Sunday, 3 March 2013

What Disney's Paperman Taught Me About Story

The Oscars have been and gone, with plenty of worthy winners and notable moments. Jennifer Lawrence has earned a place in many people's hearts after her little trip on the way to the podium (though for me her reaction to meeting Jack Nicholson was the highlight of the night). But rather than run through the films that got nominated and those that won, I want to cover just one: Disney's Paperman, which won the best animated short award.

I posted this on my Tumblr because of the animation, as this is Disney's vehicle to reveal a new animation technique, that joins up traditional hand drawing style with digital, computer imagery. (Originally I linked to the official full version but post-Oscar win Disney have pulled it, no doubt to use it as a selling point of a future DVD/Blu-ray release. Shame, as it is a great animation and it was wonderful for it to be available in the public domain. C'est la vie.)

This is a fantastic short to study for storytelling tips too. The more I watched it the more I found, as the techniques are subtle and are only noticeable if you make a point of seeing them. So here are some things that Paperman has taught me about story:

1. Keep it simple

The whole film is under seven minutes, and yet feels like a complete story with real depth. Short stories can easily suffer from being a vignette of a bigger tale, but here we see a small moment from two people's lives that makes up a whole story in and of itself. It's kept simple and to the point - no unnecessary scenes, just the moments you have to see.

2. Facial/bodily expression says more than words

In the keep it simple vein, there's no dialogue - but then there doesn't have to be. The expressions on the characters faces say it all, whether it's the goofy grin of the "Paperman" himself, the half smile and turn of the female love interest as she moves away, or the scowl of the boss, everyones feelings are on their sleeves. And there's another thing: you can tell who everyone is simply by what they're wearing or how they're acting. No lengthy exposition here - just small details used to create the characters and their role in the story.

3. Dialogue is overrated

Dialogue can be a wonderful thing, when done right, but it isn't always needed. Here we have a complete story without a single word spoken. As above, the physicality of the characters and the world around them does all the talking, so no dialogue is necessary. This is something I could really work on as my stories seem to start out packed with dialogue - and most of it is useless. Better to show, then tell. (And in the case of film, it means the story can be understood by anyone, with no language barrier.)

4. A little bit of magic makes a great device

One of the things I adore about this short is that there's magic in it but only as much as we need for the story to progress. But the overall effect is one of a "magical" story, even though it only takes up the last two minutes of the film. It wraps it up, and brings us to the happy ending, but in a way we may not have seen coming. We know the paper planes will be relevant, but how are they going to help? Magic is a great device in stories, but again a little is probably better than a lot - too much of it can make it feel no different than electricity or gravity: something we take for granted.

5. Timeless themes work best

Last but not least, "Paperman" is pulled together by strong and timeless themes running through it. We have the classic boy meets girl theme, seen in so many films, TV and books that it's impossible to imagine a world without it. Then there's the more subtle theme about defying authority, rebelling to achieve what you want to achieve. Almost all the men working in the office are old and balding: they never fought their fate and are now bound in it forever. The main character is faced with a choice when his boss presents him with another pile of papers - stay and become the men around him, or run and fight for what he wants. I actually think this latter theme is even more important than the main story arc of meeting the one you love, and is ultimately what makes this short so powerful.

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