If you see Monsters University this weekend, you'll be treated to Pixar's newest short: The Blue Umbrella. It's love story between two umbrellas who meet on a rainy evening, with a supporting cast of all the faces you see in the city's inanimate architecture and fixtures.
A few years ago, Blue Umbrella director Saschka Unseld came across a discarded umbrella in the rain. "I just thought it looked so sad," he said during a recent Pixar press event. "Someone just tossed it away and didn't even go back looking for it, just left it lying there." From there, he started developing ideas for a short film based around that melancholy image.
First, he tried to develop a story about an umbrella trying to get back to its owner, a sort of break-up story from the umbrella's point of view. When he couldn't figure out a happy ending for that, he tried to work out a story in which the umbrella's owner wanted to move to a place where it hardly ever rained, much to the umbrella's chagrin. But that story ended up being too dependent on how the umbrella's owner felt about the rain.
Unseld is originally from Frankfurt, Germany, but he grew up in Hamburg, a city that gave him many magical memories of the rain. "I like the rain," he said. "I love cities in the rain, and I thought it would be nice if the short was a bit of a love declaration to the rain." That's where the blue umbrella's love story began.
While Unseld was working on the story for The Blue Umbrella, he was also working on another animation project. Like a lot of people, when Unseld would walk around his neighborhood, he would see faces everywhere, in the utilities, in the architecture, and he began photographing the faces he saw. He uploaded them onto his computer and began animating them. He imagined the faces singing in a music video and set them to a song by Sarah Jaffee (whose music pops up at the end of the short).
As he began fleshing out the details of the short, Unseld found himself a bit stuck. So he asked himself, "What means something to me personally?" He thought about his childhood memories of the rain and how the whole city seemed to come alive. That's when those two projects — the short film about the umbrella and the animated faces of drain pipes and electrical outlets — came together as a single vision. That's the story he ended up pitching to Pixar, a tale of an umbrella whose search for love is witnessed — and ultimately aided — by the architectural characters of the city around him. He included his animated music video at the end of his pitch.
Even in the original music video, Unseld played with the perception between inanimate and animate. When you watch The Blue Umbrella, it takes a moment to realize that what you are looking at is animation rather than live-action. Pixar's use of global illumination, which simulates how light is reflected off of surfaces, helps the world of The Blue Umbrella approach photorealism. As the rain falls, the city begins to stir (I don't want to spoil exactly how), and it becomes clear that we've stepped into an animated film, but one filled with familiar sights and textures.
Although Unseld didn't initially picture The Blue Umbrella with such realistic animation, others on the Pixar team saw the potential. Unseld's music video animation contains a moment in which an inanimate face is momentarily animated, then still again, the process repeating until the face is fully alive. In order to fully deliver on moments like that, the team decided to make the short as realistic as possible. "Because this moment, this magic of the city coming to life, it's so special if it's real for [the audience]," Unseld said.
But Unseld also wanted to take advantage of the control animators have over this world. "I think there's some human aspect, some texture that gets lost in CG," he said. "Sometimes I get disconnected from the world because it's so hyper-real, so polished, devoid of texture. In puppet animation, you can see the fingerprints, and that's really nice. and I wanted to get that in there somehow, this hand, this kind of texture."
So he decided to give those faces a stop-motion feel. Rather than having the eyes and mouths glide in smooth motions, the animators would hold the poses over a longer frame time, creating more jittery, jerking motions. It makes the characters look more like puppets than like computer-generated creatures, and for the animators, it felt truer to the stone, concrete, metals, and wood the characters were supposed to be made from. Each house and grate and fixture was given its own personality, from young and floppy to older and more like Carl from Up.
The umbrellas, on the other hand, have more stylized, two-dimensional faces, and they are given the quicker, snappier movements you see in traditional animation. Meanwhile, the rain gets a more realistic motion blur, looking all the more magical for coming so close to our own world.
Unseld is clearly proud of having worked on a piece of computer-generated animation that gets away from its conventional aesthetic. "Animation nowadays can be anything that it wants to be," he said. "People got used to [computer-generated] animation looking a certain way." But as the technical limitations that inspired Pixar to make its early films about toys and bugs slip away, there is no reason not to make computer-generation films in a different mold.