When Pixar’s Toy Story came out in 1995, it almost instantly revived the lost art of feature animation. As it advanced the genre into digital animation, it moved away from old-fashioned stories of princesses singing like Broadway ingenues. Along the way, we became enraptured by the secret lives of toy, cars, monsters, and fish.
It turns out that Pixar, too, is full of formulas. There’s the one famously enumerated by Pixar freelancer Emma Coats, in her 22 Rules of Pixar Storytelling, as they’ve come to be known. And the deservedly praised company has crafted a certain style of animation to which we’ve all grown accustomed: It’s a universe in which Nemo, Sully, and Lightning McQueen might somehow coexist, while the not-quite-human characters are relegated to bit players living in suburban homes just beyond the uncanny valley (unless, of course, they’re stretchy).
All that’s a world away from The Blue Umbrella, the latest Pixar short to precede the company’s annual feature film, which generated a lot of buzz earlier this year. As Saschka Unseld’s boy-meets-girl romance—or rather, boy-umbrella meets girl-umbrella romance—unfolds ahead of Monsters University, it becomes clear that the German-born animator, who worked on Brave, Cars 2, and Toy Story 3, is onto something new. The Blue Umbrella marks a left turn into photo-realism. So much so that you might mistake it for the real thing. The Blue Umbrella blurs the line between animation and the CGI of superhero-destruction movies—and that’s an intriguing line to obscure.
Here, Unseld explains the process leading to an experiment that just might prove to be ahead of its time.
When you pitch a story at Pixar, you’re told to come in with three ideas. So Unseld did as he was told and in early 2011, he showed up with three ideas. "For The Blue Umbrella, I came in with five images that I had Photoshopped and pasted onto big black cardboards," he says of the pitch, which he introduced by setting the scene: There’s a crowd of people and it starts to rain. The people are grumpy, but as their umbrellas pop open above them we see that all the umbrellas are alive. "They’re smiling and happy and laughing," Unseld says. "And in the middle of all of them is a blue umbrella."
At that moment in his narration, he turned the black cardboard around to reveal the first image—a blue umbrella in a sea of black ones. The second image was similar, only there was a red umbrella amidst the others. The third image was a wide shot of a sea of umbrellas with a tiny red one in the middle, to show the two umbrellas getting farther and farther away from each other. And then the fourth image—spoiler alert!—shows what happens when "Blue" gets hit by a couple of cars and lands in the gutter.
"At first, when I pitched it, that was all I had," Unseld says of the first four images. At the last minute, he realized that he couldn’t end on such a down note, so he cooked up a final image of two umbrellas standing out to dry, their faces smiling, happy. "It was just to have a last picture that was happy."
As a sort of afterthought, Unseld showed off something he’d filmed on his block: faces walking, animated to a song. " 'By the way,' I said, 'when I had mentioned that the whole city comes to life, this is what I was talking about.' " And that’s what clinched it. The little movie from his phone sparked notions of a photo-real style that Pixar had never done before.
Unseld hadn’t set out to break the formula. But that’s the part that Unseld recalls John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull, the two heads of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, latched onto. "They were fascinated by what I had done," Unseld says. "They are the strongest proponents of 'animation is not a specific look.' It feels like animated movies have a certain style, but there is no reason for that. Animation nowadays can be whatever it wants to be. With the first Toy Story, you could only do plastic, metal, stone, but you couldn’t do people. It took until The Incredibles—the first time there were humans in digital animation. Now you don’t really have that barrier anymore, it’s just that everyone got used to what animation looks like. Everyone [here at Pixar] really likes the idea of pushing animation into areas no one has thought of yet, at least in mainstream animation."
We tend to think of animation and CGI, computer-generated imagery—which makes, say, the White House catch fire in White House Down—as entirely different crafts. But Unseld says they’re not so different. "Ultimately computer animation, I think, is actually really, really simple," he says, describing the basis for both media. "I mean, it’s really hard when you’re actually doing it, but conceptually it’s simple. Basically you build the sets. You build them in the computer virtually, and it’s the same as building a set out of cardboard, only it’s in the computer. Then you paint it and put surface and texture on it. It’s the same thing. And then you put up lights in the computer, but the same as you would do with the puppet set. So it’s a relatively straightforward, easy process. It’s just the amount of attention you pay to detail once you move into photo-realism." That’s the big difference between The Blue Umbrella and a visual effects-heavy film, he says: When they make a VFX movie, they often take photos of real buildings and use those to create the new images. The Blue Umbrella did it from scratch on the computer. Then again, many VFX movies do the same. In other words, the differences are negligible. "It’s the same way that Expressionist painting is the same as Renaissance photo-real painting. [They’re] both with a brush and with a canvas, it’s just how you use it [that’s] different."
Even Unseld isn’t so sure. "I don’t know if this style will hold up. I mean, this style fitted exactly to the story. What I hope is that the future of animation is more varied in looks and style, and more artistic and more bold in the artistic choices, and more experimental in the artistic choices than what we now feel, which is that every animated movie kind of looks the same."
The distinctions among current animated styles are just, he says, "from this company or this company. Every animated movie kind of looks the same. People can’t really distinguish [them]. And I feel like there is no reason for that. I hope that there is more experimentation with what a film can look like. In early Technicolor, there were so many different ways of using it and making films look different. Now, we actually can do everything. Before, it was always limited."