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.”
Deciding how to best to realize the concept required several lunchtime brainstorming sessions with Pixar’s celebrated staff of filmmakers. Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter was among the strongest proponents for achieving a realistic visual treatment, in keeping with Unseld’s earlier test animation. “If it would be a cartoony city, then yes of course it can smile or come to life. But if it’s a real city, that moment becomes so much more magical. Then, we were deep in the problems of actually making the whole thing real,” he notes.
They began with the designs for the two lead characters, and made a point of being mindful of their physicality. “There are no faces in umbrellas naturally and we could have pushed some in there, like in a pattern that’s on the umbrella or in folds or raindrops or something, but it would always look forced, and it only got worse once you tried to animate that and express something. If the character’s having to do a quick take or be surprised, you would morph the umbrella and the question becomes ‘why doesn’t the owner realize that is happening?’” The solution proved to be focusing on the umbrella’s internal emotional state, and allowing viewers to differentiate that from its actual body. “It’s as if we put on magical glasses and can see what the umbrella feels, without breaking the reality of someone having an umbrella. Everything the umbrellas do physically are realistic things: they can turn inside out, and they can fly away if the wind is too strong.” Their eyes, however, continually face the camera, he notes, to keep that connection with the audience. “They’re always perfect circles which design-wise looks nice but also makes them feel like they’re not real objects sitting in that reality.”
Timing also played a key role in negotiating the potential disconnect between the short’s surrealist characters and hyper-realistic setting. “What we did was animate the city characters as if they’re stop motion characters,” Unseld reveals. “Normally you animate on ‘ones’, so that every frame there’s a slight change, but in puppet animation, because it’s so much work, you sometimes you hold a frame for two frames or for three frames, and we did that with some of the city characters. We animated them more like puppet animation. We even had that influence the motion blur on them,” he explains. “The whole film has way more motion blur than an animated film normally has, because it makes it seem more real. The animators don’t like that because it destroys their beautiful posing and animation, but we pushed that more in there. The city characters, since I was thinking of them kind of as stop motion or pixilation, didn’t have any motion blur on them. Every frame that was rendered, we froze the movement so it was rendered as if they’re always in that pose for that frame. That helped a lot with making them feel true to the material, because as soon as you have stone deform it might look weird. The stop motion animation movement without motion blur helped it feel more jerky, more jittery and more cohesive with the idea of the character and the surface and everything.
“And then going back to the umbrella faces, it was the same thing. The umbrellas themselves have so much motion blur because they were part of the physical reality, but the faces were stylized and they looked horrible with that amount of blur, so we actually have different settings for the umbrella and the face.” By reducing the blur on the eyes, for example, they retain a certain pop when blinking. “Blur completely destroys that snappiness because it adds a bit of ease-in and it makes everything more smooth, so we nearly completely removed any motion blur from the faces. We have tons of different settings for different elements. We even did the same with the rain. When it’s romantic, it has much more blur and looks softer and beautiful. For the car crash sequence, the idea was more to get something like in Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan where the camera has just been open for a fraction of a twenty-fourth of a frame and suddenly you get this more gritty look to everything and especially to the rain.”
Calibrating everything on a case-by-case basis may have complicated the process, but resulted in a film that Unseld feels makes full use of the possibilities of the medium. “Since we can adjust all these things, I thought ‘let’s use every element we can actually control in animation to support the emotional beat of a shot.’” With all the hard work behind him, he insists upon highlighting that in spite of his vision for the project, The Blue Umbrella was very much a team effort. “It’s just crazy to work here and get a team of people because ultimately everyone is, I feel, more talented than I am,” he demurs. “If you do something on the side on your own, you just don’t get that. It was exhilarating to, for a year, have people here work on the film and it became so much better because of that collaboration.”
Catch The Blue Umbrella and Monsters University in theatres now.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.