Before this summer’s Finding Dory plunges you back into the ocean, the new Pixar short film preceding the Finding Nemo sequel will offer you a prime spot on the beach alongside what could possibly be the studio’s cutest character creation yet: the big-eyed, diminutive little beach-dwelling bird, the eponymous Piper.
The inspiration for the six-minute short — about a hungry baby sandpiper learning to overcome hydrophobia — came from less than a mile away from Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California, where veteran Pixar animator and Piper director Alan Barillaro would run alongside the shore and notice birds by the thousands fleeing from the water but returning between waves to eat.
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“Seeing the way these sandpipers react to waves and run, I always felt, ‘Gosh, that’s a film, that’s a character,’” says Barillaro, who began toying with animation software as a personal challenge to design a non-speaking character who was afraid of the water yet had to venture into it to eat. “It’s always fun to show a world we’re familiar with but from a different perspective. We’ve all been to the beach, but have we ever viewed water from just an inch off the sand? That could be very fearful from a bird’s perspective.”
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Barillaro’s early concept work was playful and low-stakes, but his progress on Piper impressed his mentor, Dory director Andrew Stanton (whom Barillaro worked with on Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and Wall-E). “You always want to show directors, ‘Hey, are these cool tools you’d like to use to make films?’” Barillaro says. “So I showed Andrew the Piper tests thinking I was very much just showing him a test, but he kept poking at me, like, ‘It’s a cool test, but keep working on that story.’ And then John [Lasseter] did the same. There’s remarkable encouragement at Pixar that when you think of an innovative idea, don’t forget the story. It was their encouragement or else I would have stopped at the test phase.”
The story then grew, as Piper became a tale of a child learning from a parent about the way of the food chain — and a child learning from another child, as Piper encounters a small hermit crab who teaches her the way of the waves. “It’s the kid at the playground feeling,” says Barillaro. “You fall down and you feel so small, but you look and see someone even smaller than you brush themselves off and tackle something, and learn from that in your own way. It was important to me to stay in the kid world and see the world from Piper’s eyes, and not be from the human perspective.”
Barillaro also landed notable King Crimson singer Adrian Belew—a veteran musician whose career spans five decades of solo albums and collaborations with folks like David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Talking Heads—to score the film, after initially using Belew’s music temporarily. “I put him in as a placeholder in my very first original story,” he says. “And Andrew said, ‘Adrian contacted me and would love to work on a Pixar project.’ So it was my first choice and his first choice come together. We were pretty excited, and he was instrumental in getting the right tone.”
Fast-forward through about three years of storyboards, R&D, and production, and Piper has landed the plum spot before Finding Dory — a stroke of serendipity and well-earned fortune for an animator rising through the ranks to join the prestigious club of short directors. “To work with Andrew so closely over the years, it means a lot to me that I’m in front of his film,” says Barillaro. And as for Piper and Dory’s shared nautical theme? Purely a coastal coincidence.
Finding Dory — and Piper — hit theaters June 17. Meet Piper’s Piper in the concept art above.