Saschka Unseld interview: The Blue Umbrella, Pixar shorts, sequels, Disney’s Paperman & more…

We chat to Saschka Unseld, the director of The Blue Umbrella, the Pixar short paired with Monsters University...

“Disney Pixar did that?” That’s the reaction director Sachka Unseld is hoping audiences will have to The Blue Umbrella, the short film paired with Monsters University.

Where’s the surprise, you might ask. In many ways, The Blue Umbrella is everything we’ve come to expect from a Pixar short; it’s dialogue-free, anthropomorphises inanimate objects, and charms the socks off you in the time it would take to make a cup of tea. Once you’ve seen Unseld’s film though, you’ll know what he means.

Pixar may bang the drum for story, but it’s the style of The Blue Umbrella that makes an impression. When the first stills from the film were released, they were immediately labelled as photo-realistic, though Unseld wouldn’t describe the look as such, “What does it mean, photo-real? It doesn’t mean anything”. The intention, Unseld tells us, was for the audience to think in the film’s opening seconds, “Oh, Pixar’s done a live-action short”. After that point? Well, we won’t spoil it. Suffice to say the film says something about hope, love and dejection, and – not to get too fridge magnet-y about it – the universe catching you when you fall.

Den of Geek and Yahoo Movies chatted to German-born Unseld about the pitching process at Pixar, The Blue Umbrella’s distinctive visual style, Disney’s Paperman, the importance of a happy ending, the uncanny valley in animation, and what Pixar’s recent taste for sequels says about the studio…

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Since seeing The Blue Umbrella, I’ve seen faces in every pavement and drainpipe I’ve passed…

And that’s a good thing?

It’s a very good thing!

I had a girl at South by Southwest where we showed the film, who came up to me afterwards and said “I’m so happy that someone has the same thing and sees faces in everything”, and I was like “Oh, that’s so nice”, and then she said “I just have one question”, I was like, “What’s your question?” and she said “How do I make it stop?” She was really stressed out by it.

Your film kept continuity with Pixar’s previous shorts in a number of ways – you had no dialogue, inanimate objects were brought to life etc. How much of that was self-imposed, or were you told ‘This is how we do shorts’?

I don’t think any of it was being told to me, I mean maybe I just knew all the Pixar shorts so I did something in that domain, but I didn’t think of any restrictions when I came up with the story.

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At the core was an umbrella and then I just needed to find the right story with it. I never thought that the umbrella should talk, because that would have been weird, and the city talking would have been weird as well. I liked it being a musical piece so I think even if there were rules, I just happened to accidentally fulfil them. No-one is like, okay, ‘these are the rules for Pixar shorts’, everyone’s like, ‘if the story is great, if the characters are great, if it’s a unique short then we’ll do it, whatever it is’.

Tell us about the process of pitching and how you got The Blue Umbrella made.

It’s a long process. Anyone at Pixar can pitch short films, you just need to pitch three.

What were your other two?

There were actually more. I had five, and then after half a year of working on all five I realised two of them were crap. Well, they weren’t crap, I just couldn’t find the right story. In the beginning you have an idea and then you have to find the right story to tell with this idea and I never got to a story where I felt this was really good, it was always just okay.

What were those ideas, if you don’t mind telling us?

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I don’t really remember. One was with a Rubik’s Cube who just couldn’t solve itself, and another one was something with wolves that I don’t recall. Another one was with a monster that actually just wanted to be hugged. So yeah, I went for like, half a year meeting up with the development department and working on full-on stories – because you pitch a whole story, you kind of talk through the story within five minutes in kind of real time.

The first round that I pitched all three ideas to was a panel of directors, Pete Docter who directed the first Monsters Inc., and Ronnie del Carmen, who’s head of story, Jason Katz, and Bob Peterson, who’s directing the dinosaur movie next year. I pitched them all three ideas and then afterwards you pitch the one they pick to John Lasseter, and the first time I tried to pitch all three ideas to development as a test it was a disaster. I mumbled and I forgot where I was in the story, and I was like, this is going to be a disaster. What I did was to go home, and on the Mac you have Photobooth where you can take pictures and movies of yourself, so I hit record hit record and I recorded myself pitching to it, and then I went through the excruciating process of watching myself and I was like, yeah, I do mumble and I could maybe move a bit more animated and so I did that, and I think by the end I had like, fifty recordings or something spread over the course of a couple of weekends.

So you trained yourself.

