During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios, we were treated to a special screening of The Blue Umbrella, the short film that will be playing in front of Monsters University when it opens on June 21st. The film’s director Saschka Unseld took a few moments to joins us for a roundtable interview. There, he talked about the short film’s photo-realistic animation, his experience working on previous animated films, writing a happy ending versus having an “arthouse film” ending, his cinematic influences, the importance of music in the piece and more. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Saschka Unseld: So, I was told, too. [Laughs] There’s no live action.
Unseld: Sadly, I had nothing – I mean I had something to do with it that I asked people to do it, but the thing that took me a while to get used to is that I don’t — as Director I don’t do any hands-on work. So, ultimately I always feel like just humble towards the team that they were able to do it and I just asked them to do it.
Actually initially we were thinking about maybe shooting some parts of it, but then during my film studies I shot live action … directed live-action films and did some commercials, and if you would just start to go down that route in your head of shutting down this downtown city block, filling it with dozens of cars, and extras, and people with umbrellas, and then making it rain, and then being able to control that that is just – you don’t wanna do that. So, even if you were true to commercials where the picture is live-action, you would do it CG.
Did you do a famous film out of the film academy that we should all know?
Unseld: I worked on a couple of films. I never directed one of the famous ones, but I worked on a couple of them. If you remember Rocks…Rocks was nominated for an Academy Award like in ’90 water with two stone creatures where time passes faster for them. That was like ages ago. And then a couple of other ones, Annie & Boo that Johannes [Weiland] directed and those are all good friends of mine from the time at the film academy.
Right. And then Gruffle.
Unseld: The Gruffler, yeah. I actually pitched … I directed with Jacob, who ended up co-directing with Matt on this. I directed the pitch for that before I came here. That was kind of when I left the studio and then started at Pixar.
So, when you thought about The Blue Umbrella, did you think about doing it as photorealistic backgrounds from the beginning?
Unseld: Not really. It was funny. During yesterday and today that I realize I actually never thought of it being photo-real initially. I have never thought of that finally until yesterday. The idea came just from the umbrella I found and for a long time I worked on coming up with an idea, a story for an umbrella. The first thing was someone had thrown the umbrella away, and the umbrella tries to get back to its owner, someone breaks up with you and you wanna be with that person. That person just threw you away, but I could never come up with a happy ending to that story.
I worked on it for a long while. Like this, which, of course, has nothing to do with that it’s photo-real or not, and then it was on like half a year later or something like this I had started to think of the short more as being about the rain and being a love declaration to the rain, because where I grew up it rains much more than here. And I like the rain a lot. I love cities in the rain, so it — the rain, the rain turns the city into a magical place, and that’s when the idea of city characters coming to life kind of mixed in, that not just the umbrellas come to life when it rains, but the whole city comes to life. So, that was part of a coincidence of me exploring what story I wanna tell in it that it mixed in. And it wasn’t until I actually pitched the story here. The story was kind of in the shape that it is the final film when I pitched it, but I pitched it just verbally with like four pictures to underscore certain story peaks. And then after I pitched it I showed a test I had done, which was at the time unrelated. At the time I had an idea for a music video that is “A City Sings a Song” basically.
So, on my phone I had just filmed a couple of faces I’d seen around my block, loaded them onto the computer and animated to a song. In the pitch after I told the story I said, “By the way, when I said the city comes to life, I had this test I wanted to show you just kind of to make people understand the idea of it and what I mean with it. Balloons don’t jump up. It’s just kind of like this.
I watched people watching this, and this moment of the first blink I had exactly the same characters as ended up in the final film being the first character that comes to life I had in my test. That’s like a block away from where I live. And there was this magic to the perception in the first five seconds being it’s real, and then wondering what is going on there. And then this slow descent into oh, this is alive. And that worked, because it was photo-real. So, it was kind of during that pitching process that I realized there is something unique about this thing, and we all started thinking, “What if we do the whole thing photo-real?” So, it had nothing to do with the initial story idea, but it came during the process.
Why did you feel it necessary to have happy ending?
Unseld: If it would be a European art house film it probably wouldn’t have. But ultimately I’m probably too much of a romantic to not have a happy ending. I always have these evil thoughts in the back of my head that if we show it at some old art house festival I just cut off the end and it ends when Blue is there on the side of the street and when they cut, it’s the end credits. But it’s the movies, and I feel like you wanna make people happy. And I wanna give people a good feeling when they go out of a movie and see something. Reality out there is hard enough sometimes already.
