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).
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.
“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?”
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.