Everything you wanted to know about ‘PIPER’

We can't even deal with how cute PIPER is! Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

We can’t even deal with how cute PIPER is! Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Alan Barillaro (supervising animator on BRAVE and WALL-E) has crafted an incredibly sweet and stunningly beautiful work of art for Disney with his latest, PIPER. The so-adorable-it-hurts short tells of a yil’ behbeh sandpiper learning – through trial and error – to find her way in the world. It’s almost impossible not to be moved by its pristine beauty and message. You’ll wanna watch it on loop.

Because we loved this short so much, we wanted to share with you a few fun facts straight from Barillaro and PIPER producer Marc Sondheimer. Here’s the skinny on your new favorite thing.

Barillaro’s daily runs by the water provided the inspiration for the short. He said, “As I’m running there were lots of sandpiper. Subconsciously I thought what about a sandpiper? and how much character is in a little bird running away from a wave? To me, as an animator, I’m always cataloguing character and little ideas and acting bits here and there.”

PIPER’s message is a meta one for Barillaro. “Conquering your fears, for me, on this wasn’t just the story I wanted to tell, but also how I felt about beginning filmmaking being a first time director. It’s daunting to consider making a Pixar short around so many artists I respect.”

They used long lens, macro photography. Barillaro said, “[We] had to figure out what the world looked like at a sandpiper’s height – 4 inches tall. We got out to the beach often. You gotta do your research. It’s the mantra at Pixar. It’s not just technology – it’s the artists looking at that work and abstracting it as artists. I love getting out there with the long lenses and macro photography because of the intimacy. I felt like it would put the character in a much more volatile position, having you care for her more.”

Shut up with this PIPER cuteness! Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

Shut up with this PIPER cuteness! Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

Norman Rockwell paintings influenced the aesthetics. Barillaro mentioned that his visual storytelling touchstone was Rockwell paintings. At first glance when you look at something like a Rockwell, you don’t realize how manipulated it is. It can come across as realistic. But when you really look at it, the choices being made to tell a story and focus on character, to me, there’s always a Rockwell factor what I was hoping to achieve.”

That hyper-realism look is key. Barillaro said, “I wanted to play with scale and intimacy of being small. And that meant a certain amount of detail and texture to the story. Emotionally, I wanted the audience to believe and get the joke of the scale. Even though we’re only see a little foam come up, at four inches, that can be terrifying. When you talk about exploring new boundaries in animation, I felt like expressing with feathers led me to that design.”

Everything is a character. Sondheimer stated, “Not only did you have a little bird as a character, but the waves and the bubbles are a character, because you had to caricature the timing of everything – the interplay of the actual performance with the actual waves. Part of the secret sauce of PIPER was the interplay between departments and that conversation.”

Piper and her momma in PIPER. Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

Piper and her momma in PIPER. Courtesy of Disney-Pixar.

PIPER’s score is composed by Adrian Belew. Having worked with Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club, Frank Zappa and David Bowie, Belew shifted course composing for this short. Barillaro called him their “secret weapon,” later saying, “his work has such character and personality. That’s all I wanted to be around.”

Bird expression proved vital to the characters. Barillaro stated, “It was very important to me the moment I started studying I saw how expressive they were. The moment you start studying birds, you start seeing all these choices in personality. It’s all [in the] feathers. Feathers are traditionally an overlapping technical thing, but birds, it’s how they behave. By posing the feathers, that meant personality. It meant innovating by hand – 4-7 million feathers. With feathers, it’s all interiors, deep in the character. It was constantly reshaping it to get the beautiful design in Piper. We tried to find expressive ways with feathers. The wind gives a looseness to the scene. I needed that, not for a technical reason. It was for story. You bought the scale of the world.”

Sandpipers limited vocal range was a challenge that led to ingenuity. Barillaro elucidated, “It’s not that wide. Piper had to have single syllables, much like my kids, where it’s not long sentences. We had to pick up those tells.” Piper exhibits loads of charisma even through her lil’ wheeze. “I always thought of it as a nose breather. My editor Sarah Reimers brought in a broken squeaky toy we used a lot to start solving that. The mom, I wanted to be warm, graceful, caring – the parent I wished I was – and calm. Warmer sounds started coming into play. The growl – that’s Adrian’s stomach. His stomach, like clockwork, goes off at 4 o’clock. Ren Klyce, the sound designer wanted to get that in.”

PIPER is now playing in front of FINDING DORY.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.