Buildings, Bumbershoots and Bad Weather
Artists are often accused of having their heads in the clouds. The same can’t be said of animator Saschka Unseld, who found inspiration on the sidewalk, of all places.
The discovery happened on a rainy San Francisco morning, as the Pixar employee waited to catch a bus to the famed Emeryville, CA campus. “Everyone around me was grouchy, and I was like ‘rain!’” he recalls with a smile. Having grown up in Hamburg, Unseld has an entirely different emotional response to wet weather compared to typical Californians. “I love the rain, yes, and I miss it here to be honest. I cannot on the weekends sit at home inside feeling completely happy if it’s sunny outside. It just doesn’t work, but if it rains outside and it’s kind of miserable, then it’s beautiful to sit inside. The city gets a really nice atmosphere.”
That atmosphere was broken, however, by the sight of a mangled object at his feet. “I spotted this umbrella and was like ‘oh’. I just thought it looked so sad…like someone just tossed it away and didn’t even bother going back to it and left it laying there.” Unseld took out his phone, snapped a picture and went off to work, never suspecting he’d just found the subject for what would become his first short film with the studio.
The Blue Umbrella, which debuts in theatres today along with Monsters University, is a charming, visually startling CG piece about one umbrella’s dramatic evening in the big city. Part love story, part love letter to the rain, the short takes audiences on a journey through a world that looks quite unlike anything Pixar has attempted before. Well, except for all the inanimate objects coming to life, of course. That’s a concept they’ve been exploring since Toy Story, and moviegoers are sure to detect a hint of the Cars and Planes aesthetic at work in this short. Rest assured, however, that in spite of appearances, it isn’t part of some larger corporate scheme to put googly eyes on everything.
In fact, Unseld had no intention of anthropomorphizing anything other than said umbrella during the first year of developing the film on his own. “The story was initially about an umbrella trying to get back to its owner. It was like a breakup story. You get broken up with and then you still want to be with that person. I just couldn’t find a happy ending for that story. And then, it was about the owner wanting to move to a more sunny city and the umbrella not wanting that and I couldn’t find a happy ending there either. Well…I could but it was always like ehhh,” he laughs. “Once I rewrote the thing as a love story between two umbrellas, it worked because of course they’d only come out when it rains.”
As he developed that narrative, another little side project began to seem strangely compatible. “With my phone, I had filmed a couple of faces I saw in the buildings around the block where I was living and loaded them onto my computer and animated them. At the time I had an idea for a music video where a whole city sings a song, so I animated them to a song.” That test clip soon became the framework for the entire short. “I wanted it to celebrate how beautiful a city is in the rain once the neon lights go on and everything becomes so magical, and that was when suddenly my brain had this short-circuit thing of remembering the city characters coming to life. Those two together were like, ‘what if when it starts to rain, not just the umbrellas come to life, but the whole city comes to life and it’s completely transformed into a magical place?’ That’s how those two ideas collided.”
The head honchos at Pixar were impressed by his pitch, and from there it was full-steam ahead. Curiously, the first character that audiences see in the finished work is also the first character to come to life in that original animation test. “It’s this weird kind of electrical outlet on the sidewalk, and it was nearly exactly the same timing. I filmed it for five seconds, nothing happens, and then there’s one blink and I wait three more seconds and then there’s another blink and then there’s a smile, so you play a bit on perceptions.”