Director Madeline Sharafian and producer Michael Capbarat talk about the inspirations and process for their Oscar-nominated animated short Burrow, currently on Disney+. Burrow is a charming, lushly animated short about a rabbit’s quest to build his own home independently among a slew of other underground creatures. Along the way, the rabbit learns the value of working together and community.
Here, Sharafian and Capbarat detail how the short was inspired by events in Madeline’s life as well as the simple time constraints that worked to the shorts advantage. Finally, they also discuss their overall passion for their work and positive energy flowing through this project — one they hope to use in their future endeavors.
Awards Daily: What was the inspiration for this animated short ?
Madeline Sharafian: There are two little halves: one is the visual half, the second is the theme of it. The visual half is I grew up in California near some trailheads. There’s a national park called Briones out here, and there really were little cottontail rabbits on the trail. I would see them all the time and there were holes in the ground everywhere. So you can’t help wondering what it looks like down there. This was always something I had in mind as a visual scene. Rabbit was also my childhood nickname so for me it was kind of a no-brainer choice visually. The story came from just my first couple years here at Pixar, and the bar is so high here and is really hard here as a green person to be, like, I clearly don’t know what I’m doing because I’m new. I could show all these people who know what they’re doing what I am doing wrong and they can help me but it’s so hard to do, it’s so much harder than it seems. So that’s where the theme met the visual metaphor.
AD: Speaking of the visual metaphor, you went with no talking. In short, it’s all the expressions of the animals. Which was just beautiful by the way, all the animals have a look of “Oh hi, nice to meet you,” and the rabbit is just freaked out and embarrassed. What was behind the decision to just do the visuals of the faces?
MS: Some of it is just laziness on my part. We had such a short amount of time to do this short, and I’ve never worked with voice actors before. I’d never written a script before. I’d only ever done silent shorts and I think I kind of wanted to stick to what I knew. I also really like animation that gives the animators a lot to work with and so much can be done without dialogue. Like maybe if I had been boarding it and felt like it wasn’t clear maybe I would have added some. But if you don’t need it, why not just leave it out? I was a little lazy too though [Laugh], and I didn’t want to deal with that.
Michael Capbarat: Also, I know that the SparkShorts program has limited resources compared to the feature films at Pixar. The budgetary decision made us happy because hiring voice actors is very expensive and, of course, it all starts with what’s going to serve this story best. Getting these characters expressing and telling the story visually is the most important thing. Then when it came to cost savings we were, like, we kind of want to spend our money on animators that joined the team and make sure we really push that. That’s where we were really focused. That also came into play with the music, where some shorts actually choose to hire a composer to score their short. We chose to cut some very strategic corners and used Mozart.
MS: Mozart sounds expensive!
AD: You mentioned SparkShorts. Can you explain it to people who are not aware of it and how you got involved in it?
MS: It’s a replacement for the old Pixar shorts program. You know, the pretty fancy CG shorts that would go in front of the movies. And I think everyone at Pixar really missed making them but they also take a lot of time and resources from the big features. The SparkShorts are a very small little incubator program where you have 6 months, a fraction of the budget of the older shorts, and they pick directors, and all of the supervisory positions. A lot of first timers get their start in SparkShorts. It is an opportunity for people to try roles that they’ve never done before. It’s very low-risk, there’s not a lot of executive oversight, we kind of just pick the initial idea and then we are left alone. We could have been making anything and they were, like, oh, you’re fine. So far it’s been a really exciting thing. Everyone likes knowing that there is something experimental going on as an undercurrent with all these big features on the site.
MC: It gives that vibe, we refer to this analogy all the time where the features are the big freighter ships and we are the little speed boats weaving between them asking, ‘Can we get your help? Can we get your help?’ Madeline and I think just knowing when you are working on a feature, that if you have a little downtime to help out in something cool and experimental, and that your friends are working on is a nice thing to know. That the hope of that is going on.
AD: Was the short always planned on being in hand-drawn animation, or was that something you discussed over time?
MS: I pitched the idea already knowing that it was only possible in 2D with the set amount of time and I was greenlit with this concept. And I was, like, you all know this has to be 2D. You can’t model all of these burrows and all of these critters, which are like an ensemble cast. You really can’t do that in six months, there is just no way. But we were lucky enough that Kitbull had gone first so already the executive team was, like, another 2D, sure go ahead. It was not a huge fight that we had to throw down for; it was a pretty no-brainer choice
MC: Yeah, and moving along, it was amazing because Pixar is majority CG feature films, so a lot of the artists and animators are trained to execute CG films. But I think everyone who’s come up through that schooling has learned at least some aspect of traditional 2D animation. I think a lot of people were super excited to bust out those muscles and flex them again, which was really cool.
AD: How did you two connect to work on this project?
MS: We are old pals! My very first movie at Pixar when I joined I was 22, very young, very green. My first movie was Coco and Mike was my story manager. I had such a great time on Coco, and Mike did such a good job making the story team feel happy and engaged. In every meeting Mike has set a tone that makes people comfortable. So when I was offered the SparkShort and they asked if I had anyone in mind for the producer, I was, like, if I want a happy team and if I want to feel supported, I knew exactly who to pick because I would not have to re-earn Mike’s respect. It is already there because we are friends. It was another no-brainer choice for me.
MC: Thanks so much again, Maddie. It is so true and what is so cool, I think we felt this lesson was proved out over the course of production. You have a happy and healthy and well cared for team who is able to give their all. We really tried to prioritize that in production and you were going to see the direct results of that on screen. People are free to do weird stuff.
MS: Like the button at the end. That wasn’t planned. It was just because people finished things early and were happy and invested enough that they didn’t want to leave right away. They wanted to add something else and that was such a wonderful product. I was just trying to be nice to them.
