Review of The Blue Umbrella w/ Interview with Director Saschka Unseld…
If not for any other reason (aside from the fact that it’s shown just before with Monsters University), you must go to the theater to see The Blue Umbrella. This is a beautifully rendered short film that will both digitally impress you and emotionally touch you. I absolutely LOVED it!!!
This sweet story follows a bright blue umbrella that adores the rain. As he enjoys the cool drops falling on him, he notices an equally happy red umbrella, a female one. Yes, it’s a love story of two umbrellas and the city, which came alive in the rain, that wants to help nurture their love. All does not go smoothly as the umbrella owners start walking in opposite directions.
Perfectly scored music brings you through joy, suspense, hope, sadness, loss, love, and healing. The details are amazing and, before talking with the director, I assumed the animation was laid over real footage. I was wrong – the short is, in fact, 100% digitally animated! I’m telling you now so you can be ‘wowed’ when seeing it in the theater…
After the viewing, we were all anxious to get an umbrella like the main character but were disappointed to find out they weren’t available to purchase. That was until we found one on our media swag bags! Living in California, this is the only way our little blue guy can enjoy the water in the summer:
This short spoke volumes to me. As a parent, I have many years of experience in finding facing in all kinds of things to entertain my little one – in tree trunks, in clouds, in patterns everywhere. I truly appreciated the director’s vision. Speaking of which, it was a joy to sit down and interview The Blue Umbrella’s Director Saschka Unseld.
The interview, again, is quite long as I included all of it. However, I didn’t want you to miss a bit of the passion he had in creating this short or the dedication spent by all involved to create a masterpiece to stand on its own. Plus, he was fun to listen to with his strong German accent and particular way he would say ‘weird’. Plus, I love the fact that all the ‘objects’ had names :)Enjoy!
Q: I just heard that the film is fully animated…
Saschka Unseld: Yeah.
Q: You couldn’t tell at all, it looks filmed! So was there a new technology that you used to create this, or something that you guys already had here at Pixar?
Saschka Unseld: There was new technology stuff. Some is being used slightly less photo-real in Monsters, the Global Illuminations and stuff like this, and generally on every movie that comes out. There’s new technical innovations that are being used. Especially with the short films, you can test something out without jeopardizing the production schedule of a feature. If you don’t hit the theatrical release date there, that’s a bigger problem. I think a lot of it was just approaching it creatively differently.
As a hobby, done photo series on this – I love details in reality. For fun I did a photo series of just sidewalk asphalt plates, the way cracks run there, the way in some areas there’s more of these black dots from chewing gums, on the side there’s something from a tree which probably stands 10 meters down the street – just the complexity and the beauty of all these details you can see in the city. A lot of it was me and the team going on trips into the city and looking at all these details. On the side of a newspaper box there’s streaks of probably someone tying their shoelace, and then you have the streak of the black rubber from the shoe there, or the way these things are moved around has a certain way, there’s scratches on them. Everything kind of tells a story to it.
A big struggle in the beginning was getting people to change how they work. It was amazing how much people are used to doing things in a more stylized, cartoony way. The first version of the mailbox, which you see in the beginning, we gave photo references to the modeler to build it. Relatively straight forward, you would think, and then we looked at it and somehow we thought ‘this doesn’t look real, something is wrong’. It was really hard to tell. We had to really look into the details. It was the size of the screws were slightly too big, since a mailbox is made out of this kind of folded metal the sharpness of a bend has certain physical restrictions. That was just wrong. It was like all these details that are based on a manufacturing process of these things, or how thick something is, or all these things were slightly off, and all that gave the overall picture of this doesn’t look real.
So a lot of it was figuring out why are certain things in a certain way. So much of what you do is ‘this is how I used to do it the last 10 years’ and you’re not even aware of it. It’s kind of like when you paint, you have certain mannerisms. And it was kind of getting rid of those mannerisms and really having people look at those things. At least for me, that made a big difference between it looking like a normal Pixar film and looking so different.
