John Kahrs, director of the Oscar-nominated Animated Short “Paperman,” credits his years at Pixar as the perfect training ground to becoming a director.
“I was working on 'Toy Story 2' (1999), watching Lee Unkrich, who was an editor at the time, cutting it together,” says Kahrs. “His focus on cutting, composition, and precision was like a film school class. I learned how something that started from such humble beginnings could become something so special.”
“Paperman” tells the story of two people who have a chance encounter in New York City, and how paper airplanes lead to their falling in love. “It goes back to when I lived in New York and was surrounded by people but was also so alone,” explains the director. “Sometimes you’d make a random connection and wonder what the rest of your life would be like with this person. I thought, what if two people met and were a formidable couple? What would bring them back together again?”
When Kahrs brought the idea to Disney and Pixar chief John Lasseter, it took some convincing to get the film made. “John always asks the question, is the world you’re creating immersive, and are you involved in that world? Or are you distracted by the technology? Once he saw that the world was indeed immersive and not distracting, he gave us the go-ahead.”
"Paperman" makes use of both traditional hand-drawn animation and computer animation. “We were combining 2D and 3D in a way not seen before. With 3D, you get fluid motion and more subtle moves; with 2D, you get a very expressive line, and you can feel the hand of the artist. It’s inevitable that computers will be used in animation, the way digital tools have invaded filmmaking, but the drawn line is still something that can tell a story and be expressive.”
Kahrs looked at many pre-war black-and-white photographs of New York for visual inspiration. “There was the visual hook of those canyon-like spaces between skyscrapers,” explains Kahr. “I wanted to capture that for the film.”
As well, Kahrs drew influence from several filmmakers, particularly Frank Capra and the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. “What I loved about the films of Capra and Powell and Pressburger was that while their films take place in the real world, there’s this mystical quality about it.” Kahrs also drew upon Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-winning film “The Apartment” (1960), a similar story of two lonely souls making a connection in New York.
Kahrs got his start working at Blue Sky before moving to Pixar in 1997, where he served as an animator on “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “Toy Story 2” (1999), “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), “The Incredibles” (2004), and “Ratatouille” (2007). With “Paperman,” he takes the directing chair for the first time and is likely to take home an Oscar for his efforts.