Yeah. I thought ‘okay, I’m home by myself’ (I sent my girlfriend away, I can’t have anyone watch me, that’s too painful) then I thought ‘okay, how about now if I just overact by two hundred percent’, the way I imagine people would act, even though it doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ll just pretend and since no-one is there watching me, I can do it. I watched myself back and I was like, this looks like five percent more exaggerated, but nowhere near as crazy as the scene in my head. That just helped massively. The people in development who I pitched to afterwards were like, ‘it’s like day and night, before and after’.

You said at one point “I’m not as emotional and expressive as I expect a Pixar person to be” So what would you say an archetypal Pixar person is like?

First up, it’s a big cultural difference between Germany and the US. In the US in school, you read out your essays and come in the front of the class and talk, and in Germany you would never do that. Public speaking is something that’s not as common in Germany as it is here, so that’s one gap. Then just as a person, I’m more of a quiet person and not over-active or acting out and being funny and doing jokey stuff, so it’s harder work to get there for me, and for other people it comes naturally. You need to be expressive and emotional and entertaining when you tell the story just with your words because you want to get all that energy across so you need to get there, it just takes me more work to get there.

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Was The Blue Umbrella always going to play in front of Monsters University? Does Pixar deliberately pick the shorts that will complement the movies they’re in front of?

There is no specific tactic in which short hooks up with which feature. We knew relatively early on that it was going to be Monsters University but the reason is like, ‘we have this year to make it, what’s the next feature that’s going to come out that doesn’t have a short yet attached?’. Basically, we don’t want to finish a short and then not show it to the world for a year. We’re like, ‘we’re done with it, we want to show it to people’. That’s why we’ve now had it at festivals because we’d been done for half a year, and we were like ‘why is no-one watching this thing?’ There is no tactic or planning, or ‘this would fit well with this’. They stand on their own and afterwards they will stand on their own and they don’t only live in combination with the features.

You talked about finding the right story and I think originally this one was about an owner and an abandoned umbrella…

That was the first thing. The first thing was like the idea that the umbrella wants to get back to his owner.

But you couldn’t find a happy ending for that. Is that  pre-requisite for Pixar shorts, that they have a happy ending? They can’t be bleak?

I would dare anyone to do a Pixar short film with a not-happy ending. I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it’s really hard because you have a certain target audience you make the film for, and it’s a family audience, it’s an audience who sees a Pixar film so you would never do an art-house film, you’d be telling a story to the wrong audience.

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I just wanted something with a happy ending because when I saw the umbrella there lying on the ground it was just so sad, and part of the reason I emoted with that umbrella was because it was so sad and because you want there to be a happy ending. But yeah, I had different stories, some of them didn’t have happy endings but then I didn’t have the energy to be like, ‘I’m going to spend a year of my life and like a hundred other people on making this story’, you need something that really grips you.

I think what you – I’m over-answering this question – I think what you need to do and what’s important for me is that at one point you get to the not-happy end, because otherwise you ignore how reality is, so I think what you do in movies is to get to the sad moment, you go to the dramatic moment at one point where everything is bleak and there is no happy ending, but then you get out of it because you want to leave people with a sense of hope. But you can’t skip that drama moment, which is the moment when he’s lying there on the ground, which is exactly the same as when I found him.

How close an eye did you keep on something like Disney’s Paperman? Was that something you were aware of when you were making The Blue Umbrella?

We weren’t. There was a meeting where I pitched the short, we were mid-way through production and that was the first time I saw Paperman, directly after my pitch. It was like, ‘oh, interesting.’ I mean, I guess the only similarity is it’s a love story in a big city. I was frustrated for half a day and then I remembered this quote from Billy Wilder where he said he had this amazing dream of this fantastic story and he woke up in the middle of the night and wrote it down on a piece of paper and then in the morning he wakes up and he’s like ‘oh what did I write down?’ and then it says three words, it’s ‘Boy meets Girl’, so for all the similarities I think Paperman and The Blue Umbrella couldn’t be more different.

Well, Paperman won an Oscar, so they’re hopefully not too dissimilar… A lot of people are calling this Pixar’s first photorealistic movie. Do you see it that way?

It was intentional that in the beginning the audience should think, ‘oh, Pixar’s done a live-action short’, that’s how it should start. The reason for it was that when the city comes to life it’s so much more magical if you don’t expect it. It’s magical if it’s the outside world we know and then we descend into a magical world.

