A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Pixar’s New Short Film "Piper"

Director Alan Barillaro reveals the painstaking process of bringing a digital Sanderling to life.

Sanderlings spend a lot of time in the ocean, scuttling in and out of the water in search of tiny invertebrates buried in the sand. Even downy hatchlings must immediately learn to fend for themselves and feed between unrelenting waves. So the last thing any Sanderling needs is a crippling phobia of the ocean. But such is the lot of the young heroine in Pixar’s newest short, Piper. Directed by Alan Barillaro, the six-minute film preceding Finding Dory concerns the trials of a young chick as she conquers her natural habitat——and greatest fear.

The idea came to Barillaro during his morning jogs in the Bay Area, where he would see hordes of the little speckled birds scampering to feed amidst giant kelp, resembling little wind-up toys. He found this collective feeding frenzy charming, but he couldn’t quite shake his impression that these shorebirds were afraid of, well, the shore.

Studying Up on Shorebirds

To create Piper, Barillaro and his entire team entered the Sanderlings’ world. They spent weekends on beaches all over the Bay Area, meeting at 5 a.m. on a dusty road under a bridge in search of the birds. “Half of us were chasing around different beaches and calling each other on cell phones until we found a flock we could get close to,” Barillaro says. “It became this treasure hunt.”

The migratory Sanderlings were only ever around during the fall, but Barillaro and his team spent ample time observing Western Sandpipers, Godwits, and a flurry of other shorebirds would eventually mingle with his star in the short. Throughout these trips, Barillaro constantly watched for the Sanderlings’ distinct antics. “They have so much personality,” Barillaro says. “To see them hopping around on the laziness of one leg, joyously fluffing their feathers entirely to warm up.”

Staying True to Reality

Beyond the beach, things got a lot more complicated. All animal animation straddles the fine line between reality and caricature, as directors must create convincing and expressive characters out of their real-world counterparts. This often leads to anthropomorphism, where a tentacle can bend to make an elbow and a wing can wave like an arm. Pixar’s earlier stab at avian animation, a short called For the Birds, had no pretense of scientific accuracy, featuring large blue birds with no identifiable species that pointed their feathers like fingers.

Barillaro took a different tack, adamant that his film stay true to the biology of a bird. He eschewed common anthropomorphic strategies of animators, such as giving an animal eyebrows or human eyes. Instead his strategy became exaggeration, seeing how well he could capture the natural antics of the birds without making them human. But Barillaro and his team faced massive technical challenges confronting three of the trickiest substances to animate—water, sand, and feathers.

Barillaro deconstructed Sanderling anatomy and discovered that it's pretty much a ball on a stick, covered in feathers. Which may sound simple, except every single one of the feathers needed to move in reaction to the atmosphere, the wind and water, and the behavior of each bird. This amounted to 4.5 to 7 million feathers on each bird in Piper, a task that Barillaro admits was exceedingly hard. “But the funniest parts of birds come from the reality of feathers—how they look when she’s wet, when she’s scared, when she’s hungry,” Barillaro says. “They can express the full gamut of human emotion.”

The Sanderlings’ spangled tawny plumage added an extra level of difficulty in its animation, as Barillaro and his team strove to keep each bird’s coloring constant even while in motion. The light and shadows on the sandfurther complicated the task of shading a bird that could look anywhere from pure white to off-white to light gray, all depending on the placement of the sun. “Patterning is everything on a sandpiper,” he says. “Getting that right as well as getting the performance and the right story across mattered a lot.”

Barillaro worked with shorebird experts at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to ensure any creative liberties he took would not stray far from actual biology. Because the animals were too skittish to examine up close, Barillaro observed Makana, a Laysan Albatross at the aquarium, as a feather model. He studied how her feathers moved and shone in various levels of light to mimic these reflexes in animation. When Makana molted, the aquarium sent her feathers to Pixar so the Piper team could model directly off of them, says Aimee Greenebaum, the aviculture curator at the aquarium.

Adding the Emotion

The more he watched the Sanderlings, the more Barillaro recognized something elementally human about the little birds: their awkwardness. Studying a frame-by-frame video taken of a Sanderling chick falling on its back, all Barillaro saw was an awkward kid picking herself up off the playground. This natural behavior lent itself easily to Piper’s story of courage, both as a child and a parent. “The mother [Sanderling] represents the parent I wish I was, giving your kids enough room to make mistakes so that they can overcome their fears,” Barillaro says. And even though the film forgoes dialogue for bird calls, viewers can hear the tenderness of the mother-daughter relationship. Barillaro and his team spent hours listening to the spectrum of sandpiper vocabulary, picking out what felt warm or what felt cautionary.

In their studio, Barillaro and his team made a little homage of shorebird posters drawn in the style of John James Audubon for both reference and inspiration. “It’s all about that research,” Barillaro says. “There’s a beauty to that work of identification as well as capturing the species itself.”

Though Barillaro has always seen himself as a bird person—he had a Budgie as a kid—he’s actually allergic to them. But the three years he’s spent on Piper have given him a whole new appreciation for birds. “Now I find myself wanting to go off work birdwatching,” he says. “It really is an addictive thing.”

Check out a teaser (true to its name) below: