When it comes to animating feathers, sand, and water, the general rule—according to director Alan Barillaro—is “pick one, not all three.” But all three elements are on display in the heartwarming, shockingly realistic new short Piper, which has landed a coveted slot in front of Pixar’s highly anticipated Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory. It took three years for Barillaro to craft the six-minute short, using cutting-edge technology that could very well signal the future of the studio.
The dialogue-free film follows a baby bird as it learns to brave the shore and feed itself, making a friend or two along the way. It all started with an animation test based on the cute sandpipers Barillaro would see on his morning Bay Area runs. With encouragement from Pixar chief John Lasseter and Finding Dory director Andrew Stanton, Barillaro set about turning the visuals into a story. Barillaro has been working in Pixar’s animation department since the days of A Bug’s Life—but as part of the Pixar shorts program, he was encouraged to take “daunting” technical risks on this new short.
“We had to come up with new techniques across the board to solve feathers,” he says, invoking the technology Pixar created to capture the flaming, bouncing curls of the heroine Merida in 2012’s Brave. “The more we studied birds, it was apparent that all of the appeal required being in control of the feathers.”
That study involved four early morning field trips from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters to the foggy sands of Muir Beach, where even Canadian-born Barillaro was shocked to learn how freezing cold Northern California beaches can be. But getting the environment just right was key for Barillaro. As the filmmaker proudly points out, the hermit crab who befriends the baby sandpiper was inspired by real crabs he and his kids found on the beach. “Those are actually shells that I went down and found with my kids,” Barillaro says. “That beautiful orange color was something we found in nature. We didn’t take the shells because I was telling my kids, ‘We don’t take shells from the beach,’ but I definitely got my photo reference right.”
Though lovably cartoonish, Finding Dory embraces human gestures—octopus tentacles become nonchalant elbows, fins become contemplative fingers. But Barillaro bent over backwards to avoid anthropomorphizing his creatures in Piper. “I put it on the crew to avoid hand gestures and things like that,” he says, instead asking them to find more believably non-human ways for the short’s characters to express themselves.
For months Barillaro followed migration tides and studied plovers, sandpipers, and sanderlings up and down the California coast, visiting the aviary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (the inspiration for Finding Dory’s setting) to make sure every detail was right. “That’s all John [Lasseter] instilling in us that you have to go and get your research.”
In addition to final character designs that were more realistic than the short’s early, cartoonish sketches, Barillaro added faux lenses to give Piper the illusion of a nature documentary. “You want to develop the lenses that we use at Pixar and the kind of expression you can have with CG animation [to make it] similar to live action,” Barillaro says, explaining that zooms and moments of focus give the short an added dash of realism. “I really loved the macro photography,” Barillaro continues, “and wanted to see that pushed further.” Because Piper was developed at the same time as Finding Dory, Barillaro was able to borrow some of the costlier feature’s technological advances. “We probably took advantage of them more than they took advantage of us,” he confesses.
The Pixar shorts program was originally intended as an avenue to push the boundaries of software, part of research and development at Lucasfilm; Lasseter himself directed four out of the company’s five original shorts. But today, the shorts are also used as a testing ground for new talent. Mark Andrews graduated from the Oscar-nominated short One Man Band to direct the feature-length Brave. Directors and projects are often plucked from the stable of existing Pixar talent, as in Barillaro’s case. But developing technology is still a key component of these films—so don’t be surprised if a few years down the road, the realistic feathers and sea foam of Piper make their way into a longer feature.
After working on several of Pixar’s most famous films, the director knew to draw inspiration from the studio’s past. The script for Piper consists entirely of chirps, rather than dialogue—a nod to one of the studio’s biggest artistic leaps. “I’ll never forget being in [Andrew Stanton’s] office and him handing me the script for Wall-E, and reading act one and seeing there’s no dialogue,” Barillaro says. “Not that I’d compare this to Wall-E at all, but it gave me confidence to tackle something like Piper.”
Whenever Barillaro was tempted to give up on his commitment to realism, it was John Lasseter who put him back on course. “There were times where I said, ‘A line of dialogue could really save me here,’ and I remember a specific moment where I had chosen a human gesture and John said, ‘Oh no, keep digging for the harder thing.’ That’s the mentorship I’ve appreciated through this project.” Barillaro says that Pixar’s daily meetings—in which everyone shows what they’ve been working on—are crucial to the company’s success. “You’re trying to make your peers laugh and yourself laugh and your family laugh, and if you get that, you hope there’s something honest there that audiences will relate to. It’s like, ‘Hey, I made John giggle. I feel set.’”
Barillaro’s three kids were also tough critics of Piper, all six minutes of it. “They let me know, ‘I don’t like that one. I don’t like that character at all.’” They especially didn’t like a moment, halfway through the short, where it looks like the fluffy baby bird might be in real danger. But, in this case, Barillaro was right to ignore his family: “I felt like it was important, that little bit of fear and worry. I just wanted the audience’s imagination to go farther than I ever would.” That sequence—which mirrors some of Finding Dory’s themes about the dangers of the ocean—was received with audible gasps in my screening.
In fact, the whole short went over like gangbusters—and, given Pixar’s track record with snagging Academy Award nominations, Piper might be a safe bet in the best-animated-short category. (Consider one of the most famously challenging sections on your annual Oscar ballot a lock.) But pleased as he is with Piper’s warm reception, Barillaro doesn’t even want to talk about awards season. “All of that, and the Oscar buzz, is nothing I focus on,” he says. Instead, Barillaro is planning to take a nice, big vacation—though not where you’d expect.
“I don’t think I’ll go near a beach,” he laughs. “Everyone in the crew took breaks in the mountains. I wonder why. Take a little break from staring at waves.”
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