‘The Blue Umbrella’: Inside a Pixar Love Story
The process began on one of those unusually rainy but otherwise ordinary California days. Pixar camera and staging artist Saschka Unseldwas walking through downtown San Francisco. Something caught his eye. He looked down, studying more closely an object stuck in the gutter in front of him.
“I still remember the moment,” he says. “It was a half-broken and drenched umbrella, and it was one of the saddest-looking things ever.”
Unseld had always been enthralled by the Venn Diagram intersection of the arts and computer science, and so he stood there wondering what happened to the contraption: how it got there; where it came from. He decided to make up a story about it — a 7-minute love tale called “The Blue Umbrella,” which will air in front of Pixar’s next full-length feature, “Monsters University,” in June.
“The Blue Umbrella” plays off that original San Francisco moment to introduce the story of two umbrellas (one red, one blue) as part of a dreary, rain-soaked cityscape, muted in blacks and grays. When red looks over at blue, there’s a spark of attraction. One stares longingly at the other. When the glance is returned, awkwardness ensues. It looks like love at first shade.
Part of the charm of a Pixar production is the way its animators and filmmakers sprinkle their moviemaking pixie dust over commonplace bric-a-brac like lamps, robots, and, yes, umbrellas. With a little studio wizardry and storytelling that brims with heart, they make the inanimate come to life.
But the process of creating such animation isn’t one that’s often seen outside Pixar’s walls. Which is why, about a year ago, Unseld decided to open up “The Blue Umbrella” to the world.
Armed with an iPhone camera and a Tumblr called Rainy City Tales 332 (the 332 stands for Unseld’s Pixar office number), he filmed his team trying to capture the sound of objects rattling in the wind. He documented them working creating the effect of cars on a wet street. He showed lighting experiments, and rainy street scenes of San Francisco and New York that he used for inspiration. He posted them all on his blog, ruminating about capturing the right “feel” for two umbrellas falling in love.
Ultimately, Unseld says, the film (as well as his documentation of the process) charted new territory — as the first time producers used photorealistic images to make the two umbrellas look, well, real.
Pixar has produced almost two dozen shorts now — each an attempt, says Unseld, to showcase the studio’s technical capabilities. (Pixar’s first short, “Luxo Jr.”, aired in 1986; a decade later, ”Tin Toy” became the first computer animated film to win an Oscar for Best Short.)
Unseld describes the shorts as “Pixar’s legacy, its roots.” He references the company’s charming early attempts with shorts like “Luxo Jr.,” the two-minute film that showed a pair of seemingly life-like lamps, one happily chasing a ball. (That lamp, of course, still hops out and bounces up and down on one of the letters in the Pixar name on the studio’s title screen before its full-length features start playing.)
“We have kept the idea of short films around not only to give people a little extra something at the cinema but also to mix things up a bit,” says Unseld.
How it works is surprisingly democratic: anyone can pitch. The best pitches are vetted by Pixar’s chief creative. If the idea is good, it gets made. Which is pretty much how it happened with “The Blue Umbrella”: Pixar, naturally, signed on.
The film pulls off a curious effect, seeming to attach animated features like eyes and a mouth to otherwise real-looking umbrellas. Life-like sunlight glistens off the umbrella covering, and droplets of water trickle down the side in little rivulets of melancholy.
“The reason for this unusual look lies in the story,” as the characters, Unseld explains, slowly morph from object to life. The transformations start incrementally, and early, against the backdrop of a wistful soundtrack, soft dripping of the rain and the kind of droning hum of pedestrians. Various features of the city — sewer drains, windows, doors — start coming to life at the 40-second mark, and they team up to help unite the two umbrellas unite.
“It was really important to me that this moment — the step from inanimate to alive — is magical and unique,” says Unseld.
In the end, the seemingly doomed lovers do what doomed lovers always do best on the silver screen: come together.