I think what you do in a film is you bring the character there. You bring the story to the harsh reality but you end on a positive note of, of hope and a good outlook on life and not a negative outlook. The important thing is just that at one point you go to the harsh reality that sometimes happens, and that’s what it does in the middle when the umbrella is on the ground and it’s nearly exactly the same thing. I saw that one day. But then you go back to happy.
Obviously your music is a very important part of this. Who did the music?
Unseld: It was a kind of collaboration from me, the test I talked earlier about that I had done on my iPhone where I thought it would be a music video. That was a song from Sarah Jaffe, who’s the vocalist in the final piece.
So, here voice had been with me since the very beginning even before I had the story. But she’s a singer-songwriter. I don’t know why she’s so unknown, but she’s a small singer-songwriter from Denton in Texas. And singer-songwriters do a bit of different thing than composers, because the song is three, four minutes long and has one mood and one idea while a score needs to change kind of mood and rhythm on a dime. So, we wanted a composer composing the music, but her being the vocalist, and that ended up being Jon Brion, I love for just the stuff he did on Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and he’s such a light tone with such catchy melodies. So, he scored the whole thing, and Sarah Jaffe is the vocalist. I don’t know, for me it’s nearly like a karma thing that her voice inspired the idea for making a music video with city faces, because I was walking around listening to her through the city and her being the final voice in the film. Somehow there’s a simplicity to it that I really like.
You, you mentioned last night that it was hard to do the human faces and so you avoided that. What was the easier part to make look real, and I mean what are some things that you did to make things look more real as well?
Unseld: Um, the easier parts to make look real, good question. I think initially everyone thought the first shot should be easy, but then they ended up not being that easy, because you can see everything in broad daylight. I mean we had a lot of things actually working in our favor to make it look real. First, on that, it’s night [and that] helps a lot. It’s just so much stuff is in darkness. That it rains helps a lot, because it adds just a certain amount of complexity and detail that if it wouldn’t rain you wouldn’t get, and you would look more at all the details of the buildings. And then something I was really interested in using a really shallow depth of field, because for me there’s a beauty in it, and that, of course, blows out the whole background. So you don’t have to build the city into infinity.
So, there were a couple of things that really worked in our favor. With– without those we wouldn’t have been able to do it. The depth of field stuff - we didn’t add it, because it’s easier that way. It was something I really wanted to explore, because I think there’s the reality and the beginning where everything is kind of evenly lit and daylight. And then it stays photo-real throughout, but I think there are so many elements of filmmaking that you can use to make something very expressionistic and very kind of lyrical. I wanted it to be more artistic and more old than normally animated movies are. And I think out of focus backgrounds do that. I think they’re nearly painterly with just some red splotch, or blue splotch, or something like this, and the same thing with the neon lights, that it’s so boldly lit. Some shots are just green, or red, or blue. These kinds of things were, I found, really important to kind of make that place magical even though it’s real.
Was Taxi Driver and influence on you?
Unseld: I looked a bit at Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver just stays dreary. There’s a lot of movies set beautifully in cities where it rains. Blade Runner is the same. Blade Runner looks gorgeous, but to certain extent they have a — the world the characters live in is not a beautiful world, but kind of a harsh world, and there’s a bit of beauty to it, but you can never have too much of it.
Well, you go to second color musicals then if you want.
Unseld: Yeah, I mean I love the early Technicolor stuff. It’s amazing. Like there’s a cinematographer called Jack Cardiff, who for me is my favorite ones actually of his is not The Red Shoes, but, Black Narcissus. A lot of the stuff I showed to the lighters was Wong Kar Wai and especially his earlier one Chungking Express, because it’s — I was thinking, “Okay, this is photo-real, but this doesn’t mean anything art direction wise.”
I feel like there’s a lot of stuff in, in especially in the last ten years in live action films. They’ve used a lot of CG that it becomes very unreal. It becomes too polished, and too clean, and it’s a reality that I don’t feel like is real, and it doesn’t feel like it has a history or it has no texture, and it’s — I don’t wanna live in there.
So, I was looking for something that is really colorful and beautiful, but still feels gritty and real, and Chungking Express has that. It’s shot handheld, and it’s shot all on location, all with natural light, and the neon lights that are in these Chungking mansions, but it’s beautifully otherwise. And the same thing, but more extended, and that’s what I gave as reference later on is In the Mood for Love, and even as American film, which story wise is a strange piece, but -
Unseld: My Blueberry Nights, but it was shot by the amazing Darius Khondji, and there’s beautiful stuff that I wanted everyone to look at. Where in the font out of focus there is just something on the glass window and just a bit of red, and a bit of blue, and it’s very, it’s very painterly even though it’s real. And I wanted this painterly feel at the end that it’s nearly an abstract film. I mean we still tell a story through mainstream audience, but as much as we can do in art house film within the confines of our audience. I wanted to do an art house film.
