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How Pixar created the ultrarealistic animated film, The Blue Umbrella (interview)

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Director Saschka Unseld gets a good laugh when people learn that his film, The Blue Umbrella, is entirely animated. The short, which debuts alongside Pixar’s feature film Monsters University this summer, looks so real that you would swear it’s a blend of live action and animation. But it’s not, and that’s part of its beauty.

blue umbrella 3The plot of the six-minute film is simple. A blue umbrella meets a red umbrella on the street, by chance. The blue umbrella tries to get back to the red umbrella, but it gets blown around and weather-beaten during a rainstorm. While the weather conspires against the umbrellas, objects on the street work to bring the umbrellas together.

It’s cute movie, but it’s startling to learn that technology can fool the eye. When a “walk” sign on a street signal smiles, it looks like a video that has been modified with special effects to smile. But the scene is entirely built from an animation created on an artist’s computer. It has photorealistic shading, lighting, and compositing. The film benefits from Pixar’s new “global illumination” technology that mathematically models each beam of light in every scene. That means the animated rain looks like real rain — and everything else that’s animated looks real as well.

Unseld met with a group of journalists at Pixar’s headquarters recently. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.

VentureBeat: When I saw the film, I thought everything in it was real. Now we find out that it is animated. How did you make an animation look so real?

Saschka Unseld: The thing that took me a while to get used to is that as the director, I don’t do any hands-on work. I always feel humbled by the team, that they were able to do this while I just asked them to do it. Initially, we were thinking about shooting some parts of it. During my film studies, I shot live-action films and did some commercials. If you were to start to go down that route in your head, though, of shutting down a downtown city block and filling it with dozens of cars and extras and people with umbrellas and making it rain there, and being able to control that, you don’t want to do it. Even if you were to shoot a commercial where it is live action, you’d use CG.

VentureBeat: Did you work on any films before this at the Filmakademie film school that we should all know about?

Unseld: I worked on a couple of them. I never directed one of the famous ones, but I worked on a couple of them. If you remember Rocks, [it] was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990-whatever. It had two stone creatures and time passes faster for them. That was ages ago. Then I did a couple other ones. Annie and Boo, that Johannes Weiland directed. Those were all good friends of mine from my time at the Filmakademie.

Saschka Unseld 2

Above: Director Saschka Unseld talks about The Blue Umbrella, his animated short that looks real.

Unseld: Yeah, The Gruffalo. I worked on that with Jakob Schuh, who ended up co-directing with Max Lang. I directed the pitch for that before I came here. That was when I left the studio and started at Pixar.

VentureBeat: When you thought about The Blue Umbrella, did you think about doing it with photorealistic backgrounds from the beginning?

Unseld: Not really. It’s funny. It was during yesterday and today that I realized I actually never thought of it being photorealistic initially. The idea just came from the umbrella I found. For a long time I worked on coming up with an idea or a story for an umbrella. The first idea was that somebody had thrown the umbrella away and the umbrella tries to get back to his owner. Like when someone breaks up with you and you want to be with that person, that person who 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 whether it’s photorealistic or not. It was half a year later that I started to think of the short more as being about the rain, being a declaration of love for the rain. Where I grew up, it rains much more than here. I like the rain a lot. I love cities in the rain. The rain turns the city into a magical place. That’s when the idea of city characters coming to life mixed in with it. It’s not just the umbrellas coming to life when it rains, but the whole city comes to life. That was part of a coincidence of me exploring what story I wanted to tell.

It wasn’t until I actually pitched the story here [at Pixar] — the story was kind of in the shape that it is in the final film when I pitched it, but I pitched it just verbally with maybe four pictures to underscore certain story beats. Then, after I pitched it, I showed a test I had done, which was unrelated at the time. I had an idea for a music video where a city sings a song. On my phone I had filmed a couple of faces I’d seen around my block. I loaded them on my computer and animated them 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 have this test I want to show you.” Just to make people understand the idea of it and what I mean about it.

I watched people watching this, and this moment of the first blink — I had exactly the same character as ended up in the final film being the first character who comes to life in the test. Just someone a block away from where I live. There was this magic to the perception, in the first five seconds, being, “It’s real … no, what’s going on there?” Then there’s this slow descent into, “Oh, this is alive.” That worked because it was photorealistic. So it was during that pitch process that I realized there is something unique about this thing. We all started thinking, “What if we do the whole thing photorealistic?” It had nothing to do with the original story idea. It came during the process.

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VentureBeat: Obviously, your music is a very important part of this. Who did the music?

Unseld: It was a kind of collaboration. In that test I talked about earlier, the one I did on my iPhone where I thought it would be a music video, it was a song from Sarah Jaffe, who’s the vocalist in the final piece. Her voice had been with me since the very beginning, even before I had the story. She’s a brilliant singer and songwriter from Texas. I don’t know why she’s so unknown.

Singer-songwriters do a bit of a different thing from composers, because the song is three or four minutes long. It has one mood and one idea. A score needs to change mood and rhythm on a dime. We wanted a composer composing the music, but her as the vocalist. That ended up being Jon Brion , who I love for the stuff he did on Punch-Drunk Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He sets such a light tone, but [has] such catchy melodies. So he scored the whole thing and Sarah Jaffe is the vocalist. For me, it’s almost a karma thing. Her voice inspired the idea of making a music video with city faces, because I was walking around listening to her in the city. Having her as the final voice in the film, there’s a simplicity to it that I really like.

Saschka Unseld 3VentureBeat: You mentioned earlier that it was hard to do the human faces, and so you avoided that. What was the easier part as far as making it look real? What were some of the things you did to make things look more real?

