Disney's poster for "Paperman" ©Disney
Disney’s poster for “Paperman” ©Disney

Our thanks to Master Cat! Tom Reed, who has the Academy Awards® on his mind… and ours. The last time Tom was our guest, he broke down Best Picture winner Argo, which we’re now making available as a nifty pdf download for you. Tom’s keen mind is once again at work for Paperman, which won the Oscar® for Best Short Film — Animated.

Director: John Kahrs

Writers: Clio Chiang (story), Kendelle Hoyer  (story)

Genre: OUT OF THE BOTTLE meets BUDDY LOVE when boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy finally gets girl through heroic paper-airplane making and a magical wind that’s rooting for love.


Another undisputed classic from Disney that earned its Oscar® and can proudly join the pantheon of animated shorts. Let’s take a closer look at its charismatic character design, evocative retro-urban backgrounds, dynamic interplay of light and shadow, whimsical tone, and of course a superb story that hits all the beats of the BS2 in a masterful 6:30 mins/secs.

Prologue – Opening Image (0:00 – 0:35)

A MAN, our hero, stands on a commuter train platform. Suit. Tie. File folder. Mid-twenties. But his frozen expression makes him seem older; prematurely gray. It’s no accident he wears a gray suit and the film’s palette is black and white. Is he lonely? Unfulfilled? Directionless? Falling short? Whatever it is you can practically smell the stasis = death. And it’s all conveyed in seconds. Economy rocks.

A train rushes by and a SHEET OF PAPER grabbed by the train’s backwash blows up against our hero’s shoulder, then past him.

A WOMAN, also mid-twenties, retrieves the paper. She places it inside her own file folder and stands next to the man.

Prologue – Theme Stated (0:30 – 0:35)

A moment of nervous anticipation, a tableau of a man and a woman side by side, facing in the same direction holding their matching file folders, together but separate. It’s a simple visual statement about the potential of a relationship. An inherent dramatic question looms: will they overcome this stasis? Not without some help.

Prologue – Catalyst (0:35 – 1:08)

Another train rushes past and pulls a SHEET OF PAPER from our hero’s file folder sending it SMACKING onto the woman’s face. This is a “kiss” of sorts, initiated not by the man but by the wind, the same wind that brought her paper to him. Both of these incidents foreshadow a “PLAYFUL WIND” as an instigative, creative force, though for now it appears logically motivated by the trains. The man peels the paper off her face and she smiles when she notices her LIPSTICK MARK on it. He laughs when he sees it, but by then the woman has boarded the train. He watches as she turns back and smiles a sad “what might have been” smile. C’est la vie.

But his sadness appears deeper than hers as he watches the train pull away, his lipstick paper flapping goodbye in the breeze. Having just met and not knowing how to find her again, it’s clear he thinks this is the end of their story.

Main Story – Set Up (1:09 – 1:25)

We see our hero at work, in a high-rise office, sitting at his desk staring at the paper with the lipstick mark on it, a symbol of his unfulfilled longing. We see details of his context, an amplification of the opening image and the Six Things That Need Fixing: he works in a room crowded with rows of desks manned by nearly identical middle-aged men wearing the same dark pants, white shirts, and suspenders — sorting through high stacks of paper forms on their desks. Endless meaningless papers. PAPERMEN. He’s the youngest by far but it’s easy to see how he might soon look indistinguishable from them. A worrisome thought.

THE BOSSMAN, an imposing, humorless square-jaw plops down a stack of papers on our hero’s desk, directly on top of his lipstick paper, work threatening to bury dreams. A playful wind tugs at the lipstick paper and almost sucks it out the window but our hero catches it just in time. A casual glance at the high rise across the street reveals, visible through the open window in the office directly opposite his own, –

Catalyst (1:26 – 1:38)

— the woman! The woman from the platform! She’s shaking someone’s hand then sits down, attentive. A job interview? Whatever it is, looks like she won’t be there for long.

Our hero, spurred by this discovery (a discovery that might not have happened had it not been for the “catalytic” wind) waves his arms frantically trying to get her attention, but she doesn’t see him.

Debate (1:39 – 1:46)

The Bossman in his corner office looks on disapprovingly. Message clear: no arm waving here. Our hero will have to adopt a more subtle approach. He looks around, from his lipstick paper to his stack of papers and gets an idea.

Break into Two (1:47 – 1:55)

Act II is always the first tangible step on the hero’s “creative journey,” and here it’s a foray into paper airplane making. The man uses his paper forms, the symbol of his daily drudgery, as an instrument of connection, his Cupid’s Arrow, to try and reach the girl across the way. That’s not only creative, it’s a Transformation.

