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The Captivating Magic of Pixar’s Newest Short ‘Piper’

Director Alan Barillaro and producer Marc Sondheimer discuss their charming, funny and gorgeous new animated short film playing in front of the studio’s latest box office smash, ‘Finding Dory.’

It’s easy to be nonchalant when discussing Pixar’s success as an animation studio. Their ability to churn out exceptional films, measured both critically and by box office gold, almost seems like a fait accompli – though we know better, we just can’t help but think, “Well, duh, of course [pick your film] was great. It’s Pixar. What did you expect?” The phenomenal success of the just released Finding Dory provides further evidence, as if any is needed, that the studio is dialed into what audiences around the world are looking for when it comes to animated entertainment.

And when it comes to Pixar shorts, their two-decade parade of stellar films is every bit as amazing an accomplishment, so much so that it’s even easier to casually assume each piece will be some cool new gem, every bit as good, or better, than the previous short. Because, well, each new short is indeed as good or better than the ones that came before it. Some say this embarrassment of shorts riches is the best work the studio does. Who am I to argue.

Now enter Alan Barillaro, Marc Sondheimer and their new animated short, Piper. By all casual observances, the film’s charm, humor and gentle story are vintage Pixar. It’s the type short we’ve come to expect from the folks in Emeryville, those cute little films they keep pumping out that play in front of their big animated features. But upon closer inspection, Piper is more than just a “cute little diddy” of a film, as I sometimes call them. Conceived from tests done to create more painterly CG animation tools, Piper is not your usual Pixar short – neither pitched nor sandwiched into production between features, Barillaro’s Piper took time, over three years, to find it’s tone, it’s story and it’s “bird’s eye” perspective (sorry) that so beautifully captures up close and personal the fears and triumphs of a little sandpiper chick.

At the two recent Pixar junkets I attended, the buzz on Piper was as palpable and every bit as strong as the buzz on Dory.  From the first work in progress screening I attended up in Monterey Bay, I knew immediately this film was something uniquely special, in ways I couldn’t quite and still can’t quite describe. Suffice to say, the film is – ho hum, how hard is it to imagine – another in a long line of exceptional Pixar shorts. And then some.

Talking to Barillaro and Sondheim helped me better understand just how special this film really is, in ways not seen before in one of the studio’s previous shorts. For starters, I was sure, if only for a brief moment, the film’s setting was a real beach, and that somehow, the filmmakers were integrating their animated magic into a live-action setting. But the film is so much more than just a shiny example of stylized photorealistic animated filmmaking. The camera perspective, the lighting, the intimacy of the visual and narrative perspective all give Piper a fresh and inviting look that just feels very, very different. Like you’re just lying in the cool wet sand watching the story unfold right in front of you.

Throw in some innovative music by legendary guitar maestro Adrian Belew, a bold choice to score a Pixar film, and you have something, like one of the musician’s unique cacophonous riffs on “Indiscipline,” “Thela Hun Ginjeet” or “Elephant Talk,” you know you’ve never heard or seen before.

Dan Sarto: I have to congratulate you on this short. It’s an exceptional film. It’s not just a wonderful looking film. The narrative is so tight - I didn’t feel there was a single wasted frame.

Alan Barillaro: Thank you. That's very kind.

DS: The timing is just impeccable. We’ll dig into the lighting in a moment. But first, why don't you tell me where the story came from. Did you pitch this film in the usual Pixar shorts pitch process? How did this film get its start?

AB: Absolutely abnormal. [The film’s development was] Not in our normal structure at all, in the traditional way. Instead of pitching, it sprang from development, from a test. I had done a character test of a little sandpiper afraid of the water while I was exploring some technology development. I showed it to Andrew Stanton, who saw that I was picking away at a story. He said, "Keep going. I want you to work on that. You have something there." It was all his encouragement. The moment we then showed it to John [Lasseter]…I have no idea to this day how I'm so lucky to have John say, "Yeah, absolutely. Keep working on this." It's really a testament to the mentorship of those two directors and how much I've learned from them in the process. That's the genesis. It was a test that moved into storyboarding. I just tried to put as much as I could into it and tell the best story I could.

DS: What specifically were you testing?

AB: I was testing a sculpting tool. What I mean by that is computer tools are getting more and more visual. I want to see it go all the way. The computer is just a tool. It does nothing for you until you pick it up and start driving it artistically. To me, everything in computer technology is about giving the artist the same quickness and ability as a pencil. They pick it up and they express themselves as soon as possible. The more the technology is hidden at Pixar, we feel the more expressive the art will be.

I grabbed the wise woman’s crow model from the film Brave and started shaping it into a sandpiper. I just did a little test. It was just to say as an artist, "That's how quick it should be. You should be able to shape something really quickly, express yourself, throw it at an idea and not have to go to any other departments." That's how artists should talk to each other visually.