Q: How many, how many different cities do you think are incorporated into that?
Saschka Unseld: There is clearly New York, because I went on two trips there to take photos. Some of the characters, from the city characters, are out of San Francisco like the very first one on the sidewalk. We called her Lisa. They actually have all names because you couldn’t say, “You know, that weird metal thing in the 15th shot’. They actually all have names. So, Lisa is two blocks down from where I live and Lisa was part of a test I shot on my iPhone as well. During my pitch, I said the city comes to life, and everyone’s like ‘yeah, okay…’ and then after the pitch I said, ‘oh, by the way, when I said that this is what I mean’. I showed a test I shot on my phone and animated on my computer at home – and that was exactly the character two blocks down from me, and we kept that character. So that’s from San Francisco.
There’s a building that is from a Ratatouille research trip. I looked through all the photos I had done from Paris at the time. The building where you see just the rooftop with two windows being the eyes and then the rain pipe being the mouth, that’s a building in Paris that Harley Jessop had taken pictures of for the Ratatouille research. So I think it’s mostly New York, San Francisco, and then a bit of sprinkled stuff. The building that looks after the Blue Umbrella with the eyes and the mouth that’s actually… I don’t even know where that is from. We started, at one point, having this folder where everyone just threw in photos they kind of had, or friends of them had, and stuff like this. So it’s a big mish-mash up.
Q: Where did the story come from?
Saschka Unseld: The core of the story was when I was living here already since four years, or something like this, it really rarely rained and then finally it was raining. I went for a walk through the city and I saw an umbrella someone had thrown away on the side of the street. I took a picture of it. On the Tumblr blog I have, the first post is that photo I had taken. I had this weird, incognito blog for a while, Rainy City Tales 232, on Tumblr that I actually was running during the production. That picture stuck with me and I was thinking about stories I wanted to tell. It’s this weird thing – you see this umbrella and it’s just an object, but it looks so sad. It looks so down and drenched and some of the ribs are sticking out. It’s a super sad sight and I wanted to tell the story with that.
I thought about, first the umbrella wants to get back to the owner, kind of a break-up story, like someone broke up with you and you still want to be with that person. I couldn’t find a happy ending to that, sadly. I abandoned that story and then it became, the owner wants to move to somewhere where it never rains and the umbrella doesn’t want to. I couldn’t find a happy end for that either. Then I was thinking of ‘why do I like the rain so much’. It became me thinking about where I grew up it rains much more than here. I really like cities in the rain a lot. I think they become beautiful.
It is always a tough line. You want to make sure there’s a story that’s fear we remember from being kids ourselves. It’s thrilling too. It’s those great characters and villains in films we remember from our childhood. They’re pretty scary. You just always want to make sure you’re not hurting the experience by taking too much.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Saschka Unseld: In Hamburg, in Germany, in the north.
Q: And it rains a lot?
Saschka Unseld: Yeah, 80% of the year it’s overcast, it rains a lot. Thinking of that, and what it means emotionally to me, the idea became that it should be a love declaration to the rain. It’s about someone who loves the rain so much and it should be a love story. That’s the only story that fits to a love declaration, a love story between two umbrellas. Then the city characters… I wanted the city, when it rains, to become a magical place where the umbrellas come to life. I had this idea of a city coming to life already for a while and I thought, what about, if not just the umbrellas come to life, but the whole city comes to life when it rains and it transforms the city into a completely different place. That’s when these two ideas came together. After a year or something of beating myself up, this sounds like something I could pitch.
Q: So the entire short is very moving. Is there a particular moment that you find exceptionally as much? Or what was your favorite?
Saschka Unseld: The first drops that fall down on the ground, because it’s something you wouldn’t normally even stop for. For me, it’s a beautiful moment – a raindrop hitting the asphalt, hitting the mailbox, making a different sound. It feels very personally important to me. Just this detail of beauty of just a raindrop hitting the floor is really more magical than anything that happens later on. To a certain extent, it’s water falling from the sky.
