Pixar Animation Studios has revealed its latest short: Piper, which will debut in theaters this spring with its animated feature Finding Dory.
The six-minute short tells the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline. The only problem is, she’s fearful of the waves.
“This is a story about overcoming your fears, as well as the parent aspect of wanting your kids to stay confident,” said helmer Alan Barillaro, a Pixar animator who’s making his directorial debut. He gave the film a painterly look that was inspired by classical art and is told without dialogue. Its soundscape relies on a score composed by guitarist Adrian Belew, best known for his work with King Crimson and David Bowie.
Barillaro said that he started the project working with Belew’s compositions as temp music, but Finding Dory director Andrew Stanton knew the accomplished songwriter and musician, who then boarded the project. “He attacks his music visually, and he’s been a huge inspiration and gets our creative juices flowing,” said Barillaro. “I really wanted to look at the soundscape of this film as an entity, a natural acoustic sound with a small ensemble. I also wanted to capture the personality of Piper and the waves and ocean as a characters — and what does it sound [and look] like to be just a few inches from the ground.”
Perhaps most surprising is that the short, produced by Marc Sondheimer, was conceived to support a technical test. “It wasn’t meant to be a short,” Barillaro admitted. “I came up with the story because I wanted to look at software development” aimed at making computer animation more like live action production.
But with the encouragement of Pixar’s creative chief, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton, he began to develop the project.
The look was inspired by various artists, particularly Norman Rockwell, as well as macro photography. “At a glance it could be seen as realism, and then when you actually look at the artistry, everything is so deliberately exaggerated,” Barillaro said. “And I love the painterly aspects of macro photography; the textures almost becomes a characters. I want to see computer animation fall into that world where lenses, just like in live action photography, can have a lot of expression.”
Barillaro worked closely with Piper‘s director of photography, Erik Smitt, and said he also drew inspiration from his experience working on Stanton’s Wall-E, whose visual consultant was respected cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Sandpipers can be found along the California coast, so it’s not surprising that the filmmakers went to the beach for inspiration, shooting with long lenses to come up with a visual language for the project. The director related that they also worked with nature photographers to learn how to photograph birds. They visited the beach at different times of day to capture the emotion as well as the lighting. This also informed the production design.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.