John Kahrs

by Stephan Wilkinson

This article appeared in the June 2005 Falco Builders Letter.

Cornwall, New York, where I live, is a small, insular town. Slightly beyond the highest bathtub ring washed up by bustling Manhattan commuters, just beyond the dismaying tide of bedroom communities, we’re a town of New York City cops and firemen who can’t afford to live in suburbia, a couple of famous Army officers because we’re only five miles from West Point, and a whole lot of locals for whom “going to the City” means a trip to Poughkeepsie. (Popeye Doyle threatened the bad guys in The French Connection by asking them if they picked their feet in Poughkeepsie. I never did know what he meant.) The sole local of note, actor Armand Assante, grew up and went to school here. I’ve only been to the Assante family manse as a volunteer ambulance driver; Armand’s mother is frail.

But I met Carl Ludwig almost 25 years ago, here in Cornwall, and he had just finished writing much of the software that made possible the filming of the world’s first fully computer-animated feature, Tron. Nobody then knew what “computer animation” was, least of all me, but Carl and I hit it off immediately. He had a nicely restored Beech T-34 in Air Force trainer colors, as well as an early-1970s lightweight Porsche 911E that he’d owned since it was new. Our interests—airplanes and Porsches—neatly dovetailed.

Carl went on, a couple of decades later, to buy and reassemble for flight a two-seat Czech L-39 Albatros jet trainer. It is today perhaps the nicest L-39 in the country, painted in the rare camouflage colors of the Royal Thai Air Force, which operated L-39s as fighter-bombers. I gave Carl some minor help in putting the L-39 back together and got to fly it a bit, but one of the nicest things Carl ever did for me was to say, “You know, you ought to meet your young neighbor John Kahrs. He’s a sailplane pilot, but he’s fascinated by the thought of someday building a kitplane.”

Ludwig had by that time moved to nearby Westchester County, but he had hired John Kahrs to come work at his boutique film-animation firm, Blue Sky Studios. (Blue Sky did the fantastic film Ice Age, another milestone of computer animation, thanks in large part to Ludwig’s code.) John and I simultaneously looked each other up, and it turned out that he and our daughter Brook had gone to Cornwall High School if not together at least only 11 years apart. Brook is today 26, John Kahrs 37.

Kahrs had no idea what a Falco was, but I took him flying in N747SW one day, we became friends and mutual admirers (I’m proud to say), and today, John is a Falco builder at least in part because of that simple fun flight over the Hudson River Valley.

But that is only the superficial part of the story. As is true of so many Falco builders, Kahrs is an enormously but quietly talented person whose accomplishments should make people in Cornwall say, “Oh, yes, Armand Assante and John Kahrs are both from my town.” But of course they don’t, because they aren’t even aware that John Kahrs is one of the most highly regarded and talented animators (most likely soon to be a director as well) of computer-animated films.

Kahrs has been doing animation since he was a teenager, in those days with flip-page moving-image booklets he laboriously drew. Sad to say, Cornwall High School, more interested in students who grew up coloring inside the lines, never appreciated what a talent they had among their students. Kahrs wasn’t very happy there.

But he is now. Have you seen Pixar Studio’s The Incredibles? It’s a comic-book story but probably the most technologically advanced animated feature ever filmed. Kahrs was a lead character-development animator on that very successful film, and if you go to Blockbuster and rent the DVD, you’ll see John interviewed on the added-attractions disk. And in the film, pay attention to “the Learjet sequence”—you’ll know it when you see it—because it’s a major sequence that John animated and of which he is particularly proud.

Such reticence is characteristic of many Falco builders. Alfred Scott recently commented, “I never knew that Joel Shankle was an Olympic silver medalist until somebody told me.” Pixar, founded by Apple’s Steve Jobs, is arguably the world’s most imaginative and creative film-animation studio. A couple of years ago, at a party in Big Sur, I met John Lasseter, the animation genius who is essentially Pixar’s creative director.

“I know a guy who works for you,” I said to Lasseter. “John Kahrs,” thinking Lasseter might politely pretend to recall the name.

I might as well have said I was Steve Jobs’ brother-in-law. “Ohmygod, John is the best,” Lasseter said. “What a talent!”

John was solely a sailplane pilot when I let him fly my Falco, and he today admits that he was baffled by my insisting that he use right rudder on climbout. Whatever for? Today, he’s on the verge of getting his single-engine rating and has meanwhile become an increasingly serious sailplane pilot. He owns and flies a German-designed, Czech-built, carbon-fiber Discus CS—a generation ago the Porsche Carrera GT of sailplanes—and at one point traveled to the factory in the Czech Republic to watch it being built.

Kahrs is a little embarrassed to admit that he’s still working on the tail surfaces of his Falco, a task recently made even more challenging by the fact that a bunch of lumber fell onto it from the rafters of his workshop and crushed the stabilizer spar. “It sometimes seems like everyone else is finished. They’re all done building their Falcos. They’re flying,” John says today. “I think I’m the only guy still working on the tail, and I just wish there was one other builder who was in my position.”

People! Help this man. I know you’re out there, you of the barely skinned elevator. You who still unroll the plans on the living-room floor nightly but are still debating the next step. You who (like me) built the $1.98 trim-tab control wheel kit and figured that you were halfway to flight. C’mon builders, John Kahrs needs to know he’s not alone.