The other moment is when, after he got hit by the bus it cuts to black, we come back and, for a while, see him lying there without even being alive. Exactly like the moment when you are outside, and you see a broken umbrella lying there. Connecting back to this central picture, the central idea I had that stuck in the movie, I really like. You see a picture, and nothing is special there, it’s basically just a number there on the side of the road. But because of what you’ve seen before you have all this meaning, all this story that is there, and it makes somehow the same picture that could be completely meaningless, so much more meaningful. It means emotionally so much more. There’s nothing animated in that shot. I mean, it’s fully animated, but the city objects don’t come to life yet, or anything like this. I don’t know, I love that moment.
Q: Because it’s a silent film really, you can rely a lot on good sound effects and music to help tell the story. I thought the song was adorable. Did you have it written for it? At what point did you choose the song? What is Feist?
Saschka Unseld: I had a long list of people I was thinking of in regards to the vocals, because I knew there should be vocals. I’m going to do a slight detour. In my initial pitch, I pitched all the umbrellas come out and the umbrellas are all alive, and they’re happy, and smiling. They’re happy to finally be out again. Not just the umbrellas are alive, but the whole city is alive. They’re so happy about the rain that they start to sing a song. They start to sing a song to celebrate the rain. In my initial idea, the city became this chorus that follows the struggle of the love story of the two umbrellas. They change their song to a love song when they meet, and to a morning song when Blue lies there on the side of the street.
The vocals for that would be kind of the soul of the city, and I had this long list of singers for that. Feist was one of them, and a lot of singer-songwriters were on there. I ultimately always came back to those tests I was talking about where I shot, on my iPhone, three characters I saw in the city and animated it. I animated that to a song. That was a singer-songwriter called Sarah Jaffe, from Denton, Texas. Super unknown. She was one of the first of two opening acts at a venue here in San Francisco to a main act I’ve never heard of. But, somehow, that voice had an intimacy that I really liked.
There is something in a short film that is completely different to a song that has basically kind of one mood for three minutes, and a short film needs to switch mood on a dime. That’s something which a composer is just much more used to doing, and it’s something really difficult. That’s when we were thinking about composers, and that’s who ultimately became John Brian whose work on, especially on Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it was really strong melody-wise. You could walk out afterwards and have this melody stuck in your head. He’s amazing, just changing the mood instantly from one moment to the next. So in the end, he wrote the score, and Sarah Jaffe sang the vocals to it. I was excited because the initial spot for city singing, carried through the whole production, became this super unknown singer-songwriter from Denton, who was still the voice of it. John Brian contributed this amazing melody and music to it.
Q: Growing up, did you engage in the type of imagination that would allow you to get to this point? Meaning, when you looked at buildings and architecture or things in real life that maybe weren’t alive in the way that we look at other people. Was that a part of your growing up, or was that something that came later as you were doing photography and looking at cityscapes?
Saschka Unseld: I didn’t know that at the time, it’s more kind of in hindsight, there is kind of a through line in my life that suddenly everything makes sense. I didn’t know at the time I was lost. My parents always went with me to, every summer holiday, everyone went to the beach or went to some beautiful sunny south of Europe country. My parents always went with me to Norway, not just to the southern south part, but to the north part of Norway. We went on kind of hiking trips there for a week hiking, just with a tent. We drove up there by car and that is a long car ride. So, my mom started to just make up stories she told me and I started to participate, just coming up with ideas because, basically, you’re bored and you make up kind of stories and ideas. The same thing when we were hiking there.
I think that kind of started to really get me interested, but also emotionally telling stories that sound like it’s something very intimate and personal, but something very beautiful as well. I think that kind of was the spark to me pursuing that.
Q: Earlier you had mentioned how much you were paying attention to detail and the realism of everything. How did it come about that the umbrella faces themselves are so cartoony?