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I always felt, what does photo-real mean? It doesn’t mean anything. All the live-action movies are photo-real, a documentary is photo-real, The Avengers is photo-real, everything is photo-real, that doesn’t mean anything in regards of look and art direction. For me it was about, ‘okay, that’s photo-real, but that doesn’t mean anything. How is it going to feel, how is it going to look like?’ And for me the biggest inspiration were the films of Wong Kar Wei like Chung King Express or In the Mood for Love, which I think are gorgeous colour-wise, but they maintain a certain texture and feeling for reality. It’s not like when you have a movie which is photo-real and live-action but it’s so CG that it becomes nearly completely artificial; I wanted the opposite of that, I wanted it photo-real and even though it gets super lush at the end, nearly, like when you pause the frame on some of these in-between frames, they really look like abstract paintings with just like streaks of colour, so I liked that kind of contrast.

Do you think that’s one of the reasons you were able to get it made, because it is strikingly different to anything we’ve seen from Pixar’s shorts before, they wanted to try out this technological progression?

When I pitched it and everyone loved it there was no talk about how it was going to look. I got the green light just based on everyone loving the story and the characters. But we quickly realised, ‘oh wait a second, there is an opportunity here to make something different’ and the reason for that isn’t just to try something different but it’s in the story.

There is a reason in the story to make this look different and once that idea came up, John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] were like ‘let’s do it’. Everyone here always wants to push animation to different kind of lands because there is no established… there shouldn’t be an established look for what animation is. It could be anything. Everyone always wants to be more experimental or to try out different things because we don’t have barriers from technology anymore. In Toy Story you couldn’t do humans, in The Incredibles, you could do humans, and now there aren’t really any borders anymore, so you just need to find stories that are good. That’s when everyone got excited and said ‘wait a second, we can do something completely different with this’.

We were just saying that neither of us has seen anything quite like it before. Have you seen anything else that looks like it?

Not like this, which I’m really happy about. If you go to animation festivals where there are only animated short films, there’s such an amazing range of art films out there, not family-oriented films but independent films and more artistic films where the range of what animation can be so broad. So it exists, it’s not like it’s something new, but somehow, it hasn’t influenced animated features that much.

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Do you think it will now?

I hope so, that’s my big hope, that it can kind of be another step in animation growing up to be more established as not a genre of film, but just a tool of how to tell the story, and it could be anything.

With photo-realistic feature-length animation from other studios, like Polar Express where they had a stab and it was criticised a lot because of the dead eyes. That’s almost the final frontier of animation. What do you think about that?

Polar Express is a strange thing because it was made so early on, so it was kind of ahead of its time or ahead of the technology’s development to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s the final frontier, because I think we’ve reached that. There are live-action movies out there where complete characters are CG and you just don’t care. So that is gone, the constraints that you fought with are gone, so now it’s just about what are you going to do with it creatively and I think that’s the frontier, creatively what could you do with it instead of just pushing it more and more towards photo-real, that has been achieved, so now what?

So you think there aren’t any more great bounds forward to be made in terms of the technology? Small increments will be made, but it’s the artistic side that will be where the developments are.

I think there are big bounds in the artistic side. I think technology-wise, for what it’s worth, I think we can do anything. Storytelling-wise and artistry-wise there’s a tendency to make things bigger and louder with more and more spectacle because we’re able to and able to and able to, but now everyone knows we’re able to, so hopefully everything takes a step back and kind of focuses back on story and the different artistic visions of what a movie could be like.

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This isn’t meant to be a rude question, but one of the things people are saying about Pixar is that they’re doing a lot of prequels and sequels now. With The Blue Umbrella, you’ve done something very different for Pixar, so do you see them actually as being more creative, mixed in with sequels?

The sequels only happen if there’s a story that everyone’s convinced by, so to a certain extent branding them sequels sounds weird because it doesn’t matter if a movie is a sequel or not, it’s a story that everyone’s on board with and it gets made. It doesn’t matter what the characters are.

Yeah, everyone when they saw my short said it would be great if they do more stuff like this but again we don’t do it just for the fun of the gadgetry, or because it looks so different, you need a story that works first. Now, because the technology is there you can figure out that maybe there is a different way visually of telling that story that fits even better, something that isn’t the established way animation looks. As I said, John and Ed were like, ‘let’s do something that’s completely different’. We wanted to have the Disney Pixar logo before it and people to be like, ‘Disney Pixar did that?’

Now that Pixar is such a massive money-making company, it’s great that you’re still in a position to do that artistic stuff too.

It’s an artist-director-driven house, that never changed. It’s the director and his idea for what he wants to do, if he can get people on board with it, then at the core of it that’s not going to get tainted by anything.

Sascha Unseld, thank you very much!

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Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella will be released in the UK on Friday the 12th of July.

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