Marc Sondheimer: Normally, you'd have to talk to the characters department, get a designer to model and then create a rig…all those things.

AB: I love the spontaneity of traditional animation, which is my background. That’s the creative aspect that I want to see come more into CG. So that was the tone from the start. I have to be honest, I love that about our shorts program and where shorts came from at Pixar. Who John Lasseter even is. It wasn't a hard pitch to say, "I just want to take some risks in innovation and maybe there will be a story out of this." The encouragement is baffling – it’s hard to explain how my day job could be paused to go play.

DS: The Pixar shorts program is unique, as is the studio’s perspective on the development of shorts, which is why you get such unique and stellar results film after film after film. Each one is as different from the next as the next one in turn will be.

AB: Well said.

DS: In Piper, the camera obviously plays a critical role. The viewer’s perspective, it almost seems like we’re watching a wildlife documentary. This is an up close film. Was that the plan from the beginning?

AB: Absolutely, absolutely. I felt that way from the moment I started studying the birds in macro photography. Just shooting those birds…you can't get too close to a sandpiper, especially a sanderling. You have to start shooting with long lenses. I also love the intimacy of the story. I love that though it's a familiar place like the beach, we're going to get really close for the audience and show it from a different perspective. It's painterly to me with the high depth of field and how we can control the eye. Honestly, I learned a lot on Wall-E under Andrew. Even him just bringing Roger Deakins in and knowing that as a director you should understand camera and film language is extremely important. I wanted to bring all of that. I wanted to know my cameras and lens packages and which lens we were shooting with and really dive deep so that audiences feels that difference in the filmmaking. It's exciting in CG to know that we're getting to a place where, depending on the filmmaker, the lenses and how they express things, you'll see a totally different look in a film. For me that was the tone that I wanted to set from the beginning.

DS: The lighting you used is just incredible to the point where you're looking at the beach scenes at times thinking, “Is this live-action?” I know the desire is not to be photoreal but to be photorealistic, to be able to art direct the realism. But there were times I was not sure it was animated.

MS: That's great.

DS: From your standpoint, stylistically, from the standpoint of photorealism, where do you dial it up? Where do you dial it down? What are you looking for?

AB: That's where the artistry comes in. The credit goes to our DP Erik Smitt and production designer Jason Deamer. We're all collectively...any painting you look at, you’re looking at an artist’s choices, choices that you never let the computer make for you. If you want light there and you want that color, it's going to pop that character. Yes, you're right. We want the believability, but with all the control. A lot of it for me was always referencing classical paintings. Going back to Rockwell, images that are focusing on character and storytelling, but where you see the manipulation in everything. From Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci…you're seeing the choices in Caravaggio's dramatic lighting that draws your eye.

That's the magic trick of animation. There's a little whirlwind scene that Freddy Moore animated, which I love, that taught me so much. Mickey Mouse leads your eye exactly. That's what Goya was doing in his paintings. We go from a deep history of research and understanding as artists. Our medium just happens to be computer animation, but it's the same thing as a paintbrush. You pick it up and you make a choice. The moment you let the paint make a decision for you, or the computer, you're left with the chaos of realism. I think you start losing the emotional content of the story. It can be beautiful. You can make beautiful frames. But I don't think they'll say what you're trying to say exactly.

DS: It’s a really interesting choice to have Adrian Belew score the film. I’m a huge fan. I hate to date myself, but I've seen him play four times in concert starting with a David Bowie show at the Inglewood Forum in 1978. I also saw him play the Greek Theatre twice with King Crimson.

AB: Man, I wish we had longer to talk…

DS: Me too. I could talk about the music angle and Adrian all day…tell me a bit about the decision to bring him in. It’s such a bold choice, especially for a Pixar film.

AB: His is such a unique voice. I think that's what we were looking for from the beginning. I've been a fan of Adrian’s for years. Practically every animator is. His work is visual and has immediate character. I wasn't interested in just saying, "This is a score." When you're dealing with pantomime animation, you need the music to tell the story as well. I felt like Adrian knows how to do that as an artist and he could help me create a soundscape that you would believe in, that has character. Right away when he saw the storyboards, he said, "This world should have character." The moment he said that...he was my first and only choice.

I was using his scratch, his temp music the first time I showed Andrew the boards. Adrian happens to be a huge Pixar fan, unbeknownst to me. Andrew told me, "Hey, do you know Adrian loves Pixar? Maybe I can connect you two." It was a dream come true to work with him. I feel like his tone...I could go on and on about all the little details that are Adrian’s in the film. They all add up to the same thing. It's chasing character and story and trying to make it heartfelt and honest and fun. I hope you get to meet him. What a wonderful guy, too. Such a gracious man through all of this.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.