It’s interesting. When I pitched it, I had just told it verbally. I had four pictures which was basically photos with me just drawing faces on the umbrellas just to get the point across. That’s kind of how they’re alive. It was clear that was just a mock-up, and not the final design. We had a couple of brainstorm sessions. What we do here, especially with shorts in the beginning, is we just get kind of a lunchtime brainstorm session. So we get all the art directors in a room, everyone has lunch, and I pitch them the idea, and everyone kind of comes up with ideas.
A lot of it was about the faces because everyone said everything is so consistent like the city characters, they really exist. Isn’t there a way to have the faces of the umbrellas more realistically integrated? I had done that thought experiment in my mind already, like a thousand times, but I thought, no, this is a brainstorm session, so I’m not going to say anything. Every single brainstorm session, after a half an hour, 40 minutes, we came back to that concept of separating it. The reason is – what are the other options? The other options are in the pattern of the umbrella, or with folds, or with how the rain drops fall down there – bending reality to an extent that is completely unrealistic. Especially then, if you would start to animate that and really express emotions and see tiny shifts, it would look like a really weird, mutant umbrella. I mean, nothing like this would happen to an umbrella.
Q: Everything else is so real.
Saschka Unseld: Exactly and that would completely break the reality. So the concept for the faces we used is they’re an interpretation of what the umbrella feels like. They’re not part of the physical reality. They’re kind of magical, as if I put on my magic glasses, and then I see everything being alive.
I made a lot of the riggers and animators suffer quite a bit, because, even in lighting, they shouldn’t even feel like they’re in the physical reality of that world. They shouldn’t really cast shadows on the umbrellas because then you would think there’s weird floating things where the rain also falls onto. So, the circles of the eyes, for example, they’re always perfect circles. If you look at the umbrella from the side, they’re not on the surface, but they’re straight as if you draw on top of the picture, they’re kind of like a separate reality from the actual physical reality. And that way, we didn’t need to bend the physical reality to some weird extents to make them alive. They’re just kind of an artistic interpretation we added on top of them.
It was a big thing, actually, with the design of the city faces. If we went too far, and pushed the idea of a face too far into an object, it didn’t look real anymore and it looked like we kind of forcefully pushed the face in there. So it was always about finding the balance of ‘this could really be a face that just happened to be there’ and that we didn’t forcefully push it too much in there.
Q: Overall, what was the greatest challenge?
Saschka Unseld: The weird thing with animation is you don’t see the final picture until you’re done and don’t have any possibilities of change anything anymore. Someone modeled that building, and that building is kind of gray with temporary asphalt texture on it, and asks me, do you have notes for me? Is this done? Can I move on? I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s going be in shadow. Make it rain, make it dark, then maybe I can tell you if we need more detail or not. That’s not what I said, but that is your thought process. You’re like, ‘I need to see the final thing to tell you if that is okay’. The complexity of the shot is so massive because it is night. It so massively changes once the lighting came in. It completely changes once there’s the rain in there. Even with the animation, when I looked at it on the screen of the animator it looked fine, and the emotional shifts were readable, but once you made it look photo real, and it’s going rain in front of our faces, is that going be too distracting to read the animation? Taming that was basically really hard.
I think there is a challenge with animation in that everything is made for the camera. The camera is set in the very beginning, then set dressing adjusts that for the camera, animation comes in just for the camera, so every department is aware of how we look at it. It removes a certain sense of realism because, if you go out and do a documentary, you are aware that the world exists beyond what you see. What if every department is aware of this is only what we see, you sense that as the audience, and I wanted to make sure that you get the feeling the world exists beyond that. Somehow trying to not think about the separate stages, but what it would feel like at the end was kind of a big challenge to get everyone thinking that way, and to get me kind of always focused on that. It was a long answer for a short question.
Monsters University & The Blue Umbrella will be in theaters on June 21st! For more info check the social links below:
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All-expense paid press trip provided by Disney/Pixar. No other compensation is being/was provided. All opinions are 100% my own.