B Story

This is a love story so the B Story is the object of our incomplete hero’s desire – the woman – and the complication is everything that gets in the way of their reconnecting. There’ll be plenty.

Fun & Games (1:48 – 2:56)

Our hero’s first paper airplane glides off his hand and then plummets to the street, a spectacular failure. But he has more raw material, the large stack of papers on his desk, so he makes another one. This is nearly a spectacular success as it sails across the gulf at the perfect elevation and trajectory, but misses the targeted window by only a few inches. He makes another one but is interrupted by the Bossman who shuts the window and crosses back to his office, eyeballing him to get back to work. Does this dissuade our hero? Not a chance.

Another paper airplane flies across, this one making it into a window, but alas, the wrong one. The next one looks on track until it’s inadvertently intercepted by some birds. WTF? The man sends another, then another, and another, and another, and the one after that actually makes it through the correct window but noiselessly crosses behind the woman and falls into the wastepaper basket in the corner. Watching all the different ways in which attempted romantic paper airplane messaging can be thwarted is the Fun & Games and the Promise of the Premise of Paperman, and it’s all done with maximum cleverness and incredibly dynamic visual energy – plunging and opposing verticals aplenty.

Several more airplanes in quick succession fail to find their mark until our hero reaches for his now exhausted stack of papers, accidentally knocking his document basket to the floor. All work stops, all eyes on our hero, a humiliating public display. In a wonderful comic beat, the worker sitting nearest moves his own stack of papers an inch closer to himself, an inch further away from the mad paper airplane maker. But our hero has bigger problems than a depleted stack of forms or what his co-workers may think of him. As Blake says, at the Midpoint stakes are raised and the hero squeezed.

Midpoint (2:57 – 3:14)

Across the way the woman stands, about to leave, the window of opportunity literally closing (time clock appearing). Our hero sees one more form on his desk (stirred, of course, by the playful wind): the lipstick paper, his talisman. Can he bear to part with it? Under the circumstances, yes. He quickly fashions it into an airplane, his last attempt. He gathers himself at the window but before he’s ready the playful wind (the confounded wind!) pulls it from his grasp and it tumbles uselessly into the abyss just as the woman exits the office.

Bad Guys Close In (3:15 – 3:35)

Bossman emerges from his corner office and every worker instantly and uniformly returns to his work, his forms, his papers: the price of soul-squelching office conformity. Bossman has a new stack of forms for our hero which he deposits onto his desk. Our hero sits, seemingly engulfed by these documents. In a close up we see how his head emerges from behind the stack as if the papers themselves were his body. Is this what he is destined to become – a disembodied head sticking out of a stack of papers? Not on your life!

More Fun & Games (3:36 – 3:37)

As I have contended several times in the past here at STC!, the most satisfying stories often have a beat right here where the hero demonstrates a new-found resourcefulness, or significantly steps up to the plate, or shows the audience what they do best. I call it More Fun & Games. In all cases it’s an uptick in emotion and a positive demonstration of character growth. We even find it in shorts lasting less than seven minutes, if the shorts are as good as this one. Here we have a major revelation and decision: our hero will not be ruled by fear, and he will risk his job (and as we’ll see, his life) to find the woman of his dreams. So he runs out, scattering the stack of papers on his desk across the room – newly empowered to create his own playful wind, at least for the moment.

All Is Lost (3:38 – 4:03)

We see the woman turn the corner just as our hero exits the revolving door of his building. In a death-defying demonstration of full commitment to purpose, he races across traffic, miraculously surviving, only to discover that he’s too late – the woman is nowhere to be found. All that’s left is her signifier, the lipstick-adorned paper airplane, mockingly resting atop a mailbox. He hurls it into the sky as hard as he can and tromps off down the street. If this were a Peanuts cartoon, he’d have a thought bubble over his head filled with an angry vicious squiggle.

Dark Night of the Soul (4:04 – 4:20)

We follow the paper airplane as it sails across the city, and as viewers we wonder, we hope, that it might somehow reach the girl. But this hope is dashed when it falls into a deep, dark, narrow alleyway, its purpose stymied by an apparently indifferent universe. This beat is the realization of the hero’s (and the audience’s) worst fears. I call it The Promise of the Worst Case Scenario.

