top of page

Current Topics in 3D Animation

Fu Chia Kelly Yang

Critique & Analysis on Animated Short Film 



Background Information

Piper is an American short produced by Pixar Animation Studios, released in 2016 theatrically with Finding Dory. It won the Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film in 2017.

Director:  Alan Barillaro                    Producer: Marc Sondheimer                   

Editor: Sarah K. Reimers                  Distributor: Walt Disney Studios & Motion Pictures


The story starts with a scene where a flock of sandpipers hunting for food on the seashore. They are scuttling in and out of the water to search tiny invertebrates that are buried under the sand. A mother sandpiper encourages her child, the hatchling little sandpiper to leave the nest, go on to the shore and learn to fetch food by itself.
A huge wave suddenly rolls up onto the shore and devours the little sandpiper. Even though the little sandpiper was playful and full of curiosity at the beginning, it couldn’t overcome the fear of the unrelenting waves. The mother tries to pull it out of its comfort zone since the last thing a sanderling need is a phobia of the sea. However, the little sandpiper is way too afraid of the ocean after experiencing the formidable force of the wave that it retreats way sooner before the wave would even reach where it stands.
It then runs into another species on the shore, the hermit crabs. A hermit crab guides the little piper toward the ocean and teaches it to dig a hole and hide into it when the wave strikes in. Piper than discovers by doing so, not only it won’t be swept away by the waves anymore, it can also see where all the clams are under the water vividly. This benefits him from pulling the clams out from the sand when the wave goes away.
After overcoming its fear and excelling in searching for food, little piper becomes very excited. It scampers around joyfully while the sunset scattering onto the seashore.

Behind the Scene

Barillaro took his entire team to beaches all over the Bay Area throughout weekends, 5 a.m. in the morning, searching for shore birds. They would chase around different beaches and call each other on phones until they found a flock that they could get close to observe.


To stay true to reality, he even looked into the sanderling anatomy and discovered that it’s simply just a ball on two sticks. Even though the basic model of a sanderling is simple, the most difficult body part to model and animate is the feathers. The feathers are the medium to best bring out the character emotion, how they move in reaction to the atmosphere, whether it’s scared, frightened, delightful. Also the look of the feathers when it’s wet or covered by sand. Since Barillaro aimed to bring out Piper in a realistic approach, they ended up mounting 4.5 to 7 million feathers on each birds in Piper.


Taking more than three years to complete, the project began as a series of tests conducted to create more painterly CG animation tools that would allow artists greater flexibility during the design process.


An inhouse tool developed by Pixar Studios was tested during the production of Piper, the Presto Sculting Brush. It lessen the difficulties of the huge work load to animate the complex feather figures and the simulation of ocean waves. Pestro allows 3D artists to apply sculpting shape refinements on top of a posed or un-posed model, using Adobe-Photoshop-like brush controls. Within Presto, sculpts are set up into layers, so artists can stack together multiple sculpts and mute or enhance them to see their effect. Sculpts sit in a timeline, so they can be animated and blended, and a magic silhouette brush lets users sculpt the model by redrawing regions of the silhouette in order to clean up shapes or achieve lines that the character rig doesn’t provide.


Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD) anchored the technical pipeline as the common data format. In addition to utilizing Presto for rigging, layout and animation, Pixar artists employed Autodesk Maya and Mudbox for modeling, SideFX Houdini for animated FX, The Foundry’s Katana and Nuke for look-dev and lighting, and the studio’s in-house rendering tool RenderMan for delivering final rendered images.

Principles of Animation

First of all, I’d say this short mimic the realistic movement to a standard that basically within every second, you can find something adopting one of the principles of animation. Here, I’m just mentioning some that came straight through my mind:

Squash and Stretch

Birds tend to squash and stretch their necks A LOT.


Piper falls and squashes its head forward.

Piper stretch its body toward to discover the unknown creature, a hermit crab.

Sand squashes whenever it’s stepped, or digged, or sit on.


Birds spread their wings and bend them downwards before they fly.


Piper moves its head on another side before it shakes off the sand on its face.


Piper bends its head into the sand and towards itself, so that it has the force to sweep up more sand and buried the little hermit crab.

Follow Through & Overlapping Action

The sands falls and scatters depending on the movement of Piper.


The feather movements.


Secondary Action

It’s not hard to find that throughout the animation, you can see the birds are breathing in a small but rapid trembling movement with its chest and of course, the feathers, moving up and down. I really like this detail touch, subtle but bring the creature to life.


The movement of the wave. Instead of moving straight in and out on one direction, to make waves look realistic, there’re plenty of arc movements in different directions.


The overall exaggerated jumpiness of Piper. Which successfully brings out the character.


The two scenes I really like:

  • Steady camera with the position of the clam in the middle, while Piper running away from the ocean, but the wave only rises up to the point that’ll barely touches the clam. This subtly implies Piper’s fear of the wave is just redundant.​

  • A dolly shot from back of Piper to the wave, featuring the relentless of the wave coming toward Piper and picturing how terrified Piper is towards the ocean. Following with the scene when it digs itself a hole, hides in the sand and finds out it’s able to see everything underneath the water. The color tone and how light shines and scatter in the water, sands floating in slow motion and clams blowing bubbles bring out a whole different atmosphere, it’s a twist from intense fear to huge joy from discovering the unknown.



Piper is my favorite animated short from Pixar before Bao was released. It’s an well made short with all the details exquisitely crafted. As always, the most seen Pixar’s animation plot, give obstacles and have the characters overcoming them, is equipped in the short. The storyline is simple, a hatchling sandpiper, afraid of the ocean at first, but conquers its fear and becomes more confident at last. Barillaro succeeded in having the story thorough within 6 minutes and at the same time brought out the intensity and the ups and downs of Piper’s emotion without a single line.


I like how the birds motion are animated nearly the same as what it actually is in the reality but with a brush on the facial expressions and body languages to bring out the characteristics. Barillaro said, from observing sanderlings’ movement, he found that they sometimes wobble and lose their balance but rapidly stand up straight again. It’s interesting to know that he adjusted this movement onto a little piper falling on its chick, loses its balance and has its entire body squashed forward but quickly tumbles and back up standing. It gives the character a child-like image with the sense of playfulness and cuteness. The scene where Piper stands on the hermit crab with its eyes staring on the unknown creature underneath its feet, falls forwards while it’s moving but insist to find out what creature it is makes me think of a human baby falling from a cradle, and just look up wondering what’s going on. This reaction makes audience realize its pure and curious characteristic, just like a child.


Animal featured animation are usually strongly relying on the movements and sounds if there’s no lines in the animation. I appreciate how the sound effect of the sandpiper differs so that it brings out the tenderness between the mother and the child, the different stage of fear, delight, warm or cautionary. The production team clearly put a lot of work into studying this creature.


bottom of page