The Pixar Animation Studios photo-real short The Blue Umbrella, playing with Monsters University, is a beautiful story of two umbrellas, one blue and one red, who fall in love. During just another evening commute, the rain starts to fall and the city comes alive, to the sound of dripping rain pipes and whistling awnings, while a weather-beaten and wind-blown umbrella tries to reconnect with a passing umbrella that caught its eye.
At the Monsters University press day at Pixar in Emeryville, Calif., The Blue Umbrella director Saschka Unseld talked about where the idea for the short came from, seeing faces in inanimate objects everywhere, how much the story changed throughout the process, how challenging it was to animate the short, how the photo-real technology compares to traditional animation, the process for the music, and who and what his influences are. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
SASCHKA UNSELD: Well, the core idea was me literally walking through San Francisco on a rainy day, and finding an umbrella that someone tossed away or lost. It was lying on the side of the street, half-broken and drenched, and people just kept passing by. It just looked like the saddest thing in the world. That picture just stuck with me. And then, nearly a year later, when I was trying to come up with ideas for short films, that picture was just so ingrained in my head that I thought, “What happened to that poor thing? What could be its story?”
Was it specifically set in San Francisco?
UNSELD: I’d like to think of it as a mix. The city is actually a little mix of cities, all over. I went to New York for a research trip, just because it has these iconic street canyons. It’s one of the few cities that has sidewalks that are wide enough for a sea of umbrellas to be there. But, I didn’t want it to be one city, specifically. We did research trips in San Francisco. A lot of the city characters come from all over. The café where they sit, at the end, is actually a picture that Harley Jessup, who was the art director on Ratatouille, still had a from a field trip they did to France. He found this café and, at the time, we thought, “Oh, isn’t it funny that there’s a face in there.” He showed me that picture and I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome!” So, it’s a mix of cities, all over. It’s symbolic for big cities, but it’s not a specific city.
Do you see faces in objects everywhere now?
UNSELD: I saw that before, and afterwards now, of course. It’s funny. I had a workshop with kids at the Walt Disney Museum, and we did a couple of school visits with the short. Afterwards, I always ask the kids how many faces they can see, just in the room, and the kids are like, “Oh, there and there,” and suddenly their brain explodes with the amount of characters they can see, all around them.
UNSELD: It changed massively. That was a process that, at the time, was unbelievably frustrating, but afterwards it was like, “Oh, this is normal.” I had probably written four or five complete short films with an umbrella. The first one was that he tries to get back to his owner. It was like a break-up story, like when someone breaks up with you and you still want to be with that person, but I could just never find a happy end to that. I had that fully written out, but I was frustrated because I was never really happy. I grew up in Germany, in Hamburg, in the north, where it’s famous for 80% of the year being overcast and raining a lot, and I really liked the rain in the city. The city is beautiful, especially at night. It’s gorgeous. Everything is glittery and, when you sit inside, it’s such a warm feeling. And I thought it would be amazing, if the short film could be a love declaration to the rain, and that we could celebrate the rain. Once I found that, I was really happy with it. If I wanted to communicate that feeling of loving the rain, the story had to be a love story because that just fit. That was the right way of communicating that feeling of love for the rain.
How challenging was the animation of this short?
UNSELD: It was funny because, theoretically, this short is ridiculously complicated. Normally, a short is two characters and one set, and that’s it. But, if you count the city characters we have, there’s a crazy amount of characters. It takes place on a huge city block with crowds and hundreds of cars, and it rains the whole time. It’s photo real, in a short that’s six minutes. Every department theoretically could have been really scared, but they were all super excited. Even the crowds department was like, “That’s amazing! That’s a showcase for what we do.” The effects department was like, “That’s amazing! It’s a showcase for what we do.” There was something for every department. The rain is a third character in the film. If you watch it again and pay attention, there are different kinds of rain and there are different sounds for the rain, whether it’s a romantic moment or a really dry moment. This was a massive opportunity. You can add so much to a short by just having what you do shine.
UNSELD: It’s not more difficult to do. It’s interesting to do it at a studio like Pixar because the tradition is not photo real. Everyone was excited about the idea of doing something that’s different. Simple can be crazy hard. Surprisingly, the faces on the umbrellas were really, really difficult to do. That was way more difficult than we thought it would be, in the end.
What was the process for the music?
UNSELD: Sarah Jaffe was always around, in my head, because I listened to her a lot when I was writing the short. The idea for having the city come to life, came from an idea I had for a music video for her. I was listening to her music and walking through the city. I saw these faces, and I thought that would be a great idea for a music video, if the city sings a song. I shot a couple of faces in the street where I was living on my phone, and I put them in the computer and animated the mouths and the eyes, so they were singing. A couple of months later, I thought about not just having the umbrellas come to life, but the whole city come to life. That’s when the two ideas merged.
Part of my pitch, when I pitched it at Pixar, was to show the test I had done for the Sarah Jaffe music video. I remember hitting play and, at first, everyone was like, “Why is he showing us this weird thing that he shot on his phone?,” because they didn’t see the faces yet. And then, the first blink happens and a smile happens, and everyone was just so fascinated by it. And then, Sarah started to sing, and it came out of the mouth of that character. It’s such a delicate, fragile voice, and it makes you care more. She’s a songwriter, which is very different from doing a score for a film. The song is three or four minutes and has one mood, and the score changes, instantly, especially in a short film.
I’ve always loved the scores for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch Drunk Love. So, I met with Jon Brion and it just instantly clicked. He understood exactly what the short needed. He talked about the difficulty of a short film and how to make it work. On a dime, you have to switch from romantic to drama to mourning song. And he wanted to find a five-note melody that you could play happy or sad, but that was something really short. That was basically what he did with the score. He found this really memorable melody that he could easily play. I was amazed that we got Sarah in to do vocals because it’s just two lines. And then, we heard it in the studio with that intimacy and the voice.
Who and what has influenced your work?
UNSELD: There wasn’t that much animation on German TV, except for horrible animation. There’s a lot of Eastern European fairytales and live action. There’s an amazing Czech version of Cinderella, which influenced me a lot, with a Cinderella character that can ride horses and is probably a better sports person than the prince ever is. The first time she meets the prince, she shoots down his arrow from mid-air. That’s from the ‘70s. Animation wise, The Last Unicorn is a regular thing that shows on German TV, and I really liked that. And then, of course, the Miyazaki films influenced me a lot, once I could see them in Germany. And live action wise, I love Wim Wenders and tried to pay a big homage with The Blue Umbrella.
Is there a reason for a lack of good animation on German TV?
UNSELD: There’s just not much humor. I don’t know. Maybe it was more a legal thing. I have no idea. It’s just probably worth a dissertation, of someone who studies it, to actually find out why. There are weird things that make it to Germany from America, and then other things that don’t make it. David Hasselhoff was big in Germany, so don’t ask me. I don’t know why that happened.
The Blue Umbrella will play with Monsters University in theaters, starting June 21st.