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‘Piper’ Helmer And Pixar Animator Alan Barillaro Discusses Facing The Waves In Making His Shorlisted Directorial Debut

Deadline logo Deadline 12/26/2016 Matt Grobar
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A Pixar animator whose first credits include A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., Alan Barillaro moved into the director’s chair with Piper, an animated short from Pixar, which landed on the Oscar Shortlist for Best Animated Short. Based on Barillaro’s own experiences as a parent, and as an admirer of sandpipers chirping on Bay Area shores, the short film follows a baby bird who must face the wonder and danger inherent in nature, overcoming her own fears in order to survive. Speaking to Deadline, Barillaro discusses confronting his own fears in the making of the project.

What inspired your short film, Piper?

I think being an animator first, I go for character over plot, and seeing the birds run onshore, I felt like there was a character there, and that there’s some humor there, but then immediately you start diving into what should the story be about. I’m a parent of three, and I think at that moment of having three young kids, it became more and more apparent there’s a challenge there for the character to take on, this wave, this fear to conquer. I wanted to dive into that, no pun intended.

It’s coming from a place I think where I just want to instil some confidence in my kids, and from the parent aspect of my own, be the parent that lets your kids grow up. I think that’s more of a message for me, perhaps, than others, to say it’s okay for your kids to get knocked down. They’re stronger than you think. They’re more confident than you think, and they can face these things. There’s a lot of very intentional decisions on that film to echo that.

How would you describe your journey from working as an animator at Pixar to the director of your own film?

The transition from an animator to directing for me felt natural, in the sense of this being a character piece and how I approached it. I think what I love about animation is when the work itself can only be animation, and what I mean by that is it’s the personality and the charm of the characters. It’s not plot that’s going to drive you through. It’s this performance that maybe otherwise you wouldn’t be able to ever see. That challenge to me is what I kind of pursued for directing—at all times keep character in mind, and build the world up from that.

I come from a traditional background in Toronto, Canada where I grew up learning story and 2D and working in commercial houses. I came to Pixar when I was 21. I’ve been here for 20 years. The focus to me, which stuck with me, and what I tried to apply to the short, was when I started shorts, the technology was just developing, and we’re just trying to put the train track in front of us to figure out how we could make the next movie.

That, to me, is the wonderful thing about film, where you’re trying to push on the medium as much as possible, and shorts represented that. When I had the chance for Piper, that’s exactly how I approached it.

Technically speaking, for professionals out there, they know that feathers, sand, and water is an enormous thing to take on for a shorts project. Creatively I wanted to take those risks and put myself in a place, which we did, where we weren’t sure if we could get it done. A lot of what happens behind the scenes, people assume we know the answers, and we literally went into this not sure of how to not only do a bird with pattern, and have it have this certain tone and style of the animation, so there’s a whole crew there that did some miraculous stuff that I certainly can’t take the credit for.

So you did find a real learning curve in making your directorial debut?

For sure. It’s daunting, and I feel like animators are actors, and it’s that same type of transition for an actor to switch to a director. There’s things you have to learn about pacing and tone. I was confident with the character I was trying to create, but there’s a lot of other aspects there that you want to have ring true. I feel like pulling off complexity simply was the hardest thing. I love animation that really allows the viewer to enjoy it. So many times, animation can be moving so quickly and vying for your attention, versus allowing a certain amount of interpretation. That was definitely intentional and conscious, to have a story structure that’s deceivingly simple, to allow the acting of each moment to really carry the piece, and all the details and richness. I love being able to stop and look at an intimate world for a moment and really invest yourself in a character versus investing in plot.

They’re all fun things to talk about, but the execution on the day-to-day was a razor’s edge, and to get the right tone and the right gesture sometimes took several tries. We don’t show our rehearsals of where those beats didn’t work. [Laughs]

It’s very intentional that Piper always has her back to the wave in every shot before she faces it, so she has to learn to literally face her fears and the camera language, the closest we’re ever to her is underwater. We’re trying to paint in this subtle pallet, even though it came from a lot of research, going to the beach for three years with cameras and studying the birds and understanding the distance.

