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Immersed in Movies: Pixar Goes Photoreal for 'Blue Umbrella' Short

Interviews
by Bill Desowitz
May 2, 2013 2:14 AM
5 Comments
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Blue Umbrella Image 1
By sheer coincidence, while Disney was in a romantic mood for its Oscar-winning Paperman hybrid breakthrough, Pixar was getting blissed out over its photographic love story between a blue and red umbrella. But of course Pixar is all about using its shorts as a testing ground, and the stunning global illumination tryout from The Blue Umbrella, which beamed on every object with real-world believability, also shined on Monsters University (which open together June 21st).

The great thing about The Blue Umbrella, though, is that it's a new kind of enchantment for Pixar. Imagine animating The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from the umbrellas' point of view, only the city comes alive at night in a symphony of rain with expressive faces everywhere (from buildings to windows to street signs to lamp posts to traffic signals), bolstered by a lovely score by Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Blue Umbrella 2


It all began for technical director Saschka Unseld (Brave, Toy Story 3) when he got depressed seeing a discarded umbrella in a San Francisco gutter. One thing led to another and suddenly the German animator and Filmakademie alum was directing Pixar's first live action-looking work, inspired by the intense use of color in Black Narcissus and the neon lyricism of Chungking Express. But The Blue Umbrella possesses an urban aesthetic all its own with dramatic use of shadows and shallow depth of field as if foreground objects were photographed through a pane of glass. 

Using natural light and concentrating on simple colors (the blue and red in a sea of other black umbrellas) provides texture and an unpolished look that is not used often enough in CG. The city has a lived-in quality that's out of the past yet still timeless.

Blue Umbrella 3

"We initially thought about shooting live action," he explains, "but if you start to go down that road in your head, shutting down a downtown city block with dozens of cars and extras and people with umbrellas and making it rain, and then trying to control that, you don't want to do that. We built all the shots in the computer and then in editorial we re-recorded shots with a separate camera capture unit for a hand-held look." This gave the impression of moving through physical space and a sense of weight.

What helped Unseld tremendously were night and rain and shallow depth of field. It was also useful to work more in compositing than Pixar is accustomed to. This made it go faster and easier to play with more painterly images. In addition to global illumination (part of a more physically-based lighting system with twice the rendering power), they also tested deep compositing with the popular Nuke software for three-dimensional layering with greater depth of field. 

One of the challenges was animating the faces of the city. "Finding faces above height was important to get the vantage point of the umbrellas and not having them all be buildings and windows," Unseld says. "That was too easy. Which characters fit with the right moment and where do they need to be physically so that it's believable when they help the blue umbrella after it crashes?"

umbrella 4

As far as the faces of the two umbrellas, Unseld resisted animating them in 2D. They were CG-rigged but getting simple shapes, the right eye directions, and proper range of motion without them seeming emotionally shallow was the biggest animation challenge.

"I love the first drops hitting the ground, so quiet and calm," Unseld offers. "And the two of them meeting, when they look at each other and we cut back and forth and settle on a wide shot, is ridiculously long, at least 15 seconds. It might be one of the longest shots ever animated here." 

And while The Blue Umbrella benefits from 3-D immersion, Unseld highly recommends experiencing the flat version on film for the texture of the grain. That is, if you can find a film version. It adds yet another dimension to what's already a bolder and more artistic form of cinematic magic.

Animation Scoop Contributing Editor Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies and a regular contributor to Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood.

5 Comments

  • ILDC | May 9, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    It's because they did it in WALL-E.

  • D.S. | May 6, 2013 8:22 AMReply

    It's a cynical world, filled with people like J.M. who somehow never seem to "get it"--what Pixar founder, Steve Jobs, described as the intersection of liberal arts and technology. The purpose of CG animation is obviously "control"--down to every pixel. That's the technological side of the equation. We now have computers and software sophisticated and powerful enough to do virtually everything we can conceive. Pixar's motto has been all along: "Story is King!" That's the liberal arts side. And that viable mix which Pixar came up with it the reason for the company's stellar success. Disney achieved it prior success with animation in a comparable way, starting with good stories and investing substantially in the animation and cinematic technology it had available decades ago. One such mechanism was the multi-layered backgrounds it used which allowed it to "dolly" the camera.

