Starling, Mitra Shahidi’s beautiful short about the spirit of a cute little girl who shoots down to Earth so spend her birthday with her parents, won the top animation prize at the Tribeca Festival. We caught up with the talented director, who is a story artist at Pixar, to find out more about her project:
On the short’s origins and team: I started working on it in late 2018 when I couldn’t stop drawing a little cute spirit that comes down to earth to visit. In my mind it represented a lively soul that lived on and shined upon me. It percolated in my mind for a long time before I realized I needed to make this into a film, since that is the medium I work with. We teamed up with Jessica Heidt and the film started to take shape into reels after that. It was a Pixar Co-op, which means we get to use the equipment at Pixar, but we own the film.
Lots of incredible colleagues at Pixar held the leadership helm, such as producer Jessica Heidt, animation supervisor Holger Leihe, director of photography and composer Andrew Jimenez, film editor Ayse Arkali, production designer Celine You and VFX supervisor Kristoffer Landes. More than 70 people worked on it from 14 different countries. We used everything we could get our hands on such as TVPaint, ToonBoom, Blender, Photoshop, After Effects and more.
Can you tell us more about how your childhood friend’s passing inspired the short? My friend was an absolute shining star. She was larger than life, extremely energetic, funny, full of hopes and beautiful dreams. She invited me to her birthday one summer, I was abroad and couldn’t make it, but she was not well enough to celebrate it the way she wanted to. Her passing devastated me, and I still have a hard time believing she is gone. Maybe because she isn’t.
The visual style: It really came from my own soft spot for everything chibi and cute, and when we teamed up with the incredible Celine You, she really breathed life into ‘90s Istanbul and all the colorful characters that live in it. The movie’s style is really her wonderful style of which I’m a huge fan.
Influences: Definitely Miyazaki. Yoshifumi Kondo who made Whisper of the Heart; Disney movies like Fantasia and Bambi; Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon) for sure; Brad Bird and his total masterpiece Ratatouille. A lot of current colleagues greatly inspire me every day.
When did you know you wanted to work in animation? I knew I loved animation when I watched Fantasia super young, perhaps five or six years old. I also watched my mom illustrate children’s books, so I knew someone drew those films. I have been pestering everyone around me about everything animation since then.
Biggest Challenge: It was definitely figuring out how to tell this very delicate story. I just wanted to bring my friend back to life for one night and eventually her personality and mine meshed into the Starling character, who took on a life of her own. It was really difficult to try to figure out what she does on Earth, what it means, how she navigates the city. Another super tough part was to do this whole thing with zero budget, before and after full time job responsibilities, lunch hours and weekends. I am forever grateful for all the incredible artists and animators who put in an enormous amount of energy and talent into this passion project.
Audience Response: So far, I’ve been getting very emotional and poignant feedback — people have been taking away different things from this film, some I didn’t even think about. I’d like the audiences to watch it and interpret it however they like. Feel the presence of a loved one maybe. Remember to enjoy our time on the ground perhaps, since we are all joining them in the skies in the end.
Future plans: I just made a live action short film called Good Egg. I’m interested in exploring live action and animation, combining both sensibilities and discovering new ways of storytelling. I just love filmmaking and plan to make as many as possible to get these ideas out of my head.
Watch the trailer below: