Pixar's The Blue Umbrella: Interview with Director Saschka UnseldSunny Chanel
You know those romantic moments that are hard to define or describe, those sweet and tender experiences of a new love? Those moments are magical and unforgettable. The new Pixar short The Blue Umbrella manages to capture that feeling in all its passion and purity, but not with humans — this short stars umbrellas. The Blue Umbrella isn’t gushy or overwrought with emotion; it’s cute and quirky, making it appealing to an audience both young and old. The film plays before Monsters University (which opens nationwide on June 21st) and is a lovely way to open the show. Want to know more about The Blue Umbrella? We got a chance to sit down with Pixar director Saschka Unseld and talk about his umbrella love story.
On the photo realism of the film:
There was new technology stuff. Some of that stuff is being used slightly less photo-real in Monsters, like the global illumination. Generally on every movie that comes out, there are new technical innovations being used. And with the short films, you can test something out without putting into jeopardy the production schedule of a feature — if you don’t hit the theatrical release date, that’s a bigger problem.
Attention to detail:
I think a lot of it was just approaching it ‘creatively differently.’ As a hobby, I’d done a photo series on this. I love details in reality. I did a photo series of just sidewalk asphalt plates, and the way one cracks there, and in some areas there are these black dots from chewing gum, and on the side there’s something from a tree which probably stands 10 meters down the street. And just the complexity and the beauty of all these details you can see in the city. A lot of it was me and the team going on trips into the city and looking at all these details, like on the side of a newspaper box there are streaks of probably someone tying their shoelace, and then you have the streak of the black rubber from the shoe there. Or the way these things are moved around has a certain way. There are scratches on them. Everything kind of tells a story to it. And a big, big struggle in the beginning was getting people to change how they work. It was amazing how much people are used to doing things in a more stylized, cartoony way.
The first version of the mailbox, which you see in the beginning, we gave photo references to the modeler to build it. Relatively straight forward, you would think, and then we looked at it, and it was, like, somehow this doesn’t look real. Something is wrong. It was really hard to tell. And we had to really look into the details, and it was… the size of the screws were slightly too big, since a mailbox is made out of this kind of folded metal, the sharpness of a bend has certain physical restrictions. And that was just wrong. It was like all these details that are based on a manufacturing process of these things, or how thick something is, or all these things were slightly off, and all that gave the overall picture of ‘this doesn’t look real.’ So a lot of it was figuring out why are certain things are a certain way.
It’s kind of like when you paint, you have certain mannerisms. And it was kind of getting rid of those mannerisms, and really having people look at those things. And I think that made, at least for me, a big difference between it looking like a normal Pixar film and looking so different.
On what cities they used for inspiration:
There is clearly New York, because I went on two trips there to take photos. There are some characters out of San Francisco, because that was the very first city character. We called her Lisa. They actually all have names because you couldn’t say, like, “you know that weird metal thing in the 15th shot?” They actually all have names. Lisa is two blocks down from where I live, and she was part of a test I shot on my iPhone, as well.
During my pitch, I said the city comes to life, and everyone’s, like, yeah, okay. And then after the pitch I said, “Oh, by the way, when I said that, this is what I mean,” and I showed a test I shot on my phone and animated on my computer at home. And that was exactly the character two blocks down from me, and we kept that character. So that’s from San Francisco. There’s a building that is from a toy research trip. I looked through all the photos I had done from Paris at the time, and there is this building where you see just the rooftop with two windows being the eyes, and then the rain pipe being the mouth. So, that’s a building in Paris. But I think it’s mostly New York, San Francisco, and then a bit of sprinkled stuff.
On where the story came from:
I was living here for like four years already, and it really rarely rained. And then finally it was raining. And I went for a walk through the city, and I saw an umbrella someone had thrown away on the side of the street and I took a picture of it. I think on the Tumblr blog I have, the first post of that is that photo I had taken. I had this weird, incognito blog called Rainy City Tales on Tumblr that I actually was running during the production. That picture stuck with me, and I was thinking about stories I wanted to tell. It’s this weird thing. You see this umbrella and it’s just an object, but it looks so sad, and it looks kind of so down and drenched. Like some of the ribs are sticking out and it just, it’s a super sad sight. And I wanted to tell a story with that.
I thought first about the umbrella wants to get back to the owner, and it’s kind of a break-up story — like someone broke up with you and you still want to be with that person, and I couldn’t find a happy ending to that, sadly. I abandoned that story, and then it became the owner wants to move to somewhere where it never rains, and the umbrella doesn’t want to, but I couldn’t find a happy end for that either. And then I was thinking of why do I like the rain so much? And it became me thinking about where I grew up it rains much more than here, and I really like cities in the rain a lot. I think they become beautiful. (I’m from) Hamburg, in Germany in the north: 80 percent of the year it’s overcast, and it rains a lot. Thinking of that, and what it means to me emotionally, the idea became, well, it should be a love declaration to the rain. It’s about someone who loves the rain so much. It’s a love declaration to the rain, and I was, like, well, well then it should be a love story. That’s the only story that fits to a love declaration. It is a love story between two umbrellas.
I wanted the city, when it rains, to become a magical place where the umbrellas come to life, and I had this idea of a city coming to life already, and I thought what about if not just the umbrellas come to life, but the whole city comes to life when it rains. It transforms the city into a completely different place. And that’s when these two ideas came together. That’s when I finally had, after a year or something of beating myself up, I had something I could pitch.
And pitch he did! You can see the amazing The Blue Umbrella which plays along with Monsters University starting June 21st!