A young accountant named George is standing on an elevated train platform in 1940s New York City, holding a folder, when he is hit by a flying piece of paper. The paper is chased by a young woman named Meg who lost it to a gust of wind from a passing train. The same thing happens to George when a subsequent gust of wind from another incoming train dislodges one of the papers from his folder and blows it into Meg's face, leaving a lipstick-smudged kiss imprinted on the paper, much to her amusement when George retrieves it. He is entranced by the lipstick mark and Meg's beauty, and therefore misses her boarding the departing train. The two exchange looks as she departs.
George arrives at work, despondent, gazing at the lipstick-marked paper on his desk. He looks out the window and is surprised to find Meg in the building across the street, working in an office with an open window. After failing to get her attention by waving his arms, George begins folding airplanes from a stack of papers on his desk, throwing them out the window one by one in an attempt to get her to notice him. Unfortunately, his efforts are met with varying levels of failure, as well as disparaging looks from his boss. In desperation, having used all of the paper on his desk to no success, he uses the lipstick-marked paper, although this fails as well when a gust of wind tugs it from his hands. Meg then leaves the office, and George, rebuffing his boss, dashes from his desk. Rushing across a street of busy traffic, he fails to see which way she went, and only finds the final lipstick-marked paper airplane. Angered, he throws it hard and it soars into the sky.
It turns out many of the paper airplanes have collected in a nearby alley, and when the lipstick-marked paper airplane lands among them, they begin to stir and fly from the ground, seeming to come alive, and set off in pursuit of George. A cloud of paper airplanes forces him toward a nearby train station and onto a train, much to his confusion. Meanwhile, the lipstick-marked paper airplane sets off in pursuit of Meg, finding her at a flower stand. Recognizing the lipstick-marked paper, she chases the airplane to another train station and aboard a different train. They're finally brought together when both of their trains stop at the same station; George still covered in paper airplanes and Meg holding his lipstick-marked paper airplane. As the credits roll, they are seen chatting happily with each other at a restaurant table with the lipstick marked paper between them.John Kahrs as George
Kari Wahlgren as Meg
In an interview with Animation World Network, director John Kahrs revealed that Paperman first materialized when he was working as an animator at Blue Sky Studios during the 1990s. Kahrs conceived Paperman while he was traveling on his routine commute through Grand Central Station, where he was inspired by "the random connections you sometimes make with people" on these excursions. As a result, he created a story about "a guy who makes a connection with this girl on his long commute", elaborating, "The story really is about what happens when he tries to get her back and make that connection again." Describing Paperman as an "urban fairytale", Kahrs pitched the idea as an animated short to Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter and Walt Disney Animation Studios several times. However, the studio refused to develop the project because they were pre-occupied with Tangled (2010), on which Kahrs also worked. It wasn't until after Tangled was completed that Disney, who was searching for a project that would "fill the space between" Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, that Paperman was finally green-lit.
Kahrs developed the story on storyboards and wrote the original draft of Paperman. However, he admitted that the writing was really a collaborative process because he constantly received creative input from a "peer group of directors". Lasseter, who served as an executive producer on the film, also made frequent contributions. The main character, George, was inspired by George Bailey from the film It's A Wonderful Life (1946). According to Kahrs, Bailey, like George, "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."
While searching for a "way to merge 2D and 3D" animation, Kahrs discovered Meander, "a hybrid vector/raster-based drawing and animation system that gives artists an interactive way to craft the film".
The character design of Paperman has been likened to that of Disney's traditionally animated film, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Several comparisons have been drawn between the characters George from Paperman and Roger from 101 Dalmatians, specifically the fact that they both share similar body types. George's appearance underwent several alterations. However, Kahrs always intended for the character to have a rather large nose. "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." Longtime Disney animator Glen Keane worked on George's love interest, Meg. According to Kahrs, both Paperman characters George and Meg were intentionally drawn to complement and match each other's designs.
Paperman is considered "a hybrid of both 2D and 3D technology". When describing the inspiration for the film's unique style of animation, which was created with a new in-house technology called Meander, Kahrs stated, "We brought together as best we could the expressiveness of 2D drawing immersed with the stability and dimensionality of CG. It really goes back to working with Glen Keane on Tangled, watching him draw over all the images."
The technique, called "final line advection", gives the artists and animators a lot more influence and control over the final product as everything is done within the same department; "In Paperman, we didn’t have a cloth department and we didn’t have a hair department. Here, folds in the fabric, hair silhouettes and the like come from the committed design decision-making that comes with the 2D drawn process. Our animators can change things, actually erase away the CG underlayer if they want, and change the profile of the arm. And they can design all the fabric in that Milt Kahl kind-of way, if they want to."
In an interview with her school's alumni association, Kari Wahlgren, who voiced Meg, said that she was asked to do the role because of her previous involvements in Bolt and Tangled. Recording for her role in the film took about 30 minutes. She said "Since the film is mostly silent, they just wanted some vocal 'ambiance' that they could experiment with. We played with lots of different vocal reactions in the session: snorts, gasps, breaths... I think one chuckle made it into the final mix. I'm actually glad they kept it mostly silent—I think it makes the short even more powerful that way."
The short film premiered at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June 2012. The short accompanied the theatrical release of Wreck-It Ralph, which was released on November 2, 2012. Christophe Beck's score was released digitally by Walt Disney Records on December 18, 2012. The complete short was released on YouTube on January 29, 2013, but is currently private. It was later released on Hulu.
After being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, Paperman was released along with all the other fifteen Oscar-nominated short films in theaters by ShortsHD.
Paperman made its home media debut on the Blu-ray and DVD releases of Wreck-It Ralph on March 5, 2013. Paperman was also released on the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection Blu-ray on August 18, 2015.
Film critic Jeff Shannon, writing for Roger Ebert, called the short "brilliant from start to finish" writing that the film proved "yet again that traditional 2-D animation is every bit as expressive as computer-generated 3-D". Leonard Maltin called the short an "amusing and ingenious love story" noting that it was "perfection itself".
There is some discussion regarding some similarities in the storyline and concept of Paperman and Patrick Hughes' 2008 short film, Signs. But Hughes himself dismissed the idea of copying, saying "There are similarities, but I really admire the short, I think it's beautiful. Every piece of work I've ever done, I've had someone say the same things about me."
Paperman was nominated and won both an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 85th Academy Awards and the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject at the 40th Annie Awards. It was the first Disney short to win an Oscar in that category since 1969.