This week, “Monsters University” graduates to home video, and along with it comes the delightful animated short that accompanied it theatrically, “The Blue Umbrella.” We were amongst the first to see the photo-real romance (between two umbrellas, of course) back in January when we broke the news that musical genius Jon Brion would be providing the short’s delicate, bouncy score. And now we’re back, offering exclusive art from the project as well as test footage showing how real-life umbrellas inspired this animated treat.
The footage, which you can watch below, is a hoot: it features director Saschka Unseld underneath a blue umbrella very much like the one in the film, and shows him sliding around the Pixar campus. You can see that they are testing what the umbrellas look like, how they bunch together and interact. It’s also kind of surprising to see how small the crew is for a short that is perceived as a technical breakthrough (and Oscar front-runner for Animated Short). We got to sit down with Unseld, who we had just spotted at the Hamptons International Film Festival (where “Blue Umbrella” played as part of the animated shorts program), about where the footage fit in with the production of the short and how instrumental it was in helping the production along.
“It was in the very beginning when we started storyboarding, because in my pitch was just ‘an umbrella pushes and pulls its owner to get back to her.’ So it’s—what exactly does that look like? What is the physicality of these umbrellas?” Unseld explained. “We thought, let’s just grab these umbrellas, because we have these Pixar umbrellas at the door in case it rains and you have to get to another building and we grabbed a bunch of the development folks and just shot stuff that would happen in the short. Let’s just shoot it live action and see what happens or find things that we wouldn’t think of beforehand. We just thought let’s get together one evening and see what happens.” He then added: “Kind of like a rehearsal.”
The exercise, which looks like as much play as it was work, helped in answering a key question for the production team. “One big thing was the question of—what movements can the umbrella do without thinking that the owner is doing it? Because at one point they have two different intentions and we wouldn’t want the umbrella to feel like it only does what the owner does. These moments where they stand next to each other, it was really important for the animators to observe how many movements umbrellas do without us consciously moving them.” Unseld added said that the shoot was a huge help in this regard. “That was a big part of that test shoot.”
One thing we noticed while watching “The Blue Umbrella” for the half-dozenth time at Pixar was the way that slow motion works in the film. Instead of being fluid, it’s that kind of herky jerky slow motion that you see in “Chungking Express” or even this summer’s “The Grandmaster.” It turns out that Wong Kar-wai was a huge influence on the movie’s lushly neon-lit look. “Wong Kar-wai was the inspiration for it and my reluctance to do traditional slow motion where everything feels so smooth and nearly kitsch,” Unseld explained. “I felt like the whole short was grounded in the grittiness of reality so it wouldn’t look good if it was so smooth. We actually did it in editorial. In the editing software we could slow it down and then we had that curve be exported and then people on the technical side they had to work a program to work on those images.”
While we were at Pixar we asked “Monsters University” director Dan Scanlon what he thought about being partnered with “The Blue Umbrella.” “I love that there really doesn’t seem to be much thought given to what short goes with what movie and I think it makes odd bedfellows in the best possible way. Half the time they don’t really go together, they’re so unusual and so it gives the audience such a cool movie-going experience,” Scanlon said. “To see ‘Blue Umbrella,’ which is this very subtle, photo-realistic movie, and it goes to this crazy college movie. It’s fun to see that mix up.”
“The Blue Umbrella” is on the “Monsters University” DVD and Blu-ray, out now. Images and the footage below.