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Interview – Short Film Animated Director Alan Barillaro on Piper

Alan Baraillaro has worked with Pixar for over ten years and is now nominated for his animated short film, Piper.  Short but very sweet, Piper delivers a charming dialogue-free tale of a sandpiper facing its fears. Adrian Belew’s music accompanies the animation which is simply fantastic in every detail, as Piper has to overcome his fears of the ocean to get his food and befriends a little hermit crab along the way.

Piper screened earlier last summer just before Finding Dory, and audiences coast to coast were falling in love with the little bird, smitten as he conquers his fears. Last month, Barillaro was recognized with a nomination for a Best Short Film, Animated. Will Piper win an Oscar? We’ll find out in less than two weeks. I spoke to Barillaro about moving from animation to directing.

How did Piper start for you?

It started as an idea. I’m an animator. I was seeing these birds on the beach running back and forth, it felt like a character to me, this idea of a character having to face their fear of the waves. I keep a scrapbook in my pocket and scribble these ideas down.

When we really dove into the story and I had the chance to make it into a short, it became more personal. I’m a parent of three kids and started diving into things I was dealing with and am still dealing with at the time. I want my kids to grow up and find their own, I can’t shelter them from everything, I want them to find their own confidence in the world. At the same time, I don’t want to be an overprotective parent, and that’s what I wanted to talk about.

How do you manage to condense this into a short?

I love short film as a medium. I love short stories, and it’s a medium I gravitate to even when I’m reading. I find there’s a lyrical quality that less is more in my mind. Where it started, the cool things you can do are secondary. I tried to connect as much with the emotional aspect. I wanted to figure out how to say it without dialogue and I loved the constraint. You’re trying to flush out this idea, and you don’t really know how to do it. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

With Piper, the look and tone of the filmmaking all came from a place where I wanted to care for the character and empathize with her, and that mean scale had to be right. She’s not a big bird, she’s not an ostrich. All of a sudden, I had to figure out how to convey that. How do you have feathers blowing n the wind to tell you that? The beach is something we are all familiar with. I wanted it to be an intimate story telling it from that perspective.

I’m a big fan of silent film and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to me that’s the performance side of acting I love. I love giving an actor a challenge like that, an actor being an animator in this case and saying, “What would you do in this case, you’re a mother, a daughter in a scene and you’re arguing whether you’re going to leave your room or not but you have no dialogue, no hands, and good luck.” That’s the excitement of working in movies.

She’s a beautiful character.

Thank you.

So, this was your directorial debut, talk about that experience of going from animation to directing.

For better or worse, I learned on everything I knew and tried to forgive myself for all the things I didn’t know and I tried to admit that to the crew. You’re working with so many talented artists and I wanted them to feel as personal to the story as I felt about it. What I mean by that, I care about character first and so I took what I love in cinema and applied that to this film as much as possible.

I love that films can be interpretative. I didn’t want to do dialogue because audiences are and can be extremely intelligent and they can listen and interpret how that character is feeling and hit it on the nose.

I had all these little lists of things I really wanted to go for. I only felt the confidence to do that and tricked myself that the short didn’t have to come out. In the shorts programs we are asks to take risks. I felt I could jump off the cliff and not know where I was going to land, and I credit that to the studio.

The detail in the animation is so delicate, and Piper spends much of the time with her back to the waves before she faces her fear. Can you tell us what the reasoning was behind that?

It was literally having to face your fears. One of the challenges was how will she learn that? The quick answer is the parent can teach you. I thought of my own kids. I can tell them anything they want, but if they see a little kid do something they want to do, suddenly they’re listening to them and that’s where the crab came from the film because the direction I gave the animator was, “You’ve just fallen off the swing and bumped your knee, you never want to go near a swing again. You see a little kid who is smaller than you fall and not even care, now you’re interested.” I guess that’s how life is and I guess that’s how I felt as a parent and kid, and that’s how Piper ended up learning her own way. That’s part of it too, I don’t want my kids learning my way of tackling the world, I want them to find their own way through it because kids are always more resilient and sharper than you give them credit for.

Adrian Belew composed a fantastic score. What did you talk about for this?

The discussion started early on. I wanted a partner with this. Music can tell a story as well and when you’re painting from such a simplified palette, now suddenly the scene is weighed whether the color is right, the emotional tone could just be a simple music cue. I had to involve him from the start. I chose Adrian because I wanted a collaborator and wanted someone who was really going to care about these characters and build a soundscape. He’s so visual and expressive, we did a lot of trial and error, changing as we illustrated. It was a constant iteration for two years straight. Every evening we’d be on the phone talking and I’d ask him. When you hear a stomach rumble, that’s his stomach rumbling. He was giving us tense sounds effects, bird calls and I wanted the atmosphere to be right.

I didn’t just want an orchestra. There’s something that becomes dangerously cheesy for me if you think of a sunset and birds on a shore and a full orchestra, that wasn’t the emotional point of the film. I wanted to be with the character at all times. Adrian got it from the moment he pulled into Pixar. He said all the things I wanted to say.

How did you manage to capture that realism and mannerisms?

Three years of going to the beach. It’s not a bad thing at all. I take a lot of pride when someone local says, “I feel that it’s a beach I grew up on.” That was the intent. Even the reference footage you see was something my own kids shot. That bright orange shell you see is actually a real shell from Color Point in Half Moon Bay and my daughter found it. It makes it very special and personal to me and when you see the credits, it feels like a yearbook. It becomes a moment that I’ll remember in time where the kids were saying, “Daddy, we have to go to the beach because the Piper’s are landing at sunset.” I live in Alameda and we’d go to the beach right after soccer practice. We went to Monterey Bay and we’d lean on everybody, waking up at 5 am watching birds with our cameras and taking all these photos.  The research is fun, you get to see close to those characters, and everything was coming from an emotional place.

What was it like seeing Piper play before Finding Dory?

That was the terrifying moment. Audiences are honest. It’s really scary to work so hard on something. As an artist, you’re just trying to communicate an idea and you don’t know if it really lands until you’re watching it in the theater. A lot of painful squinting went on in my eyes, and I hoped they wouldn’t see worries that I had or mistakes. It meant a lot to me that it was in front of Finding Dory and it was such an honor for that.

You’ve been with Pixar for a long time, how has technology helped you?

I came from a 2-D background. I was told to ask for everything I need. I was struck when making these shorts, being told to push the art form and for the artist to say more. The idea had to drive the technology. I didn’t know we could do feathers, sand, and water at that close range. The answer was to pick one, not all three, but we had no blueprint. The technology came out of the creative wants, of understanding it, but the technology is real, and animation is changing.

It won’t do the work on its own, but we took on every risk and every new technology just to make Piper the film that I want to see as an audience member. It meant a lot of pain. We had never done that many feathers before; we had over 7 million. We had never done them with patterns either, if you watch films, you won’t see CG animation with feathers because they’re so specific and so technically challenging to do. I’ve learned you don’t do technical innovations for technical sake. We did it because it was special to the character and that character.

That’s a lot.

Yes, it starts feeling crazy. We dove right in with the tech side. I want to put the artist forward who found a way to take the clay and make that sculpture and to make it something special.