June 28, 2012 at 01:00 PM EDT

In this image from the opening of Paperman, the man and woman meet on the platform for a city train — but fate interrupts before he can muster the courage to speak to her. (Fate will attempt to correct that mistake later on.)

Disney used new in-house technology called Meander to build the world of Paperman. First the characters and backgrounds were rendered digitally, and then hand-drawn art was layered over those shapes, giving the figures a kind of 3-D quality unseen in old-school animation. “What you’re seeing is a very stylized CG layer [underneath], but the feel of the image is very flat and lives in between the two,” Kahrs says.

The Meander program, created by Disney software engineer Brian Whited, allows the 2-D hand-drawn artwork to “stick” to the dimensional CG layer underneath. “A cynic would say it’s high-tech rotoscoping,” Kahrs says, referring to an old animation technique of tracing over live-action film stills. “Really it’s more than that. It’s meant to celebrate the line, and bring it back up to the front of the image again.”

The footage in Paperman was then passed back and forth between the 2-D and CG animation teams as they fine-tuned the look of the film — often to ensure it never looked too fine-tuned. “When the line artists would find a more pleasing silhouette, or a better method of expression, we would go back and push the CG into that shape,” says producer Kristina Reed (a former DreamWorks Animation production executive on such films as Madagascar and Over the Hedge.) Other times, she adds, Kahrs would say, “‘It looks too CG right now,’ and want to knock it back.”


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