just a critical and commercial success but it’s great art too.

Well done Disney, good work.

Now if you can just somehow find a way to NOT make the Monsters Inc prequel suck, that would be great too.