Ode to a City in the Rain

Di­rec­tor Saschka Unseld awak­ens hid­den char­ac­ters and tells a unique love story in Pixar’s lat­est short, The Blue Um­brella. by Mercedes Mil­li­gan

Animation Magazine - - Shorts -

Pixar An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios has a long his­tory of bring­ing the im­prob­a­ble and inan­i­mate to life with the lat­est in CG tech­nol­ogy. The stu­dio’s lat­est short, The Blue Um­brella, builds on this tra­di­tion and im­bues it with fresh imag­i­na­tion, plus all the emo­tive sto­ry­telling and jaw-drop­ping an­i­ma­tion artistry au­di­ences have come to ex­pect.

Con­ceived and di­rected by Ger­man-born film­maker Saschka Unseld, the film un­folds in the hub­bub of a city’s evening com­mute. As rain blan­kets the ur­ban scenery, it brings the fa­mil­iar alive in a novel way, as do the Red and Blue um­brel­las who are the he­roes of the ro­man­tic story, fall­ing in love amid the sym­phony of plink­ing rain­drops and whirling gut­ters. The short is pro­duced by Marc Green­berg, who has been with Pixar’s fea­ture depart­ment since start­ing out as a pro­duc­tion ac­coun­tant on Rata­touille.

This is Unseld’s di­rec­to­rial de­but at Pixar, which he joined in 2008 to work in cam­era and stag­ing for Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Brave. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the An­i­ma­tion In­sti­tute of Lud­wigs­burg, Ger­many in 2003 he co-founded Stu­dio Soi, where he pro­duced and di­rected short films and com­mer­cials. Pas­sion­ate about film, Unseld says it took him a full year to de­velop the short’s story be­fore he was ready to pitch to the Brain Trust, and another year be­fore they were able to be­gin pro­duc­tion.

“There’s kind of two and a half in­spi­ra­tions be­hind the core idea I had,” says the di­rec­tor. “A cou­ple years ago, I was walk­ing through San Fran­cisco and it was one of those days when it’s ac­tu­ally rain­ing in Cal­i­for­nia—and sud­denly I saw some­thing ly­ing in the street, in the gut­ter: a bro­ken and drenched um­brella. I took a pic­ture be­cause it was in­cred­i­bly sad and aban­doned. I started to think of what hap­pened to him, what could be his story and what could hap­pen af­ter that mo­ment—be­cause it wouldn’t be a nice end­ing to a story to have him ly­ing in the gut­ter with no one car­ing about him.”

Unseld adds that in think­ing about the story he be­gan to pon­der what rain sym­bol­ized to him, not­ing that in Ham­burg where he grew up it rained of­ten, and that it lent a cer­tain charm to the city. “I thought it would be great to make the film a love dec­la­ra­tion to the rain, show­ing how pretty a city in the rain could be. Ev­ery­thing fell into place: if it’s a love dec­la­ra­tion to the rain, the story should be a love story,” he ex­plains. “And then, I am a sucker for love sto­ries!”

Like Manna from Heaven

In ad­di­tion to ex­plor­ing the char­ac­ter of rain and how it af­fects an en­vi­ron­ment, another key el­e­ment was show­ing how the in­clement weather brings the city to life. Unseld pro­duced test footage where he shot pic­tures of ob­jects that looked like faces on his phone and an­i­mated them to il­lus­trate the con­cept. “When I pitched the idea, I showed th­ese tests. Ev­ery time th­ese char­ac­ters came to life ev­ery­one was kind of amazed at that mag­i­cal mo­ment of some­thing you per­ceive as be- ing inan­i­mate com­ing alive and be­ing some­thing you emo­tion­ally con­nect to.”

Com­ple­ment­ing what the di­rec­tor calls this “slow de­scent into this mag­i­cal world” is the pro­gres­sion of the film’s an­i­ma­tion style from a pho­to­re­al­is­tic open­ing to a lusher, bolder style as the rain’s trans­for­ma­tive pow­ers take hold. Unseld notes with pride that in test screen­ings the view­ers al­ways asked how much of the film was live ac­tion—the an­swer, of course, is none of it. In­spir­ing the shifted color pal­ette and vis­ual de­sign as the story un­folds was mainly the work of ad­mired pho­tog­ra­phers and live-ac­tion films like Wong KarWai’s In the Mood for Love.

The film­mak­ers also took a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach to pro­duc­ing the an­i­ma­tion. No­tably, the short helped spear­head the much-lauded new global il­lu­mi­na­tion tech­nol­ogy show­cased in Mon­sters Univer­sity. The di­rec­tor adds that the artists did much more work in com­posit­ing rather than in the 3D ren­der, say­ing that shift­ing the def­i­ni­tion of the film’s look to com­posit­ing al­lowed the crew more flex­i­bil­ity to lend a painterly ap­proach to the pho­to­re­al­is­tic an­i­ma­tion. They also did all the depth-of-field work in post.

Stormy Weather

While fewer than 100 names ap­pear in the cred­its for Blue Um­brella, Unseld es­ti­mates only about 20 worked on it for the full year, as the Pixar shorts process has to work around crew avail­abil­ity dur­ing its three- to five-year fea­ture pro­duc­tions. The di­rec­tor says it was a big change from his Stu­dio Soi ex­pe­ri­ence where 20 or fewer artists worked on ev­ery as­pect of a film, and he had to get used to giv­ing notes and walk­ing away rather than be­ing hands-on for ev­ery­thing.

“We’re us­ing this mas­sive, amaz­ing pro­duc­tion ma­chine of Pixar which is meant for fea­tures, but do­ing some­thing re­ally short and ag­ile. It’s like you want to go around the cor­ner to go gro­cery shop­ping, but you have to take this mas­sive air­craft car­rier that takes a hun­dred peo­ple to set up to go there,” he ob­serves.

With the com­plex­ity of his vi­sion for the short, which in­volved mas­sive amounts of tex­tu­ral de­tail in ev­ery shot, the di­rec­tor ad­mits it was prac­ti­cally a guess­ing game whether it would all come to­gether, un­til they saw the fi­nal ren­der of the first shot. But, he says, the great­est an­i­ma­tion chal­lenge was achiev­ing the sub­tlety of emo­tion needed for the ten­der story to trans­late—es­pe­cially in the coy ex­changes be­tween the love-struck um­brel­las.

“When Blue and Red meet for the first time and she sees that he’s star­ing at her, and he quickly turns away, there’s a re­ally long two-shot of them kind of glanc­ing at each other and try­ing to look each other in the eye, and there’s chem­istry,” Unseld elab­o­rates. “In that shot, so many re­ally sub­tle things are go­ing on—dur­ing the an­i­ma­tion phase you could tell ev­ery tiny de­tail, but once we had the fi­nal ren­der shot some of it just got lost be­cause the pic­ture is so lush and pretty to look at. The amount of move­ment you need in the face for the au­di­ence to be drawn to it we needed to amp up slightly.”

When asked for ad­vice to other as­pir­ing di­rec­tors, Unseld says the key is al­ways to find a story which res­onates with you emo­tion­ally. “I would find it hard to tell a story I didn’t re­ally care about … where I wouldn’t see my­self re­flected in some as­pect of it. Find­ing th­ese things in a film you’re mak­ing is re­ally im­por­tant, and find­ing your way of telling th­ese emo­tional sto­ries.”

Blue Um­brella is in­cluded in the Mon­sters Univer­sity DVD/ Blu-ray (Dis­ney Home Ent.), which was re­leased on Oc­to­ber 29.

Saschka Unseld

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