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Interview: PAPERMAN’s Academy Award WINNING writer/director John Kahrs


I was able to sit down with (now Academy-nominated) director and writer of Disney Animation’s excellent short film, PAPERMAN during Fantastic Fest 2012. For a variety of exciting technical reasons, this interview is not going up until now. But, since he’s up for an Academy Award tonight, better late then never!


Holly: How did you think the short went over at Fantastic Fest as a part of the Drawn & Quartered shorts program? (There were technical problems with the electronic ‘key’ to download his short from the Disneybots)
John Kahrs: I think it went well. (Laughter of relief)

I know I wiped a few tears away… and could hear some sniffles.

If a film can make you feel something then … I think that is a mark of success.

When watching this, I had a couple of fleeting thoughts… I thought that if this was live-action I’d cast Zach Levi as the guy.
Kahrs: Oh really? That’s funny
I wasn’t thinking of TANGLED or anything like that… it’s just that he’s kind of a cute, nerdy gangly guy… with a bit of a schnozz and perhaps it was the first time the male character bonked his head on the side of the office wall that if it was live action, that Levi would be that guy.
Kahrs: It could be…it could be.
Was there any person or character that each of the main characters modeled after, physically?
Well, we do get a lot of comparisons to Roger from 101 DALMATIONS…and I think there’s a lot of Roger in him in terms of his body proportions, and how he holds himself… very skinny. I wanted them both to be really slender people and to feel like they are a match. But they weren’t based on any particular live-action faces. Usually when we start doing design work at Disney we start drawing from dozens and dozens and dozens of faces, and there’s so many animators , not just three guys, or even one or two… but dozens. And we start paring it down, and thinking more deeply. Digging into what you like and playing around in that sandbox with what works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot of hit-and-miss that happens with the design.


There were about some designs where he had a really weak chin. And there were 20-30 drawing where he has buggier-eyes… more like Anglo-Saxony – I guess you could call it.

I thought it would be okay if he could have a big nose. If you put breaks in it, and so forth, give it structure. It can still be really fun, and attractive. It’s not easy to do; but the designer really figured it out. To figure out the magic of that. How his jaw-line can balance that shape, how his hair works.

I think you as animators, whether traditional 2D or CGI, you have to think of those things in a way a director doesn’t, normally. When you hire an actor or actress…that package is already there. He either has a weak chin or he doesn’t. You can’t just go ‘fix that’ to them. I don’t think most people realize the level of analysis and brain-crunching power to create animation.

(Laughing) Yeah. In TANGLED, for Rapunzel there were probably 80 sub-versions of her and probably 6 major revisions of that character before we got to the final one. And trying to find that appeal can be a really elusive and a very collaborative process to find what is going to work and what isn’t. But having Glen (Keane, industry legend) work on “Meg” (the girl) – he’s kind of like a secret weapon because he can say things like “The upper lip is too long.” And immediately it’s like “Well, that’s the problem then.” He can pinpoint those things. There are other emerging talents at Disney, people who are developing those skill sets too.
Do you think with departments merging and some animation departments closed in the mid to late 1990’s – do you ask what could have been?
Like 2D at Disney?
Yes… like how FOX shut their studio down, and how things were scaled back at Disney…
Oh, the whole industry has taken this dramatic shift. I am not really a 2d vs. 3d guy, or lamenting one versus the other. I value both. And I see that a lot of what PAPERMAN is…is trying to find the best of both worlds. What PAPERMAN is, is trying to find the expressiveness of the 2D, how expressive that line can be at showing emotion and telling stories. How smooth and refined the motion can be of CGI at telling that story. I just wanted to take the strengths of both and out them together in a way that hadn’t been done before.
How hard was it to talk the powers-that-be into making that happen, money-wise?
Well, money-wise I don’t get into that …
But they are going to see those dollar-signs. You can say “But it’s going to be awesome ART!” – But they will want to know how much it will make…
I think John Lassiter and those running the studio – they’re really shifted that environment to make it a safe place. Not only to tell your story, not only giving you the patience to do that, but giving you the time to do it. I think for PAPERMAN in particular, we worked on testing, and trying to just figure out this technology and technique and all the support people involved in it. I mean, six months went by before we showed them anything.
So you were living in a cave, so to speak?
We were going, “Geez, I hope they like this.” When they saw the tests they saw it wasn’t just s cheap trick. It had depth and an appeal to it and it’s very watchable. And that’s when they gave us the go-ahead. I really credit them with building a kind of protective umbrella around the studio to let these ideas germinate and mature before stopping it. You have to fail in order to find your successes.

