Feeling Blue: Saschka Unseld talks about The Blue Umbrella

Trevor Hogg chats with Saschka Unseld about a chance encounter with an umbrella which inspired the Pixar animated short film The Blue Umbrella….

A broken umbrella lying in the gutter on the side of the road left a lasting impression of the director responsible for the latest short film from Pixar Animation Studios.  “It took awhile from the moment I found it up to the point that I decided to write the first draft of the story,” states Saschka Unseld who recalled the sad image two years later.  ”The second idea that had been floating around in my head that I mixed up with the umbrella idea was bringing faces that I see in everyday surroundings.  I initially had that idea without a context of a story.  Literally one weekend I went out my door and looked for faces.  I shot them on my phone, loaded them up in my computer, and animated on top of them; that test was part of my pitch I gave at Pixar for how the short film should look and feel like.”  The project about a blue umbrella falling in love with a red one under stormy conditions was developed with the help of the Pixar Brain Trust.  “They’re involved in a different way than with the features.  For every two to three weeks we had a check in with John Lasseter [Cars]; he closely helped us through the production, and gave his thoughts and feedback on the things we were doing.  We showed it to Pete Docter [Up], Lee Unkrich [Toy Story 3] and other people who are experienced Pixar veterans.   At one point we showed it to Dan [Scanlon] and the Monsters University [2013] story team because ultimately we would run in front of them.”
“Even though we changed many small details a lot of it stayed the exactly same as in my pitch,” observes Saschka Unseld.  “I remember watching through it with Lee Unkrich, and while watching The Blue Umbrella for the first time Lee called out some of the shots he absolutely loved.  It was running a bit long at the time which is what happens.  You throw in all of your ideas, cut them together and they run longer than what is absolutely necessary.”  A native of Germany, Unseld has directed other animated shorts before joining Pixar in 2008 such as the afterlife tale Oli’s Chance (2006).  “The experience helps.  It doesn’t look good right now but we’ll get there.  [You need] to get use of the process of iterating on something and improving it and not freaking out in the beginning when not everything is perfect.  That’s something which is important.  For me over a couple of films I made a lot of it was down to finding a central image for the whole story.  It’s something that encapsulates a core moment of the whole film where there is stuff that happens before and stuff that happens afterwards.  With The Blue Umbrella I was fortunate because the umbrella that I found on the street that became for me the central image of the film.”
Adopting a photorealistic approach to the animation was a decision which evolved over time.  “That didn’t happen until I went through a couple of pictures of pitching the story here at Pixar to John Lasseter and the Brain Trust.  I showed this clip that I had shot on my phone and saw everybody’s reaction to those characters coming life and the magic that was in it.  I wanted to keep the wonder of it and that was what kicked off the decision of making the whole film photoreal.  We went through a couple of brainstorming sessions with the people from the Art Department to come up with what possible scenarios could be of making the umbrella faces.  But in the end it always came down to in the real world umbrellas don’t have faces.  If we would artificially force a face that looks real in there it would break the reality of the world.  It was important to me that the faces of the umbrellas were completely different.  They were as stylized and simple as we could get.  In my head, they’re not part of the physical reality of the world.”  Unseld notes, “We got ourselves a couple of umbrellas especially in regards to the red umbrella because she is curvy.  We did a lot of research on how far we could push it but quickly realized if we pushed her design too much she’s going to look too unusual. It was walking a fine line between making her different from the blue umbrella and not going to extremes.  I still have in my office tons of different kinds of umbrellas as reference standing around.”
Creating the CG urban involved travelling around world.  “New York and San Francisco were the biggest ones where I went on extensive field trips to take photos. The whole crew went to a field trip to San Francisco.  I always asked the people who were on the team when they went to a big city to bring back tons of photos, that’s how we got loads of stuff on Chicago.  We had help from one of the people who was on Ratalouille [2007] and he dug out some of his photos he had taken of Paris.”    One dramatic shot involves an overview of the city.  “That was crazy.  For the longest time it was too complex to render at all.  We have these safety time-outs when a shot renders too long the machines stop it.  It went past all kinds of safety time-outs.  It was a matter, especially with that shot, by hand reducing the detail.  Here it’s so much out of focus.  We can reduce the complexity of geometry of this object.  With the buildings in the background we can have texture planes instead of full-on buildings.  We went step-by-step trying to reduce of the shot in order to get it to render within reasonable amount of time.”
New techniques were developed in regards to lighting, shading, and compositing to handle the photorealistic environment.  “The Global Illumination came into so many different aspects of lighting the whole city with the neon lights and all of these things.  One aspect is the refractions and highlights.  But any kind of wet surface picks up.  The rain drops falling down and the glitter you get on the surfaces on the ground.  Even every single city character we have in there is wet so to a certain extent we would get refractions on them.”  An often overlook element is the importance of shaders.   “They make everything fit together.  When the mailbox is painted blue it doesn’t just mean its perfect blue.  We need to take in account that a real mailbox would have 10 different layers of paint.  Some drips of the paint would have dried up differently and you can tell that its different layers of paint; all of these complexities that reality has needs to be in the shaders as well.  One thing that we did in order not to work forever on the shaders was basic versions of the shading, lighting and depth of field for all of the shots.  We looked back at the shaders and figured out which shaders needed more detail because we see them close-up.”
