Thanks for providing us with all this info. I really appreciate it. Finally, we know what the short is about.
No problem! I'm excited to be able to pass on everyone's excitement. They did tell us to go out and tell the world about Paperman, so yes, we are free to discuss it. But I also don't want to spoil it for anyone.
The main characters are indeed humans. I would say the designs are a little more caricatured than not. You can definitely feel Glen's influence in the female character. I would say overall the two main characters are not quite so exaggerated as Rapunzel, and not quite so realistic as Flynn. They seem to land somewhere in-between. The girl is gorgeous and I want to marry her
The minor secondary characters are more heavily caricatured.
I think I was reminded of Dalmatians in part because of the male character's design - he looks somewhat like Roger. But the art direction in general is reminiscent as well - very heavy on lighting and contrast. Bold shapes and fairly angular stuff going on. Also, there's the sense that it's something new for Disney, as was Dalmatians.
As for the technique, it's quite hard to explain without showing some examples. Before they did their "behind the scenes" panel, I literally didn't know how they had done it. But I'll try to explain.
I hate to dumb the concept down this far, because it really is more impressive than this will make it sound - but the most simple explanation of the concept is that it is CG animation, with hand-drawn animation done over top of it. BUT, that has been tried before, pretty unsuccessfully. There have been many different attempts of "toon-shading" (using CG software to give the animation a 2D look or texture), and that is not what this is.
They told us the story of when they pitched the project to Lasseter. They said that, going into the pitch, they had their proof of concept as to what it was going to look like, and were very excited to show him. Lasseter was under the impression that they were simply making a CG short going in. When they told him that it would be a sort of hybrid, he was hesitant, saying "people have tried this at Siggraph before, and nothing has interested me". They said "it hadn't occurred to us to be nervous up until then - but when he said that, we all kind of felt this new pressure." So they showed him the proof of concept, and John was immediately on board.
I certainly haven't seen anything that looks like this before. Possibly the closest thing might be what they were going for with My Peoples - this may be an evolution of that idea. Like I said, a screenshot of the film would look like it was hand-drawn. It has a lot to do with how they lit the scenes. They used flat lighting - for example, half of the guy's face would be a very light grey, while the other half is in shadow, a dark grey, without a smooth transition in-between the two as is normal in most CG. The drawings were left fairly sketchy - it still has that feeling of a "drawing" intact. Then when it starts moving, it still feels like hand-drawn animation, and yet there is a solidity and dimensionality that can't be achieved with hand-drawn.
They were able to do this because of a new software they developed during production. It's extremely hard to explain. Say there are ten frames of CG animation. The traditional artist then goes over frames 1 and 10, making the "key" drawings over top of the CG, adding things like outlines, strands of hair, pupils, folds in the cloth, etc... Then, because you are drawing on top of a CG model, the computer in-betweens those lines for every frame, understanding and following where the model is on a given frame. The artist then has to tweak those frames to fix any issues with the in-betweens.
The whole short uses this technique, so there is no back-and-forth or anything like that between CG and traditional.
I should also note that they told us that the short is in 3D, but we were only shown the 2D version. Apparently the 3D is just as mind-boggling as the rest of the short.