PAPERMAN development v.1
Will there be any behind the scenes of the making of PAPERMAN on the DVD (for Wreck-It Ralph) showing any of these weak-chinned drawings or the like?


Oh yes, I have a whole presentation for that. Tests that don’t look quite right, things that are kind of funky.
The story – how much was changed based on the animation as it was done?
Well, I wrote the original story, and I had this sort-of peer group of directors, advisors. They’re called the Brain Trust. They hit you pretty hard. They said things like “This part is weak, you need to fix It.” and Lassiter gave notes as well, when the time was right. A lot of that climactic moment when he (George) breaks out – a lot of the details and finessing of that are part of that collaborative working together.

When that second stack of paperwork gets put down in front of Him… for a moment I thought he was going to make about 400 paper airplanes and release them en masse. Was this ever thought about?
You should be in the Story Trust.

I imagined a paper airplane folding montage. I wasn’t trying to plot-read, and was enjoying it unfolding in front of me. Was that sort of thing considered or was it like; no, this is where he makes his stand?
That moment went through seven different versions. I think this one was the best one. I wanted him to feel that when he sees that last plane, it’s like he’s given up. He’s moving back to Iowa or wherever. That he has lost something… and if you don’t feel that then it’s not as satisfying to see him recover.
The scene on the train where he resists one last time (on the train, covered in determined paper airplanes) is great. The guys next to me were chuckling along with me as we watched it. Just enjoying it. How much ego-crushing happens in this process to get a piece like this done? By that I mean that you’ve got an idea, and then someone comes along and says that it’s not going to work…
No, I think it’s more that you’re trying to assess if the idea is superior or is it not? And if not, did it come from you, and how do you make it fit the story perfectly. Good ideas have a high currency. No matter what project it is. That’s where John (Lassiter), on his own films, will push back with a clear explanation as to why.

Was the size of her (unofficially known as Meg) eyes influenced by anime style? Or was she always the doe-eyed ingénue?
She was kind of that wide-eyed cutie. It was very difficult to fit baseball-sized eyes in Rapunzel’s head (for example) because if she turned to the side it looks very odd.

Like a frog-eye?MEg - Paperman

Yes…and to try and understand how the eyes fit into the skull… there’s a lot of work, and we learned a lot from that. I think you can just shift the line a little bit, it makes it more forgiving and you get a better result.
Was I right in that she was in a job interview? And was new to the city?
You were.
I asked about George (the unofficial name of the male character) – and where he got his look from. Was it modeled on Roger from 101 Dalmatians?
Actually, he was named after George Bailey from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Bailey experiences the full gamut of life, from the highest highs to the lowest lows. He’s a real guy; he gets frustrated. He’s got dreams. They playing of that character in that film (which is my #1 desert-island film) – because that guy is so relatate-able. I think he’s a very successful portrayal of a guy in a very unusual circumstance. And you can really identify with him. And I wanted you to be able to connect with this George as well.

Was there ever (originally) going to have any actual dialog or was it always meant to be like a silent film?
There was one point where we had him say one word…it was HELLO, at the end. But I decided that it was better to not have any dialog, to keep the purity of it. I mean, we went to Japan; we went to France and all these other non-English speaking countries. The way it just leaps across those boundaries is really exciting.