Tell us about your pitch process, because I can only imagine how scary that must be to sit there with the brain trust and pitch. Do they let you do your spiel, and then they talk, give you ideas right then and there? Or while you’re giving it do they say, “Well, wait a minute.”
Unseld: That, that would’ve been weird I think. [Laughs] So, the pitch was strange, because I — so, I mean I directed shorts before. I worked in animation for a while, so all that stuff I was used to, but pitching something — I had talks on technical things and all these types of things, so I was used to giving a talk, but telling an emotional story just with words that was something I’ve never done. I don’t work in the story department. I work in the cinematography department and we have visual things to show. That was the one part I was really kind of not scared, but — yeah, maybe a bit scared, but, but what I did then, because I realized well, I’m not good at this. Like the first tries to development I realized I’m not really good at this. So, I prewrote the whole thing and, in the way I would talk, like not really scripted, but in natural language, and I recorded myself on my computer pitching it to my computer. I was alone at home, and I watched it, and it was really embarrassing, and it was really a very intimate moment to be that kind of honest with yourself, but I did that like 50 times. And at one point I was like I still kind of look like I’m mumbling and somehow I’m not really as emotional and expressive as I imagine Pixar people to be. So, if I’m just by myself at home how about I just act really silly and really over-the-top and push it to 200 percent, because no one is watching me.
I think I wouldn’t have been able to do that like in a workshop where you try to improve that, because people would’ve been watching me. So, I did that and then watched myself and realized oh, I was kind of just slightly stronger than before, but just in my head I’m crazy, but if I look at the video it’s like a bit better, but not even as much as I thought it should be. So, that helped a lot. And then when I gave the actual pitch first to a panel of the main directors here and, and heads of story,mand then later to John it was amazing, because they’re amazing listeners.
It made such a big difference pitching to a test — pitching to just people here I knew or some people in development and stuff like this, who do this a lot, but pitching to the panel or to John was amazing, because I could see how they were listening. Like they were not sitting there like this and listening. They were sitting there like this and watching me and following what, what I was talking about and emotionally following me. Suddenly there was this additional energy I had from this, which was amazing.
And then, yeah, they let me pitch the whole thing. I showed the test, and then afterwards they talked about it, but even during the pitch I could see in their faces they were following. Like the worst thing is you tell someone and everyone’s like poker face and you don’t even know, and then you spin out of control. So, just that was amazing, how actively they listened and nearly became part of, of me telling the story.
What was the best note?
Unseld: The best note? Oh, I don’t — it was funny, because there were never any story notes. It was always kind of everyone instantly dived into how fantastic it would be to have this world of umbrellas. And initially we thought maybe we have baby umbrellas and we have kind of loads of different characters there that later on we removed, because we didn’t wanna show the humans, but we wanted to have a contrast between people who hate the rain and someone who loves the rain. So, the people who hate the rain became the other umbrellas. It was relatively straight forward. We didn’t have any story changes through in the pitch process, so there were barely notes in regards to that. During the story process though there was one great note, which wasn’t part of my pitch, and that’s the nice thing about working so much on the story that here, was that the city should help Blue at one point. But that wasn’t part of my initial pitch. They were just watching him and kind of knowing him but they couldn’t do anything.
That was part of your test though, wasn’t it?
Unseld: My test was just the city singing.
Unseld: Actually my pitch was the city being a glee chorus. So, the city was actually singing and changing its song when they meet into a love song. When they get separated the song would change. So, the city was always just a glee chorus, but they were sitting in the back seat. And then during the story process we were like they should do something. Otherwise, I mean, it may be being creepy, it’s kind of … you’re like, “Do something!” And then we needed to figure out ways how they could believably do something.
Since it’s photo-realistic, did you think about that when you did your camera that you wanted to, to take from live action, some of the camera?
Unseld: Yeah, the photo-real thing I realized is not just how it looks, it’s how you shoot it. It’s how you move the camera. I was thinking more of it to a certain extent like a documentary where it feels like the set exists beyond what I shoot. There’s even shots in there or editing in there where we do a jump cut, where it’s — or not a jump cut — where kind of it’s as if you were to do a documentary, but the shot is like ten seconds long and you only want the beginning or the end, and in a documentary you would just cut out the middle. And there’s a shot when they cross the street where we do that. It influences the editing and influences how you shoot it. We only wanted to shoot it from places where you could actually stand with a camera and use long lenses, so it doesn’t feel weird that you stand next to two people just meeting. So, it influenced a lot of cinematography and editing decisions that it feels real and not just that it looks real.