Acalanes alum directs a Pixar film

Internship leads to creating short animated film


A young girl on a family hike chases a cluster of cotton-tailed rabbits through tall grass until she reaches their burrow. As they disappear into the ground, she wonders what happens beyond the small, dark opening she sees. 

Inspired by these hikes in Briones as a child, Acalanes High School graduate Madeline Sharafian created “Burrow,” an animated short film for all ages to enjoy. While on these adventures, she’d see cotton-tailed rabbits popping in and out of their underground homes. 

“I always tried to catch up to them and I would just look down that empty hole, because I knew they were in there. I just wish I could have seen what it was like underneath [the ground],” Sharafian said. 

After Acalanes, Sharafian attended CalArts in Santa Clarita, California. There, she gained knowledge about the animation process and honed her artistic skills. During her time at school, she also created three short films. One of the three, titled “Omelette,” went viral. The film’s triumph opened her eyes to how much work goes into animation

 “…it’s about a little dog that makes an omelette. So at least I had already sort of checked off that box, like I do know I could make something, but I also was very aware of how much hard work went into that. I knew it meant nights and weekends; you kind of have to pour everything into it to get something done,” Sharafian said.

After Sharafian’s two years at CalArts, she began an internship at Pixar in 2013. While interning, Sharafian worked on a myriad of other popular projects. “At Pixar, I’ve worked on, ‘Coco’ and ‘Onward.’ Before that I was on Cartoon Network and I worked on ‘We Bare Bears,” Sharafian said. 

Along with these prosperous animation ventures, Sharafian creates shorts of her own. Her inspiration for her Pixar original, “Burrow,” stems from her childhood nickname, Rabbit. In a preview of the new short, Sharafian describes the project.

“It’s about a little rabbit who’s building her first burrow and she encounters her neighbors. She starts to second-guess herself and accidentally digs herself a little too deep into isolation and has to learn how to ask for help,” Sharafian said. 

Pixar’s SparkShorts program sets aside funding for two short films each year, giving directors full creative freedom over their projects. Lindsey Collins, head of the SparkShorts studios, showed interest in Sharafian’s short. 

“I was so afraid that she would pick someone else before me that I sort of like flung my whole body through the door and try to get chosen. And it was kind of weird, it didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel real until I had boarded it, that I actually had it,” Sharafian said. 

Sharafian took advantage of this opportunity, and explained the creative process that brings her ideas to life. 

“I sort of write it out like a script without words. Then I go to a process we call thumbnailing, where we draw a little version of the shot that we want like super super small really rough,” Sharafian said. “I thumbnail out the whole short and then after thumbnailing I go into storyboarding.” 

She hopes that the Acalanes community feels connected to “Burrow” knowing that her inspiration came from a hiking trail in Happy Valley. Sharafian also mentions that in a final scene, one of her team members, Bill Cone, designed a background that encapsulates her memories of the California hills. Sharafian specifically wanted a hand drawn film because her background in that animation style allowed her to get hands on in the project’s editing. 

“I didn’t do a lot of the animating because I’m not very good at animating, but I did do cleanup. I would take an animators reference drawing because they really know what they’re doing and I would draw clean tidy lines on top of it,” Sharafian said. 

Together the team, led by Sharafian, displays the heartwarming product of their hard work. 

“I love watching it and being able to say who exactly drew that background and who exactly animated that shot. I remember walking into everyone’s office and the moments of finaling every one of those things, and how good it felt to be proud along with everyone else who worked on it,” Sharafian said.

Sharafian does not currently plan to produce another animated original, although she thoroughly enjoys her job at Pixar. She proclaimed her excitement for the debut of upcoming films.

“There’s so much that I can’t reveal that I wish I could. It’s very exciting. I’m just enjoying the ride,” Sharafian said. 

As an Acalanes alum, she shares her advice for students who experiment with animation and those who wish to pursue a career at Pixar or another studio. 

“Some concrete advice would be to keep a sketchbook. That’s been invaluable and so helpful. I was looking through my old sketchbooks recently because I was moving, and I found old drawings from 2014 when I had started to draw a rabbit underground. These things, and these ideas, will sneak up on you over the years,” Sharafian said. 

Sharafian advises that anyone seeking to enter the world of animation, draw for themself and not for others. 

“My portfolio for my Pixar internship was a little more feminine at the time than I thought Pixar was looking for, but I think it was those elements that landed me the internship,” Sharafian said.   Sharafian’s short film premieres on December 25 along with Pixar’s new movie “Soul.”