    When people criticize this new technology, it's either because they don't appreciate the liberal arts side of Pixar--or that Pixar, et al, somehow didn't achieve that magical ideal balance of technology and liberal arts in making the story "king."

  • J.M. | May 6, 2013 6:07 PM

    Honestly -- my first comment aside -- I am NOT a cynical person. It's just that I find the current corporate cartoon regime's OBSESSION with photo-realism to be a ridiculously expensive artistic and aesthetic dead end. I mean, what exactly happens when it's finally achieved? We'll have cartoons that look like movies. Is this really such a good thing? When Warner Bros. finally has the ability to make a Bugs Bunny cartoon using a photo-realistic-looking rabbit, will ANY animation aficionado be beside themselves with joy?

    Right now, it seems like photo-realism is being sold two ways:
    1. As a marketing gimmick and/or bit o' bragging rights for the studio/technology with the most cutting egde software.
    2. As a means of selling animation to folks who (apparently) don't like 'cartoony' cartoons.

    I'm racking my brain trying to think of a cartoon that used photo-realism in some way that hand-drawn-looking art would've flat-out failed at. I admit I may be forgetting something, but I can think of NONE.

    As for the argument that "the purpose of CG animation is obviously 'control'"...I dunno. I'm NOT trying to pick a fight, but why is it that Pixar/Disney/DreamWorks/etc. still use human voices and (mostly) practical sound effects in their films? Wouldn't the quest for "control" have rendered these antiquated techniques moot years ago?

    Seriously, I am NOT trying to be a cynic or a meanie or a punk-ass-bitch. I just do not see how making cartoons less cartoony is in any way a step in the right direction and/or money well spent.

  • T.J. | May 2, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    What a fantastic article with great insights into the short film. The part that really struck me was how the idea crossed Saschka's mind to potentially shoot the intro of the short as live-action and then shift it to computer graphics - this would have been a different short for sure.

    It is a beautiful short film that really reads differently (from a look standpoint) than previous Pixar short films. That's not to say that it's better or worse than other shorts...just different - in fact, it's the most painterly and potentially (repeat potentially) artistic short of the group.

    In regards to J.M.'s comments - Of course you are entitled to your opinions, but I have to disagree that it's re-inventing the wheel. Re-inventing the wheel would be different in this scenario - taking the phrase literally would mean that you would have to find another way to make it rain in the real world. This is replicating rain in the computer world...but the outcome is completely different. The beauty of computer graphics is that you can manipulate the world as you wish (to a point) - you can make it rain exactly as you want (more rain, less rain, length of the drops, etc).

    I'm not sure you'd save millions - that seems to be an overarching comment. You'd have to close a city street, find a talent agency to cast and hire the extras, wardrobe would be involved, bring in a rain producing machine, have a crane to shoot the shots, you're easily going to have a large crew on-set to produce this shot and then you have post production time as well. Not sure it's all that much easier and cost effective than replicating it. In addition, if no one wanted to try and replicate reality, than we would never be able to push "past" reality and produce movies like Avatar or Harry Potter (as two examples of heavy & moderate CG). Art is art and often media is replicated from one form to the next - it doesn't make one method better or worse than another. At least that's my opinion.

  • J.M. | May 2, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    Why do Pixar/Disney/DreamWorks/etc. dump so much time and money into replicating reality? Pixar could've saved MILLIONS of dollars by simply filming a bunch of people walking in the rain, then adding CG smiles to the umbrellas.

    But, wait -- PIXAR PERFECTLY REPLICATED RAINDROPS! This is what crappy cartoons like Snow White, Akira and Please Say Something were missing!

    The phrase 're-inventing the wheel' was once shorthand for an act of pointless endeavor. Now it's a point of pride -- a marketing gimmick, even!

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