2021 Oscars: Lafayette native earns raves for Pixar’s ‘Burrow’

As a young girl growing up in Lafayette, Madeline Sharafian enjoyed hiking with her parents and sister among the meandering trails and rolling hills of Briones Regional park.

There, she often found herself gazing in fascination as cottontail rabbits popped in and out of holes in the ground.

“I knew there was a whole system of burrows,” she recalls. “I’d see the holes and wonder what was down there — what it looked like.”

Sharafian, 28, couldn’t realize then that her curiosity would someday lead her to a heady jolt of Academy Award recognition. Now a lead story artist at Pixar Animation Studios, she wrote and directed “Burrow,” a charming, six-minute film about a shy bunny who is determined to build a subterranean dream home — all on her own.

“Burrow”  had a Christmas premiere on the Disney+ streaming service. Then last month, Sharafian learned that it was among the five Oscar nominees for best animated short.

Madeline Sharafian 

“I was so convinced that it wasn’t going to happen,” she says of the nomination. “So I slept in the morning of the announcements. I woke up to a wild storm of text messages. I was completely and happily surprised.”

Of course, Oscar glory is old hat for the veteran artisans of Pixar. Inside the studio’s lobby, a glass trophy case packed with shiny hardware stands as testament to cinematic achievement. Sharafian, however, is quick to point out that “they might be used to it, but not me!”

A 2011 graduate of Acalanes High School, she joined Pixar as a story intern in 2013 while studying animation at California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts). She returned for a full-time position in 2015 after working at Cartoon Network as a storyboard artist and writer on the TV series “We Bare Bears.”

As a self-described “high-strung perfectionist,” Sharafian’s early years at the Emeryville dream factory were rather rough on her because she felt like she had to go out of her way to prove she belonged.

“Everyone is so good and the bar is so high,” she says. “In order to appear perfect, I would work late and work on weekends, and not tell anyone — just to make it look like I had it all together. I’d isolate myself and not connect with people. That’s not healthy.”

In crafting the dialogue-free “Burrow,” she embedded some of those same traits in her fluffy lead character. As the rabbit digs her burrow, she repeatedly bumps into her underground neighbors and is embarrassed by how grand and elaborate their abodes are. A group of frogs, for example, has an extensive underground library.

But rather than request their assistance, the rabbit digs further down, seeking to go it alone. Ultimately, she encounters trouble and the other critters come to her rescue.

“Basically, the message is that there’s no shame in admitting that you’re in over your head. Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Sharafian says. “Trust that they know what they’re doing and won’t look down on you for asking.”

Those lessons were driven home during the production of “Burrow,” developed as part of Pixar’s SparksShorts program, in which studio employees are given six months and limited budgets to develop their own short animated films.

“It was the first time I had to lead a team,” recalls Sharafian, who previously worked on the feature films “Coco” and “Onward.” “It was a lot more collaborative. I was open to ideas and way more open with my teammates. … I chilled out a little.”

Blessed with a vivid imagination, Sharafian has been drawing and “doodling” since her childhood days. And while television was usually de-emphasized in her house, she became mesmerized by animated feature films — especially relating to the “underdog” characters in the stories.

“I figured early on that I’m probably not the princess type,” she says. “For example, take Ariel and Flounder in ‘The Little Mermaid.’ I’m not so much a courageous, beautiful person, but more a neurotic little sea creature.”


Contact Chuck Barney at [email protected] Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

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Author: Chuck Barney


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