Blue Umbrella serves as cover for Monsters U.

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The Blue Umbrella

To be released just before the new feature film Monsters University on June 21, the six-minute short Blue Umbrella will be the first Pixar film to be made by one of its technical artists.

Camera and staging artist Saschka Unseld is the director. Amidst the rain in a singing city, two umbrellas -– one blue, one red -– fall eternally in love.

The blue umbrella notices and takes a shine to the red umbrella. Distance and natural forces halt their attraction, but objects on the street — such as construction signs and a mailbox — come to life to help bring them together again.

Unseld, 36, is a German native who began working with Pixar in 2008. He got the idea when walking in San Francisco and spotting an umbrella lying in the gutter on a rainy day.

“It was the saddest thing. I stood there and wondered what had happened to him. I think that was when I got the idea of giving him a story,” he recalled.

At first, Unseld got ideas for characters by taking iPhone pictures on San Francisco and New York streets. He asked colleagues to do likewise when they went to such places as Chicago and Paris. One character in the film was inspired by his photo of a manhole cover just two from his San Francisco home.

Meanwhile, he was listening to singer Sarah Jaffe’s music. While shooting an animation test on his iPhone, he timed it to her voice.

Jaffe can be heard in the final film: “She’s been there for me since the inception.”

A photorealistic look was needed, according to Unseld: “If we made it stylized and cartoony, the magic of those things coming to life would be completely gone.”

This entailed techniques not previously used by Pixar: global illumination, in which light is simulated as being emitted and reflected off surfaces, and deep compositing, where images holding three-dimensional data are layered. This results in deeper plays between light and shadow, and greater depth of field.

As well, Unseld slowed filming to 12 frames per second — half the usual rate for movies — at some points. He also varied exposure times, thus resulting in different rhythms of rain.

Unusually, Unseld was directing some of his earlier camera and staging co-workers. Often, he said, he felt guilty when he would send them back with many notes for revisions after they had show him their work.

“If you give someone all that feedback to do all that work, I was used to doing part of that work. Here, I just had someone go off and do all that work by himself. That was a very new experience for me,” he said.

At the same time, however, he considered his background advantageous for good communication with them. “If you work in one of those technical departments, it’s really nice if you have a director who really understands you because you can talk the same language,” he said.

A clip from The Blue Umbrella can be seen on our website now.

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