Spotlight on Pixar's 'Purl'
Karen Moltenbrey
October 13, 2020

Spotlight on Pixar's 'Purl'

Talent within Pixar have been showing off their skills through the studio's SparkShorts program, where small teams are encouraged to take creative risks with short films. As a result, many have stepped into unfamiliar positions to try their hand at directing or producing. They are given a modest budget and resources within Pixar, and a deadline. So far, several such shorts have been released (for more information about the program and three of the films, see the feature story in the summer edition of CGW). Meanwhile, I introduce you to "Purl."
(8:40 runtime)
Director/writer: Kristen Lester
Producer: Gillian Libbert

Some time ago, Pixar came up with its SparkShorts program, which gives people within the Pixar community the chance to try their hand at filmmaking within an environment where they could take creative risks that they are unable to take while working on a feature film.

“There are people here who we’ve had our eye on and thought, what if we gave them a relatively small amount of money and put some incredibly talented and creative people around them, and have them work with little oversight, to see what they would make, what stories they would tell?” says Lindsey Collins, VP of development at the studio, who heads up the program.

Purl was the first film created under the Pixar SparkShorts banner, and it spins quite a yarn. Literally.

The story is about a pink, fuzzy humanoid ball of yarn named Purl, who gets a job at a male-dominated company, aptly named B.R.O. Capital, where she tries her best to fit in. Ignored at first, she eventually becomes part of the group after changing from her real self to act more like them. But, when a newcomer arrives who is very much like the old Purl, it makes the character reflect on her forced persona and become her old self once again.

The short is directed and written by Kristen Lester, who initially had pitched the idea during an open call at Pixar, but a project by Domee Shi, called “Bao,” was selected to move forward instead (it won an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2019). Nevertheless, Lester had made an impression. So, when the SparkShorts program began, Lester was asked to participate.

Lester’s inspiration for Purl resulted from her early experiences as a woman working in the animation industry. “Oftentimes I found myself being the only woman on a team of men. And, I didn’t realize how isolating and lonely of an experience that was. I just did what I had to do to survive and make it, and be accepted,” she recalls. “I didn’t realize all of the things I had done [to be accepted] until I started working with women again. I realized that I had given away all those parts of myself or had hidden all those parts of myself that I considered made me an outsider. Then when I started working with women for the first time, they were freer than I had been in expressing the things they liked and their tastes. I realized it was really important for me, as a senior woman working with these ladies, to make them feel like they could embrace that part of themselves and didn’t have to be afraid of being different in order to fit in and do the job they loved.”

In the film, Purl purposefully sticks out from the other characters and environment. Lester first came up with the idea of a ball of yarn – pink, fluffy, soft – who is somewhat of an oddity and doesn’t fit in at work. To that end, the world she steps into is very much in contrast to her: glass and steel, very structured, and angular.

“SparkShorts is an experimental program, and Pixar really wanted to push the envelope in terms of what we would make, how we would make it, what it would look like,” Lester says, who has worked there for over six years. Initially, Lester contemplated a live-action/animated hybrid approach, whereby she would shoot live-action plates of a steel and glass office and male actors. To this world, she would add an animated stop-motion type of character for the contrast she was seeking.

However, with this being Lester’s first foray in the director’s seat (she is a story artist at Pixar), she realized that hybrid approach would provide little opportunity to review things and make changes. Thus, she altered her approach to use all CGI, giving Purl a stop-motion look while retaining her initial concept of realistic surfacing and lighting geared toward the harsh, metal, angular work, making this pink, fuzzy ball feel like an alien.

The work presented a much bigger challenge than Lester had realized, though. The ball of yarn required geometry, making it particularly heavy. Too heavy. Initially, the team 3D-scanned a ball of yarn with little success, and instead ended up modeling all the surface pieces that comprise a ball of yarn. Another challenge remained: the facial rig.

“SparkShorts have a limited budget and limited resources, so you have to be very smart with how you approach certain problems,” says Lester. “We had to put a face on this ball of yarn, and it was going to take a long time to rig it, test it, and figure it out. I wanted something that was more akin to how you would approach it in stop motion. So, she doesn’t have physical geometry for her mouth. She doesn’t have physical geometry for her eyes. Fortunately, we went back through some of Pixar’s history and found someone who had done a facial rig for the abstract thoughts model in Inside Out, where he had become a flat plane of paper with eyes and an animated mouth.”

The team grabbed the character’s eyes and mouth from that rig and added it to their 3D ball of yarn. “It ended up working really, really well,” says Lester. “I would say we borrowed, pirated, and learned from things we had done in the past here and put it all together [for Purl]. “So, she’s this amazing amalgamation of new discoveries, but with a lot of stuff from other movies that we repurposed.”

Another challenge was in making the ball look fuzzy. One of the artists on the “Purl” team recalled a system created for “Brave,” called Wonder Moss, a procedural program used to add moss to objects. Here, they used it to add fuzziness to the yarn ball. “We turned it up and it was the perfect amount of fuzz,” says Lester. “Even though the fuzz came from Brave, we changed it slightly and turned it pink.”

Often the “Purl” team’s instinct was to believe they were encountering a new problem and would try to solve it, only to realize at some point (often through discussions with other Pixar employees), that it had already been solved before. “It is fantastic to be able to lean on inventions that Pixar has already made and then put them all together in this weird little soup to make this character,” says Lester.

As was the case with all the SparkShorts thus far, the “Purl” crew used the entire six-month timeframe to complete the film. With such little time and resources, Lester was concerned about animating the crowd of men in the film. The solution, again, was to look into the Pixar archives – and they found it in the animation libraries. “We did this hybrid of classical animation [using] the animation libraries, and then we used some motion capture to give us a base from which to jump off. That ended up being the way we were able to move through so much footage with so many characters,” she explains.

For Purl, however, the group used traditional methods, animating the character by hand without any motion capture supplement.

Directing “Purl” was a new and challenging experience for Lester: “testing things out, trying to get what you need out of a shot or performance.” Also, she learned to be open to the contributions of others who had their own ideas. “I learned the skill of diplomacy!” she adds.

From left: Gillian Libbert and Kristen Lester