Break into Three (4:21 – 4:41)

But after a couple beats of stasis the airplane is aroused by a breeze which turns into a playful wind that bears the airplane aloft. And suddenly all the other paper airplanes stranded in the alley (and there are hundreds) are similarly borne upward, and soon they’re cavorting together, all lined up behind their lipstick-marked leader who guides them into a swirling vortex of flitting sharp triangles just as a shadow passes the alley – the shadow of our hero trudging by, still consumed by his Dark Night.

Five-Point Finale (4:42 – 5:48)

Up until now there has been nothing overtly magical about the playful wind; all events thus far could be explained by natural forces. But not now, not anymore. Now the genre is clear: we have entered the realm of fantasy where wind has sentience, and purpose, and is squarely on the side of romance. The paper airplanes, and the audience, are now fully Out of the Bottle. It is wish-fulfillment fantasy come true and Transformation writ large.

As our hero gloomily marches past, the paper airplanes emerge from the alley and follow along jauntily, a Team Fully Gathered. They affix themselves to our hero, who is so consumed by his dark cloud of disappointment that he swats them away like they’re exasperating flies. But they have a mission and possess indomitable strength and force him, in another humiliating (and death-defying) public display, across the street through heavy traffic towards just what we’re not yet sure.

Then the lipstick-marked leader airplane zooms across town, Executing The Plan: find the girl! She’s admiring flowers at a flower stand (deserving of the romantic intervention, wouldn’t you say?), and once it gets her attention it flies off again. Intrigued, she follows, almost dancing along behind.

We don’t have a High Tower Surprise, and there’s no Dig Deep Down or New Plan. There’s no need for any of it because the world of magic is firmly in charge. What we have instead is an emphasis on convergence and synthesis, which is what, according to Blake, all great endings are about anyway. We intercut the two lovers-to-be as they’re each brought to a different railway station, onto a different commuter train, both unknowingly directed towards their inevitable rendezvous. While we’re with our hero there’s a deliciously Fun & Gamesy flourish: the classic film that this most resembles, or at least the one it is most inspired by, is the 1956 classic short The Red Balloon. And as our hero sits in his commuter train, pinned to his seat by the relentless paper airplanes, there is a boy sitting nearby holding a red balloon. Well, it’s a black and white film so it’s impossible to say exactly what color the balloon is, but I’d bet the farm it’s intended to be red. It’s a great touch. Of course, the boy’s mother pulls him away from the mad paper airplane maker bedeviled by his own creations, which is another humiliating public display. A high-angle shot from above shows the two commuter trains arriving at the same station at the same time from opposite directions, a convergence/synthesis in one powerful image.

Final Image (5:49 – 6:08)

Our heroine steps out of her train first, back on the very platform where the story began. She holds the lipstick leader, that is, the paper airplane with her pucker mark on it, in her hands and bounces it in her hands to see if it might fly again and tell her what to do next. Just then a last playful wind blows hundreds of paper airplanes past her. She turns to find our hero staring at her, now able to shake away the bedeviling (or angelic?) paper planes. She steps towards him. He steps towards her. Like the opening image, they share the same frame, but now instead of facing in the same direction – outward towards us – they face each other. Now they can meet. It turns out the universe is not at all indifferent to young love.

AfterImages (6:09 – 6:28)

During the final credits we see still shots of our two lovers sitting at a coffee shop, the lipstick leader on the counter between them as they talk, laugh, connect. It all looks very promising. Their images fade out leaving only the lipstick leader – the paper airplane with the pucker mark, the talisman. When the credits end it somersaults and flies out of frame the now black frame. This is an homage, too. An homage to Tinkerbell. F&G! You Disney guys? You guys rock.

Final Comments

Can you tell I loved this? And not just because I got to apply the BS2 and see how this conformed to the template exactly, but also because of the absolute mastery of the filmmaking – the framing, composition, production design, editing, lighting effects, character animation, everything. It’s all superlative. Of special note is the expressive sun and shade, all the way through but particularly in the final sequence where the commuter trains are streaking through the pulsating afternoon light. That can only be fully appreciated by watching it in slow motion, something I highly recommend doing for all you film lovers. We might not all be pleased with every Oscar® outcome, but at least in this case I can confidently assert that the best film won.

Logline (in case you need it)

A lonely office drone who processes paper forms all day spots the girl that sparked his interest earlier in the day improbably sitting in an office in the building next door. He tries to get her attention by sending paper airplanes in her direction, all attempts failing. But then the airplanes, animated by a benevolent wind, take the initiative and reunite the couple in a breathless, playful dance that ends on the train platform where they first met that morning.