‘Piper’: How Pixar Turned R&D Into an Oscar-Contending Short (Exclusive Video)

Will Alan Barillaro win Pixar's first short Oscar in 15 years?
'Piper': How Pixar Turned R&D Into an Oscar-Contending Short

It’s been 15 years since Pixar won the Oscar for Ralph Eggleston’s”For the Birds,” and it has another fine-feathered gem in Alan Barillaro’s “Piper” that’s getting lots of buzz (watch the clip below).

In “Piper,” a baby sandpiper overcomes a fear of water as part of her rite of passage. But, uncharacteristically, the short began as an R&D project in the tools department to create greater sculpting control for the artists. They developed a sculpting brush called Presto, which breaks down the model into layers and allows further refinements in posing and silhouettes. Additionally, the new RenderMan RIS platform (introduced on “Finding Dory”) offered more photoreal shading and lighting capabilities.

READ MORE: Annie Awards: ‘Zootopia,’ ‘The Red Turtle’ Take Animated Feature, Indie Honors

“For me, the goal was to make computer animation more expressive,” Barillaro told IndieWire. “There’s more personal stories we can tell and more visual language we can use with the toolset. How do we tell a story with little birds that’s not anthropomorphized? By doing it in the way that classical animation does best [pantomime] and ultimately finding new ways of exploring that.”

But “Piper” was also very personal story for Barillaro (currently an animator on “The Incredibles II”). Like mentor Andrew Stanton’s “Finding Nemo,” Barillaro wanted to explore proper parenting through the hatchling and her mother.


“I’m talking about my own kids and I worry that I’m being over-protective as a parent,” Barillaro said. “You want to save them from all their mistakes. So the mother bird represents the parent I wish I was in many cases, that can stand back and let your kid grow up, and that they’re way more resilient than you give them credit for.”

But along the way, “Piper” broke new ground at Pixar in photorealism (the first attempt was “The Blue Umbrella” short). Inspired by macro photography, the scale was crucially from her bird’s eye view (also achieved with the help of RenderMan). Overall, though, the look was naturalistic, utilizing shallow depth of field and long lenses. And it owed a dept to Norman Rockwell for color and texture.

And using Houdini, they procedurally generated millions of real sand grains, as well as believable water and foam.

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.


“We’ve never done sand grains that detailed before,” the director added. “And for you to care about the character, feathers became important because it was how birds express themselves.”

“And for us to care for Piper, meant gaining intimacy through macro photography because size and scale mattered,” he continued. “The difficulty on this film was there aren’t these points of reference that people are used
to. You’re at a beach, but you don’t have a tree or a car or a person standing next to you to always remind us that this character is this small.

READ MORE: Oscars 2017 Animated Shorts: Will ‘Piper’ End Pixar’s 15-Year Drought?

“And that little wave is only a couple of inches off the ground, but it’s terrifying if you put yourself in her position,” Barillaro explained. “So you immediately need these cues…you need sand grain; and you start to realize sand is not just sand — it’s the rock that’s there, the shells that are broken down. And we literally had to build those grains and make them really sharp to catch light and to feel right and to figure out the textures and what beach we were thinking of.”

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