I wanted to trick the audience into a documentary type feel at the beginning, and slowly introduce them to this character, and then add in a moment where she actually conquers her fear, fully switch the camera language, and have it evolve to reflect how she’s feeling, and have the cameras be wider and opened up and actually have a lot more movement. I’m passionate about those little things.

So you go through a fairly thorough research process in an effort to capture animal movement, and the natural settings around them?

Yes. You get more out of the experience and I think there’s an honesty to your work if you can actually avoid computers and Google searches and actually go out on the beach at five in the morning and study those birds. You start to see these mannerisms and you catalog them. I spent time at Monterey Aquarium with some of the scientists, just to understand them more and what they’re doing. Even though a bird is cold when fluffed, I found it to be really expressive of happiness, so all the animators, we kept cataloging these ideas.

What became difficult is when I’d say to the actor, animator, “This is a daughter-mother scene where you’re arguing about whether you’re going to come out of your room or not. You have no dialogue. You have no gestures.” It got to the point where we actually wrote subtitles underneath the characters, so I still wrote those lines. We wanted to be as specific as we could, and there was a whole language we had to learn, even on the vocalizations, of how we get that conversation across and what body language we use.

The rules started to come to us, like kids talk in simpler syllables, not long, complex sentences, so save that for mom, and make her voice warm, because she’s the strong parent I wish I was, not my frantic self and how I would behave in that scenario. Keep Piper confident. She’s a determined little girl. She’s not a little bird. She’s not so passive. She’s trying to state her claim, too, and say, “I want to stay here. Why don’t you just feed me?”

To get those gestures that say all that, I felt was very much diving back into what I learned from Andrew Stanton on Wall-E and a certain amount of vaudeville studying of Chaplin and Buster Keaton silent movie era, where timing was everything, and practice was everything. I felt so much better after seeing Groucho Marx movies, reading about how many times they would practice their performance before they got it right onscreen. It made it somehow humanly possible, because you’re going, “How can you innately have that ability and that timing?” It’s so perfect, and the choreography, so trying to absorb those lessons that I’ve learned over the years and apply them was what this was for me as a director.

I used to joke while we were making it—i’s a metaphor for making this film, to conquer your fear of first-time directing, as well as just a wave coming at you everyday. We’ve done water. We’ve done sand, but we’ve never done it at that detail, so it really came down to the razor’s edge of finishing the project and pulling it off as a group.

Are there specific programs used to create that detail in sand and water?

Oh, for sure. In a way, the technical innovations come at you so quickly, and out of necessity. You’re grabbing from any tool in any way. The danger of talking about the technical is always it gives the perception that the tool pulled it off, but in the end, what I’m most amazed with is the way an artist, like the effects artists, can take what’s just a tool, a pencil, and grab anyone they can to band-aid together something visually. So shocking.

You’re right, but with every technical advance, like our new Renderman software allowed us to create foam like that and have light bounce off sand, but it also made it so complex for us to also have to deal with, and wrestle, as it always is with technology, so we kind of grin and bear it. I’m most impressed than an artist can steal little bits of every tool and pull off something you’ve just never seen before. That was the case with the groom of feathers. There was like seven million feathers.

We’re going into this realizing, as we study the birds, that we’re going to have to act with feathers. There’s no way to have performance without feathers, and we’ve never, ever considered having an animator pose seven million feathers. We just all creatively went, “We have no choice, right?” We walked into this with no plan and the animators and the groom artist, Chuck Waite, just started thinking on the problem. There’s several grooms. You’ll have one groom for a character, maybe two when they get wet. We had over seven grooms, constantly refining each groom and basically finding ways, by hook of our crook, to act with feathers.

When you’re talking millions of feathers, many of which were hand placed—not millions, but at least thousands—you feel slightly guilty as a director. [Laughs] “Who came up with this crazy idea?” As I’m placing sand grains on the end of Piper’s beak or toes. We wanted it to feel like this little jewel box that you have all these little special handcrafted details, because realism was not what I was after. I was after this believability, and realism also can have this dirty word.

For me, I always say there’s a difference between realism and laziness. Art is always choice. You have to make choices, and if you let the computer or the tool make a choice for you, you’re absolutely chasing the wrong thing. If you go into any museum and you study classical art, you never go, “Well, that one’s too real for me and that’s not.” It’s what impressions you’re getting, what choices they made. That was our guiding force through all of this.

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