I mentioned the short ‘Birds on a Wire’
I took that to Italy, and it went over great. And they like that. They like to have shorts be dialog free. For that reason; the way it crosses borders so easily.
A few years ago at BNAT (Harry Knowles’ excellent birthday film-marathon) we were treated to about 45 minutes of UP that were unfinished. There will still shots and sketches and temp music and in the Q & A after, I asked Pete Doctor “Is this going to make me cry like WALL-E…? Because I was unprepared for that and didn’t bring any tissues. I need to know.” And Pete said, “Well, my wife cried.”
So I said: Good to know…bring hankies.
Kahrs: (laughs)

Is there going to be advertizing around PAPERMAN specifically, to show it is before the upcoming WRECK-IT RALPH, or just let it happen as people see it … because taking a black and white, silent 2D film around… how’s the marketing on that going to work?
I don’t know… I’m not going to worry too much about it. I think at first people won’t know what’s going on, but will get into it. I think of it as the appetizer before the main meal.

What was your inspiration to write this?
I think it was more related to me, as a young guy living in Manhattan at the beginning of my career. I used to reverse-commute through Grand Central Station every morning. And you’d sometimes make these connections with people – like your eyes would meet and you’d say ‘Okay… who is that; who are they?’ But they have a life, and all these intricacies of who they are that you’ll never know. Who they are.

You make this brief connection and then it’s gone ZZZT!

There’s energy you sense when you meet eyes with a stranger like that.

And so I thought what if these people meet like that, and there’s this connection and they’re perfect for each other and that connection was broken. How would the fates conspire to bring them together again?
Did you have a plan for Meg to find George? I mean, he’s not the aggressor, but she went on with her day, and went to her job interview… And he was the pursuer. She only takes action when she sees the plane in the flowers.
There were some versions of the story on her finding that plane (as it had flown into the window where she was) and acting on it.

Did you ever make one of those connections while you were in New York?
No, I never did. (Laughs) I showed it to someone recently and he said that those types of relationships always end in disaster. I said, “That’s good ‘because I didn’t meet my wife that way.”

So you’re good to go then. (At this point, one of the others sitting at the table with us laughs) and I said, “Oh, you must know his wife.”

Kahrs answered, “She IS my wife.” (They had different last names)

I mentioned how when I had gotten married I’d kept my maiden name and it made it convenient when I got divorced since I didn’t have to change anything.
I’ll make my next short about them getting divorced then!
That would be a great and terribly sad ‘Easter egg’ on there.

John’s wife chimed in with ‘Those darn airplanes are everywhere, George…’
Holly: And she’s all covered with paper cuts… bleeding!
Emily the publicist: That would be the Fantastic Fest version! We could turn her into a succubus, or a vampire!

I then described events they were missing by leaving the fest after their screening, highlighting the Fantastic Debates (film debates that end in the boxing ring) with Tim League (co-founder of Fantastic Fest) fighting both Michelle Rodriguez (over whether Avatar should have won Best Picture) and James Quinn McDonough (Ireland’s unlicensed bare-knuckle boxing champ (as highlighted in the documentary KNUCKLE) – they were shocked and amused over this; and delighted with descriptions of Elijah Wood fighting Dominic Monahan over whether or not World of Warcraft was a waste of time. And Dominic beat up Elijah.
Emily: How do they convince them to do this?
Well, it helps if you’re drinking. Last year (in ’11) Dr. Andy Howell (PhD Astrophysics) fought a guy named Hunter (from Mexico) who was very anti-NASA. Andy’s about 6’5 and you could see the glee in his face when he landed some blows.

Emily: That’s really funny.
Come next year, call it an educational experience. Make it a tax right-off.
Emily: Disney’s very big on continuing education and things like that…
What if you have to do an animated boxing movie, right?
John Kahrs: I might have to come down for research (laughing) and BBQ.

You can see the entire short here: as well as some behind-the-scenes bits called Paper Clips here

I am rooting for John and all of the team at Disney Animation to take the top spot in tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony tonight!

Big THANK YOU’s to Emily Thompson from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Creative Marketing & Publicity and Fantastic Fest’s Brandy Fons for making this possible.


You can find Holly on the tweety here and comment below.


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