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How Innovative Pixar Short ‘Piper’ Got Sculpted

Discover how Norman Rockwell and a member of King Crimson found their way into the latest Pixar short.




Even though “Piper,” which is screening in front of Disney/Pixar release “Finding Dory” (June 17), continues a long Pixar tradition of incubating innovative tech in its shorts program, this sweet tale of a hydrophobic baby sand piper unconventionally began as an R&D project.

That’s because supervising animator Alan Barillaro (“WALL·E,” “Brave,” “Finding Nemo”) first wanted to get a handle on tools and technique before formally pitching his short. He observed thousands of sand pipers along the Northern California shore, and experimented with the bird from “Brave” by shaping it into a different character on a tablet.

Barillaro then approached “Finding Dory” director Andrew Stanton and advocated more sculpting control for animators.

That way, said Barillaro, “anyone in the process could give a little bit of design and style to something.” Both Stanton and chief creative officer John Lasseter embraced his technique and short.

“Water’s a great example,” added Barillaro. “Rather than looking at water as a physics-based effect, we treated it as a personality. That meant shaping the waves and getting the timing exact and the effects team animated that way, too. They came up with technology to put on top of the animation: shaping, timing, controlling the edge of the wave. And adding bubbles, which were a mix of effects and character animation.”

The same was true of sand. As a result, this CG macro photography for bubbles and sand was created through geometry to achieve a unique bird’s eye view. “The visual cues of scale had to do with the size of sand and also the dynamics of the water,” continued Barillaro.

But the animator wanted the story to be just as innovative as the technique, by utilizing a doc style with shallow depth of field and long lenses. The aesthetic used Norman Rockwell as a touchstone for color and texture.

Rigging the cute, female bird began with the shaping of the feathers, of which there were nearly 7 million. That meant coming up with regional controls and dealing with feathers more visually.

“The choices were all for acting reasons,” Barillaro said. “If a bird shuddered when cold, it was much more expressive than anything I could do treating the feathers like hands and giving the bird teeth and more humanistic expressions.”

Meanwhile, the choice of composer was also unconventional. Barillaro, who’s a King Crimson fan, reached out to singer/guitarist Adrian Belew with the help of Stanton (another fan of the progressive rock band).

It turns out that Belew is a long-time Pixar fan and relished the challenge of composing his first movie project. He wound up writing three scores for the director to choose from in his experimentation with orchestration and different instrumental sounds.

“The first thing that felt comfortable for Piper was Pizzicato strings,” said the Nashville resident. “They’re light and airy and almost popping off the ground like she does. And then I went for the more authoritative viola for the mother. That all changed once we started fiddling with the orchestrations. I wrote the first four minutes on piano and then I added the last two minutes on acoustic guitar because we wanted to have some finger picking and be more lively.”

Belew even worked with sound designer Ren Klyce (“Inside Out,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) by providing squeaky fodder with the help of his two daughters, his dog, his shoes and his razor blade.

It was all part of “Piper’s” celebratory rite of passage — the perfect companion to “Finding Dory.”

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