Firstly, the short itself is stunning – just shy of seven minutes, it tells the story of a major metropolitan city ("like New York or Chicago" is how Unseld pitched it, refusing to specify one location) that comes to life in the rain. Grates start to smile, there's a spritely quality in the blinking of lights, windows seem happy, and two umbrellas – one blue, one red – fall in love with one another. It's a beautiful story, deeply profound and imaginative, and should be one of the studio's most memorable entries into their catalog.
Unseld pitched the idea after shooting some test footage that illustrated what he had intended. "Most of the story I just pitched verbally but I also showed two animation tests I had done on my free time," he explained. "One of them was kind of city characters singing – faces you see in the city that I thought could come alive and I animated that to a song by Sarah Jaffe, who interestingly ended up also being the vocal in the final film. And John Lasseter loved it and he especially loved the tests as well and from there it was picked up as a full-on short film production at Pixar."
The filmmaker is unique in that he comes from the more technical side of the Pixar divide and not from the story department, which is where most of the short film directors originate, but this gave "The Blue Umbrella" a freshness that you can definitely feel. It's the first Pixar film to be done in a completely hyper-real visual style, making it closer in look to "Blade Runner" than "A Bug's Life." This aesthetic choice was in place from the beginning, included in those initial tests. "That was the thing, in this test, that the moment the first blinking starts to happen, you feel it sort of surprise the audience," Unseld explained. "We all agreed part of that was because we didn't expect it. And if you had it stylized and cartoon-y, it would have taken away that surprise. That was the basis of, 'We should play this photo-real.' It should be – is this live action? Is this animation? And then have this magical moment of things coming to life."
And now on to the magical musical genius of Jon Brion – when you see the short you realize that there would be no "Blue Umbrella" without Brion. It is part of the short's genetic code, and the thing that really carries you through this amazing emotional journey. So it wasn't a huge surprise to know that he was there almost from the beginning. "We brought him in super early and that was partially to do with the change in the story that we had," Unseld explained. Initially, the city characters (the grates, windows, mailboxes, etc.) actually sang, sort of like the Enchanted Tiki Room. "For that we of course needed to bring in the music as early as possible, hashing out melodies and themes and how we could do vocal singing without lyrics." That, ultimately, proved to be the wrong move. "We felt like it was too much of a distraction from the main story of the umbrellas if they were all singing. We then put the music on hold until we had a more final version of the short and then went back to Jon so he could see the final picture and get inspired by those things and put the finishing touches on that." Brion's finished music is absolutely spellbinding, despite the somewhat difficult process.
When we asked Unseld what made him decide on Brion, as opposed to someone like longtime Pixar confederate Michael Giacchino, he was quick to point out a specific score that inspired his decision. "A big reason for me choosing Jon Brion was 'Punch Drunk Love,'" Unseld said. "The reason is that there is this beautiful collaboration between music and sound design and that is something I was really interested in." Brion also has a unique skill perfectly suited for short films. "He has this ability in creating these really catchy short melodies that stay with you. And that was something that we really needed for the short – a short is such a tricky thing, music-wise, because you need to change the emotion on a dime. Jon Brion's ability to have these four note melodies gives you the possibility to switch the emotions at such a quick speed. That was something that he talked about when we first met him."
In fact, the music was such a success that there's a possibility Disney will release it as a single. "We were thinking about it," Unsel admitted. "I guess it depends on the interest that there is. But every time we were in a review or watched it, everyone walks out with this melody in their head."
Unseld will now tour the short to various film festivals around the world before it gets its worldwide debut in front of "Monsters University" this summer, in a 3D-ized version ("you can push a lot of how much depth you want to see, so we re-imagine how those things will look in stereo," he said). After that he'll return to the studio, and looks forward to getting his "hands dirty" on a couple of projects that, of course, remain shrouded in mystery. "Monsters University" (and "The Blue Umbrella") hit theaters on June 21st.