Pixar's New Short 'The Blue Umbrella' Takes a Photoreal Approach

Blue Umbrella - H 2013
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Saschka Unseld, the writer and director of Pixar Animation Studio’s latest short, The Blue Umbrella, was walking down a rainy San Francisco street when he found a broken umbrella on the side of the road. “I stopped because it looked like such a sad thing, and rain was pouring on it,” he recalled. “I was feeling sad for an umbrella; I think that stuck with me.”

This random moment inspired a short that follows an emotive umbrella, which makes its theatrical debut on June 21, preceding Pixar’s Monsters University. “Rain is a magical place," the director said. "I wanted the soul of the film to be a love declaration to the rain, that celebrates the rain."

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The story is set on stormy evening in a city that is fully CG -- which is likely to surprise many moviegoers by its remarkable photorealism. CG environments or set extension are not uncommon in live action production, but this sort of realism is a striking departure from the stylized worlds that we have become accustomed to seeing in Pixar's work. This particular setting was created by combining characteristics of various cites, including New York and San Francisco. “There’s even a cafe that an art director on Ratatouille found on a research trip to Paris,” said the director, who started his career in his native Germany before joining Pixar, where he took on various camera and staging assignments for features including Toy Story 3 and Brave.

To pitch his short to Pixar’s creative team, Unseld -- who also served as the technical director -- prepared a brief clip by animating some live action he shot on his cell phone. He said that seeing the response to the clip “reminded me of what I loved in cinema when a kid -- that cinema could be magic. ... It made sense to have the story take place in a real city because the magic of it coming to life would be so much stronger.

“Animation can be visually whatever we want it to be. There just needs to be a reason why we use [a given] a visual style,” he added. “[Pixar execs] John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were excited that I had found a story that made sense to tell with a different visual look.”

Added producer Marc Greenberg, “A lot of the magic of the short comes from it being [a photoreal city]. If you had magical, stylized world you would expect it to come to life. But when you have a photoreal world, you don’t."

The producer admitted that they did consider using live action photography in the production, but ultimately chose the CG route to get complete flexibility, such as with camera placement and movement. “We thought we were going to have to touch every shot [in the computer] anyway if we did live action, and we wanted the flexibility.”

Greenberg noted that the animators pushed a number of the tools that are continually developing at Pixar. That included global illumination for lighting; compositing, using depth information to get a depth of field; and ‘camera capture,’ the technique of physically moving a device to create a handheld feel.

Monsters University also used the global illuminations tools, and the camera capture technique was first tapped when making Toy Story 3, Greenberg says. “But the shorts can push technology in a way that sometimes features can't. They have shorter production schedules so you can sometimes take more risks.”

Pixar shorts generally do well in the annual Academy Awards' shorts competition. In the early days of Pixar, the studio earned nominations for shorts including Luxo Jr. and won Oscars for several such as Tin Toy and Geri’s Game. In recent years it earned nominations for La Luna, Day & Night and Presto.

With a touching story and ambitious animation, The Blue Umbrella will be one to watch during this coming awards season.

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