Unseld: Initially, everyone thought the first shot should be easy, but then it ended up not being that easy, because you can see everything in broad daylight. We had a lot of things working in our favor to make it look real. First, the fact that it’s night helps a lot. So much stuff is in darkness. The rain helps a lot, because it adds a certain amount of complexity and detail. If it weren’t raining, we wouldn’t get that, and you would look more at other things, because of the buildings. Something I was interested in was using a very shallow depth of field. For me, there’s a beauty in it. That blows out the whole background, so you don’t have to build the city out to infinity. So several things worked in our favor. Without those, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

The depth of field stuff, though, we didn’t add it simply because it was easier that way. It was something I wanted to explore. The reality is there in the beginning, where everything is evenly lit in the daylight, and it stays photorealistic throughout, but there are so many elements of filmmaking that you can use to make something very expressionistic and very lyrical. Even though it’s photorealistic, I wanted it to be more artistic and more bold than animated movies usually are. Out-of-focus backgrounds do that. They’re nearly painterly — a red splotch, a blue splotch, something like that. The same thing happens with the neon lights. It’s so boldly lit. Some shots are just green or red or blue. These kinds of things, I found, were important to make that place magical, even though it’s real.

VentureBeat: Was Taxi Driver an influence on that?

Unseld: I looked a bit at Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver just stays dreary. Blade Runner is the same. Blade Runner looks gorgeous to a certain extent, but the world the characters live in is not a beautiful world. It’s a harsh world. There’s a bit of beauty to it, but you can never have too much of that. There are a lot of movies set beautifully in cities where it rains.

VentureBeat: The Technicolor musicals had some of it, too.

Unseld: Yeah. I love the early Technicolor stuff. It’s amazing. There’s a cinematographer called Jack Cardiff. My favorite one of his is actually not The Red Shoes. It’s Black Narcissus.

A lot of the stuff I showed to the lighters was Wong Kar Wai – especially his early one, Chungking Express. I was thinking, “OK, this is photorealistic, but that doesn’t mean anything art-direction-wise.” I feel like there’s a lot of stuff, especially in the last 10 years, in live-action films that use a lot of CG, where it becomes very unreal. It becomes too polished and too clean. It’s a reality that doesn’t feel real to me. It doesn’t feel like it has a history or a texture. I don’t want to live in that. I was looking for something that is really colorful and beautiful, but still feels gritty and real. Chungking Express has that. It’s shot handheld, all on location, all with natural light, the neon lights. But it’s beautiful color-wise. The same thing, but more extended – it’s what I gave as reference later on – happens in a later movie, In the Mood for Love.

His American film, My Blueberry Nights, is a strange beast story-wise, but it was shot by the amazing Darius Khondji. There’s beautiful stuff that I wanted everyone to look at. In the front, out of focus, there’s something on a glass window – a bit of red or a bit of blue. It’s very painterly, even though it’s real. I wanted that painterly feel at the end. It’s nearly an abstract film. We still tell a story to a mainstream audience, but as much as we could do an art-house film within the confines of our audience, I wanted to do an art-house film.

VentureBeat: Tell us about your pitch process, because I can only imagine how scary that must be, to sit there with the Pixar brain trust and pitch. Do they let you do your spiel and then they give you ideas right then and there, or while you’re giving it, do they say, “Well, wait a minute, what about…” ?

Unseld: That would have been weird. [Laughs] The pitch was strange, because I’ve directed shorts before. I’ve worked in animation for a while. I had done talks on technical things. I was used to giving talks. But pitching something was different. Telling an emotional story just with words was something I’d never done. I don’t work in the story department. I work in the cinematography department. We have visual things to show. That was the one part I was maybe a bit scared by.

What I did then was I realized, through my first tries at developing it, “Well, I’m not good at this.” I prewrote the whole thing in the way that I would talk – not scripted, but in natural language. I recorded myself on my computer pitching while I was alone at home, and I watched it. It was really embarrassing. It was a very intimate moment, to be that honest with myself. But I did that like 50 times.

At one point I said, “I still kind of look like I’m mumbling. I’m not as emotional and expressive as I imagine Pixar people to be. Well, I’m just by myself at home. What if I just act really silly and really over-the-top and push it to 200 percent, because nobody’s watching me?” I wouldn’t have been able to do that in a workshop where you try to improve that, because people would have been watching. So I did that and I watched myself. I realized that it was just slightly stronger than before. In my head I thought I was acting crazy, but looking at it on video, it was a bit better, if not quite where I thought it should be. That helped a lot.

When I gave the actual pitch to a panel of the main directors here, the heads of story, and then later to [Pixar creative chief] John [Lasseter], it was amazing. They’re amazing listeners. It made such a big difference compared to pitching to people here I knew, some people in development who do this a lot. Pitching to the panel and to John was amazing, because I could see how they were listening. They were sitting there like this and watching me and emotionally following what I was talking about. I could see it in their faces, and suddenly I had this energy. They let me pitch the whole thing, I showed the test, and then afterward we talked about it.

The worst thing is when you’re telling someone about something like this and everyone is poker-faced. Then you spin out of control. It was amazing how actively they listened. They nearly became part of me telling the story.

blue umbrellaVentureBeat: The look is fairly photorealistic. Did you think about that when you did your camera, that you wanted to take some of the camera from live action?

Unseld: The photorealism thing, I realized, is not just how it looks. It’s how you shoot it. It’s how you move the camera. It influenced a lot of cinematography and editing decisions. I was thinking of it more like a documentary, to a certain extent, where it feels like the set exists beyond what I shoot. There are even shots or editing in there like in a documentary – the shot is maybe 10 seconds long and you only want the beginning and the end, so you just cut out the middle. There’s a shot when they cross the street where we do that. 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’re standing next to two people just meeting. It’s not just that it looks real. It feels real.

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