It’s no surprise Pixar Animation Studios has landed two animated shorts on the Oscar shortlist.
With such films as “Inside Out” and “Up,” Pixar can tell stories like no other. Each tale delivers a warm emotional punch. And that comes from the notion that many of the studio’s stories start from a personal perspective.
It’s no different with its contenders from its SparkShorts program, “Burrow” and “Out.” SparkShorts allows animators six months to develop and produce a short.
Madeline Sharafian has always loved bunnies, her childhood nickname was “Rabbit,” and while going through sketchbooks from her college days, she had found a sketch of a burrow. When the opportunity to create a SparkShort came up, Sharafian jumped at the chance.
Animation supervisor Benjamin Su was immediately attracted when he saw Sharafian’s “Burrow” presentation. “The characters, the message behind the film and the designs were so charming, they caught my attention immediately,” he says. Sharafian quickly pulled everything together — backgrounds, the story, music choices — and when the animators came on board, “everything was in place,” she notes.
Aside from animating, it was all hands on deck to tell this story of a rabbit who sets out to dig the burrow of her dreams. “We had to animate, clean up, color and do all the effects animation,” Su says. That isn’t the typical workflow at the studio that has given audiences “Toy Story 4,” “The Incredibles” and this year’s “Soul.”
Helping to speed up the animation process was the broken-line look of the short. “It’s this thick to thin line quality. We would purposely break [up the lines] to make it look natural. It sped up the process because clean lines take time.” The simplistic approach was what they were seeking. The flat color against the complicated background helped the eye.
Their inspiration came from such Studio Ghibli films as “Totoro” as well as European animation like “Ernest & Celestine.” Adds Sharafian, “‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was another inspiration, especially for the tunneling scenes.”
Also, the children’s books of Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry served as influences.
Similarly, Steven Hunter’s animated short, “Out” was a story he had been dying to tell. “I didn’t come out until I was 27 or 28. Half of my life, I wasn’t able to be completely who I was,” Hunter says.
That desire to share this story for today’s youth prompted him to create this compelling short. “Out” follows Greg, a young man looking to move into an apartment with his boyfriend, Manuel. Except Greg is closeted and when his parents show up to help him pack, their visit comes as a surprise.
In a “Freaky Friday” moment, Greg switches bodies with his dog, Jim, and learns a lesson of acceptance and being true to one’s own identity. This personal story was the first time Pixar has featured a gay lead character in one of its projects. Hunter wanted the autumn setting to reflect the story. “This is a guy going through a change. It’s also the contrast of fall with pink and purple.”
As the story was fleshed out, pink was inserted as part of the language of love and truth, along with purple. “The lampshade became pink because we wanted to draw attention to the photo. Or the pink on the mom’s sweater was a hint that she knows the truth,” Hunter says. Animation supervisor Kureha Yokoo says seeing the on-screen kiss being animated was emotional.
“When it was shown in [animator] Wendell Lee’s office, I’d have to say that was one of the most emotional moments. It was a seminal moment in animation. This is a big deal.”