AD: That actually brings up one of my favorite little moments and I was just curious how this came about. It’s near the end and not spoiling but the last visual gag with the mailbox.
MS: The ending was something I actually did reboard a couple of times. I was having a hard time making it feel as exactly satisfying as I wanted it to. So what I ended up doing is kind of an old trick, but bookends feel satisfying almost no matter what. I knew if I used the same shot it would be satisfying and then even more satisfying would be repeating the same beat, which would be the mailbox falling down. I got something that always makes me feel like something was planned to perfection as if things land on musical beats. So I was really just trying to throw everything and, like, this is going to feel good, right? I was throwing everything I could think of, I remember there was a moment where the music, we had changed some timing, the music shifted and the mailbox wasn’t landing on the beat anymore and I feel like I pulled my diva card for the first time. I was, like, it needs to, it absolutely has to, because otherwise it’s not going to feel as good when the short is over. This small thing but I was so relieved when we were able to get it to the frame exactly on what I hoped for.
MC: I feel like from the get-go, I don’t know, Maddie, you and I haven’t talked about it in a long time. From the initial shot “Nail, nail the mailbox and boom falls over as the rabbit goes down” that is the pinnacle of Maddie’s style. Someone is trying to do something well and doesn’t.
MS: It makes me like them!
MC: There is a charm in that and Maddie’s ability to execute that, as a storyboard artist, part of Maddie’s job is to put movies on their feet visually for the first time from script to visuals. We saw that early days on Coco, that level of quirk and charm and humor to any interaction that gives this juice to a character, Maddie’s able to bring in spades. I feel that mailbox moment gives character to those little stupid silly moments that’s charming and that is Maddie to a T, just boiled down.
AD: You both talked about your passion for animation throughout this interview. What got you both interested in animation?
MS: I would like to draw like pretty much every kid does, but there is a point when some kids drop off and some just keep going. It doesn’t ever feel like a conscious choice but there was a moment where I picked animation, which was around 2001. I remember that because it was such a pivotal animation year. Because Monsters, Inc and Spirited Away were both released in American theaters and I was just, like, these are perfect movies. They are still two of my favorite movies of all time. I can find no flaws in these two movies. Monsters, Inc. especially because I grew up in the Bay Area as did Mike, and it being Pixar in the Bay Area just made it feel more like maybe I can. Like it’s close, physically close, even if it feels goal wise far away, but maybe I can try to make it there.
MC: I feel like mine was probably less conscious than Maddie’s. For me I went to college at Berkeley and I played baseball there and I studied English and I was struggling with loving the team aspect of baseball and working on a team but also loving the hermit existence of a writer and creative person. And I was, like, how am I ever going to put these two things together? So when I saw Ratatouille for the first time, and there is a DVD extra about Thomas Keller comparing the process of being a chef and working on a team with Brad Bird’s process of working on a team of animation. I remember just like walking in on that and saying that’s it, that’s what I want to do.
MS: A team of hermits!
MC: That was my pivotal moment.
AD: You both put out a statement when Burrow got its Oscar nomination saying “Burrow is a short that encourages people not to be afraid of opening up to others.” That was a beautiful sentiment. Is that a theme you would like to explore further?
MS: Yeah, I think it really is. I need to explore it further because it’s a difficult thing to achieve, that I have yet to achieve it personally. It is one thing to say: it’s really helpful to do this and ask for help. But I am still, like, every time I need to do it, I wonder why have I not learned this? I spent a whole year making a short about doing this and I still can’t do it! It’s so important, and shame to me is something that is something I wish I could take away from other people. I don’t want people to feel ashamed, so if I can make things that can scrape that off people’s psyche I want to do it.
MC: I feel that’s a big thing with anybody who’s in a creative field, or any field really, that is dealing with the threat or the feeling of being an imposter, or dealing with mediocrity and feeling like you’re not good enough, or you’re always faking it. I feel like that is definitely an inspiration for any kind of endeavor. Dealing with that and really seeing that other people are dealing with that too. I feel like that’s the nature of kind of a creative team sport. We all feel this way, let’s make awesome stuff and maybe even make it about that.
AD: Do you have any projects you’re working on for the future?
MS: I just kind of went back to normal storyboarding. I got to board for Domee Shi’s movie called Turning Red, which was just announced. and I have just been thoroughly enjoying it. It’s going to be so good and so fun, I just loved leaving my own work behind and just enjoying boarding again and having fun. That’s where I am.
MC: Same. I’m back to producing other projects. I think the experience of working on a short, especially working on a short with people who I love who just make the process a blast, I feel like that’s something I’m going to be reaching for in every project that I do. Small team, that same vibe, I feel like that’s what I’m going to probably yearn for in future projects.
MS: Me too.
AD: What are you guys doing to prepare for the Oscars?
MS: Aghhhhhhh! I’m just trying to order dresses and I don’t know. There are so many things to consider, like for me it’s sweat. I can’t have the sweat show but I’m going to be nervous. Comfortable shoes, I don’t know, I’m trying not to think about it too much. It’s just going to be a weird experience that I would like to see but I will be glad when it’s over as well.
MC: We both have been talking about it, like the only preparation that we are doing is mentally trying to pretend like it is not happening.
MS: Yeah, animators don’t want to be seen. You shouldn’t see this. This is a secret. It is so odd.
MC: It is so exciting and overwhelmingly awesome that I think we’re both, like,okay, this is something that is freaking us out because it’s fun, that we’re just going to put it in a little box and put it over here.
MS: Talk about it once a week and then don’t talk about it again.
AD: Anything you want to leave us with?
MS and MC: Watch Burrow!