Disney recently posted its Oscar-nominated short Paperman on YouTube, creating a lot of discussion about the new technique developed by director John Kahrs for this film. Kahrs got the idea when he was working on Tangled, a Disney 3-D CGI film which was essentially straining to preserve as much as possible of the classic hand-drawn Disney style that the animators were no longer allowed to use. After being removed from the picture, Glen Keane, one of the best of the Disney traditional animators, left the studio altogether; several other animators have already been moved out as a result of the studio canceling its traditionally-animated projects and trying to make everyone switch to 3D. Since The Princess and the Frog was an aberration and Disney is unlikely to return to hand-drawn animated features any time soon, Kahrs decided to try and find a way of reviving some of the virtues of hand-drawn animation – the 2D look, and the more personal connection between the animator and the scene (obviously, Pixar animators aren’t just automatons, but the system they use doesn’t allow for the kind of quirky animator styles of Disney’s Nine Old Men) – within the CG process, to “celebrate the line,” get away from realism, and give animators more control over things like clothing and hair.
There’s a certain amusement in seeing a lot of money spent for R&D on a system that, in essence, is supposed to recapture some of the things that you could do by giving an animator a pencil and paper. I’ve heard some fellow hand-drawn fans express frustration at this: why, they ask, doesn’t Disney just make more hand-drawn films and achieve the same animation effects with less trouble? But I find the techniques used in Paperman to be a very hopeful and promising development. American studios – this is not true around the world, mind you – are very quick to give up on any technology they consider obsolete; this is one of many ways in which movie studio people have always thought more in terms of business (where you throw out any technology once there is a superior alternative) than in terms of art (where no technology is inherently superior to another in terms of its ability to produce valuable art). They’re also easily impressed by new toys, and traditional animation is literally the oldest toy in the history of moving pictures.
Therefore, the best hope for reviving some of the animation values that the dominance of Pixar has tended to overshadow (though other studios, particularly Dreamworks, have done a good job in getting more fluidity and weight into the CGI style than Pixar usually gets) is to develop new toys that do the same things. The question is not whether you could do a lot of the sentimental Milt Kahl-esque animation in Paperman by hand; you could, but it wouldn’t be covered as a new development, wouldn’t impress studio executives. Kahrs’ new technique has impressed enough people and made enough noise that it may help to show that you can do that kind of animation without reverting to the “obsolete” techniques. It is, in a way, a gigantic, Rube Goldberg device for getting the old results while still working within the glamorous CGI world. And it’s most encouraging for exactly that reason. Because the only way to bring back 2D is to smuggle it in using 3D technology, and that will have to be fine with me, because the alternative is that nobody even tries to bring it back and everyone imitates Toy Story forever. Now let’s see Disney get back some of the strong animators they let go – Keane, Andreas Deja – and make a feature using this technique.