Co.Create

Meet the Creator: The Director Under Pixar's "Blue Umbrella"

In January, Pixar released a clip of its upcoming short "The Blue Umbrella," which got people talking. Now director Saschka Unseld talks to Co.Create about how its unique effects were achieved and how Pixar shorts are picked.

It was only a 25-second clip. Two sentient umbrellas, apparently of opposite umbrella-genders, take note of one another on a crowded city sidewalk. And that’s about all that happens. Yet, there was something about the footage Pixar released of its forthcoming short, The Blue Umbrella, that caught people’s attention, like, well, the way an umbrella catches rain. Soon enough, everyone was raving about it, galvanizing a storm of animated hype.

At the center of this advance buzz is Saschka Unseld, a technical artist at Pixar and a director in his own right. The Blue Umbrella is his new short, and it’s easily his most high-profile personal project to date, set to play before the sure-to-be-a-hit Monsters University. Unseld worked on the project for roughly a year and a half, at first with only two other people supporting him, but eventually with several more on hand. Throughout the production, Unseld has chronicled his experience on his Tumblr, and continues to do so.

Recently, the director spoke with us about creating the unique look of The Blue Umbrella, the endless possibilities of CG animation, and how a Pixar short gets the green light.

Co.Create: What kind of work did you do for Pixar before making this short?

Saschka Unseld: I worked in the Camera and Staging Department. You can think of it as the department that does the Cinematography part of the films. We work on how to stage the action and how to shoot it. Do we want to use a wide shot, a close shot, how do we move the camera. We often also refer to it as Visual Storytelling. It is about how to stage and shoot the action to support the emotional beats of the story the strongest.

What was your inspiration for The Blue Umbrella?

It was on one of those rare rainy days in California and I was walking through downtown San Francisco when something in the gutter caught my eye. It was an umbrella that someone must have tossed away, completely beaten up and drenched. And as I was looking at this sad fellow I started wondering what had happened to him and I think that was when I got the idea of telling his story. But of course, in my version of the story there would be a happy ending.

Why did you decide on this format, which looks to be a live-action/animation mix?

Sadly, there is this sentiment out there that CG animation has a certain style, a certain look. But that’s not true. CG animation can look like whatever you want it to look like. And what is the right look comes down to what style and format supports the story the most.

In our story there is a moment where everyday city objects, like rain gutters, street signs, mailboxes etc. are coming to life. This moment needed to feel magical, it needed to feel as if we are bearing witness to something incredible. If the style of the short would have been cartoony—if the city would have been a cartoon city—objects coming to life would not have been a surprise, there wouldn’t have been any magic to it. In a cartoon world, people do expect unusual things to happen; in the real world, they don’t.

How is this short animated to look so lifelike?

When we were building the city and the umbrellas it was not only about simulating the light, shadows, reflection, and rain realistically. It was about giving everything a sense of realistic physical history. For example, cracks in the asphalt are like wrinkles in a human’s face: They are not randomly spread, they are shaped by weather, people, their surface material and usage. If there is grass growing in the cracks it needs to look as if it has been stepped on a million times.

The attention to detail in regards to the physical history of the world is what makes us believe in it.

How are these shorts selected to run before movies? What was that process like?

At Pixar anyone can pitch an idea for a short. You actually have to pitch three ideas and one gets picked. After I had my story ideas in order I started to meet with the development department for a couple of months until we all felt that my stories were ready to pitch. After that, the first step was to pitch my ideas to a panel of Pixar’s directors and heads of story. I went through one round of feedback with them and they picked one idea that they thought John Lasseter would like. If John likes the idea, it is green-lit. And lucky for me he liked it.

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