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The creator of Pixar's Burrow takes the studio old-school with new 2D short

By Tara Bennett

When someone mentions Pixar, our trained cumulative reaction is to immediately think of any of the studio's 23 theatrical computer animated films. From Toy Story to Soul, its CGI masterpieces have literally changed the landscape of what we've come to expect in big screen animation releases. For 25-years, Pixar Animation Studios has built their creative brand and reputation on rendering pixels into astonishingly realistic animation. And that's what makes the release of Burrow, a brand new original short debuting with Soul on Dec. 25 on Disney+, such a surprise. A new entry under the studio's SparkShort banner, Burrow is a 6-minute celebration of traditional 2D animation. 

The passion project of Madeline Sharafian, a lead story artist at Pixar Animation Studios, Burrow is a brisk, delightful, dialogue-free tale of an imaginative bunny trying to create her dream pad underground. She just doesn't expect as many close-quarter, subterranean neighbors when she digs down to carve out her own space. 

Burrow One Sheet

Developed and drawn as traditional 2D animation, Burrow is more akin to the classic works of Pixar's sister studio, Walt Disney Animation. It's warm, illustrative style looks like it's been plucked from the pages of a favorite storybook, much like the Winnie-the-Pooh animated films. But breaking creative boundaries has become the hallmark of Pixar, and that is especially true of their SparkShorts program, which started in 2018 as an internal incubator to encourage personal stories from their up-and-coming talent. Burrow is the program's eighth release, and the fourth directed by a woman.

SYFY WIRE recently connected via Zoom with Sharafian as she guided us through her creative process on Burrow. The finished short that she wrote, pitched, storyboarded, and directed in just six months with the help of her Pixar colleagues, is an impressive feather in her creative cap and a virtual master class for her own career ambitions. And so we asked Sharafian about what it was like working under the SparkShorts deadline, her 2D influences for the Burrow characters, and how it will change her going forward?

With Burrow, as you were storyboarding and outlining, did the story come out fully formed, or, as it  happens with a lot of these films, did it evolve in the making of it?

Madeline Sharafian: It's sort of surprising. Usually, they do evolve as you make it. But I think because the Spark timeline is so short, I boarded it once through and had a brain trust [for feedback]. I adjusted a couple things, and then it kind of just stayed the same. I was really like, 'I cannot change it, because we cannot redo these backgrounds, because the background artists are already gone.' [Laughs.]

What did working under that kind of tight timeframe teach you about listening to your creative gut versus listening to other people's notes?

I think it helped with [learning] that sometimes if you have too much time to think about something, you might start hitting it with the 'clarity stick' too many times. And sometimes when you do that, a lot of the charm can fall off, or a little bit of the fun. I think just boarding it once meant that there is all these weird, funny things that are in it. [The creatures] might not necessarily be the most clear, understandable things in the world, but I think they're fun to watch. So, for me, I was like, 'As long as I'm making something fun. I think I'm okay.'

Something I deeply appreciated about your Burrow characters was how they were drawn with the old school style of really pronounced reactions and facial movements. Were you leaning on any classic animators like Chuck Jones or Tex Avery as inspiration?

I think there was a lot of Chuck Jones, and of course, the Bugs Bunny classic, bunny-to-bunny perfection. To this day, I see hilarious screenshots of Bugs Bunny making a weird face, and so I told the animators, 'Make the facial expression that you want. Give it folds. Make it weird. She doesn't have to look cute all the time. We can make her look funny and goofy!' Luckily, I think the short timeframe also helped here. The animators didn't have too much time to really get the models 100% perfect all the time. But I think that made it more fun. She changes a little bit shot to shot, but she always has the same feeling and that makes her feel very lively.

You said a lot of your Pixar collaborators came out of the woodwork to contribute to Burrow because they love working on 2D animation so much. There has been a bit more of a renaissance for traditional animation of late. Do you see 2D maybe re-asserting itself again?

We're all watching this happen now. Streaming is becoming more of a thing. There are more small projects for people to work on, and those small projects are probably going to have smaller budgets. I think what's cool about 2D, and it doesn't have to be just 2D, it can be 2D and 3D, is finding smart ways to blend the two to get exactly what you want. You can be smart drawing a background like an old movie. I'm hoping we're gonna see a lot more stuff like that. And I think people within Pixar, and everywhere, are just starting to itch for new looks. They want things to start looking different. Yes, we can make things look realistic. We totally proved it. And I think now, we want stuff to look different. And I think 2D, weirdly, is starting to look different.

Getting to write and direct your own story at Pixar, as well as utilize the talents of so many of your peers to bring it to life, do you feel making Burrow has changed how you see yourself as a storyteller?

Most definitely, yes it has! It's given me more confidence to speak up in brainstorms, and I also learned a lot from the theme of Burrow; I've asked for help with assignments from my teammates on the story team more and more after finishing the short. By making a short like this too, I feel very connected to every member of the team, and I'm looking forward to the day we can all go back in the building at Pixar, because running into my old crewmates is always a highlight of my day!