“For me the big thing was even though everything is photoreal I wanted to make sure that emotionally it feels more painterly,” reveals Saschka Unseld.  “I told the lighters who also take care of the compositing to paint with broad strokes and be strong with how they paint with colours. Don’t get lost with tiny details.  Make a shot all blue or red and be more forceful with the emotion that you can do with the colours.  Way more of the look and colours and how the lighting feels was done in compositing compared to a normal Pixar film.  We also did all of the depths of field in compositing.  Normally we do all of that in-camera and lighting in the rendering software RenderMan.    This was first of time we did all of the depth of fields in compositing.”  Unseld states, “I love how different colours and lighting in a shot can make the audience feel emotionally engaged or distant or feel certain ways.  The same way we move the camera or shoot something.  In my personal time I spend so much of it thinking that way helps a lot when talking to the lighters and camera people who worked on The Blue Umbrella.”
Allowing for some physical action with the umbrellas is the wind.  “It was a lot of back and forth,” explains Saschka Unseld.  “We threw tons of ideas at the story which we storyboarded out as well.  We watched it on reels and tried to think, ‘If this all looks photoreal does this look believable or not?’  For a long time there was a long sequence where the umbrella tries to get back to the red umbrella while he’s still being held by his owner.  It used to be a one and half minute long sequence and at one point we realized that we were breaking the reality of the world too much.  He can’t move that much.  As long as the blue umbrella is attached to his owner he only can have relatively small movements that would be believable if we were standing by the umbrella.  The dialogue to the animators later on was not to physically move the umbrella in a way that we as an owner would get suspicious as to why it moves like that.”  Unseld remarks, “The steam wasn’t hard.  When the Effects Department showed me the first passes they looked great already.  The steam was relatively straightforward.  What was harder was once the steam gets more high up in the air and it’s like a hazy cloud then it becomes difficult.”
“The sound design and music I always wanted them to not hide each other because we need to hear the sounds but you also want to have the music,” states Saschka Unseld.  “The first raindrops that fall the sounds are not in a specific rhythm but then the sound design of the raindrops changes to become a rhythm and that rhythm becomes the rhythm of the music.  The same occurs in multiple points in the film where the music stops and the sound design slightly picks up the rhythm of the music again.  I wanted it to feel like its one thing instead of two separate.”  The opening shot is a personal favourite for the creator of the short film.   “When I sat in the cinema and there are all of these trailers and everything is loud and people chat and eat popcorn.   But when The Blue Umbrella started and the first raindrop hits the ground and the second and the third the whole audience was quiet.  It worked so well.”
“The biggest challenge was being able to make calls during the production without being able to see how it is going to look like in the end,” notes Sachka Unseld.  “We knew that the whole thing was going to look photoreal in the end and we knew every single image in the end would have an incredible amount of detail.  We needed to make sure that the audience could still follow the action, the shots were not too short, and the animation on the umbrella was readable enough. But during production we never had the final image.  We never had the final complexity.  We always had to pay attention to, ‘This is readable right now.  I can understand the animation but lets exaggerate it a bit more because in the end there’s going to be so much more detail in the shot we might not pick-up on these small hints of animation.’  We always tried to be aware of that and make calls based on that during production.  I talked with the lighters about the details in the picture that were not important or our eye wasn’t supposed to go to, and about raising the contrast  and putting more light on the parts of the picture we were supposed to look at.  That was one of the biggest challenges and we tried to be constantly aware of it and to use every tool we had to light it.”
Not all of the visual research made it into The Blue Umbrella.  “There’s a blog I had while the production was running where I posted all of the faces that we didn’t use in the short but that we found in cities,” states Saschka Unseld.  “It’s called rainycitytales332.tumblr.com.  I sometimes still post stuff there I see faces and am sad that we couldn’t feature them in the film so at least I have some outlet for them.”  Will photorealistic animation be the way of the future for Pixar?  “It all goes back to what fits the story best.  My hope is that it’s not just photoreal.  We’re past the point about just adding more detail and it’s more about we can do whatever we want with animation especially CG animation.  It can look more photoreal but it can also look way more painterly. We can do whatever we want to fit the story and the only thing we need to do is find the right stories that work well with a different visual style and that’s the exciting thing looking forward.  There are no technical boundaries any more in what we can do.”  There is no time to be creatively idle.  “Right now I’m hard at work on The Good Dinosaur [2015] and I’m always writing ideas on the side and hopefully at one point I’m happy enough with them to bring them further.”  As for the public reaction to The Blue Umbrella, Unseld remarks, “I’m glad that so many people got to see it and seemed to enjoy it as well.”

The Blue Umbrella images and portrait photograph of Saschka Unseld courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

Many thanks to Saschka Unseld for taking the time for this interview.

Make sure to visit the official websites for Pixar Animation Studios and Saschka Unseld.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.