Short and Sweet: Saschka Unseld

Inspiration spawns from the most unlikely of places. Screenwriter and director of the upcoming Pixar animated short The Blue Umbrella walks us through the development process. Get In Media writer Christina Couch was at SXSW in March when the film made its North American premier. 

You can call him an animator, but Pixar director and layout artist Saschka Unseld says that his job is just as much about researching the real world as it is creating new ones. Which is why Unseld hit the streets when creating The Blue Umbrella, Pixar’s latest short about two umbrellas that find love in the concrete jungle. Transforming city minutia like rain gutters, mailboxes, and shop awnings into emotion-rich characters, Unseld’s film toes the line between live action and computer generated.

Despite working on some of Pixar’s biggest hits including Brave, Cars 2, and Toy Story 3, Unseld originally didn’t plan on working for a major feature studio. After graduating from film school in Germany with a concentration in visual effects, Unseld co-founded a small studio where he produced and directed commercials and animated shorts. After transplanting to the U.S. in 2008, Unseld set his sights on bigger projects and eventually landed a job in Pixar’s cinematography layout department.

Loving the ability to build new worlds from scratch, Unseld yearned for the freedom to oversee what happens in those worlds too. While walking around the streets of downtown San Francisco one rainy day, he spotted a broken umbrella lying in the gutter and began to daydream about the secret lives of the things we pass by every day. Several pitches later, The Blue Umbrella was given the green light and slated to hit theaters in front of Pixar’s newest feature, Monsters University, on June 21.

Get In Media: The Blue Umbrella looks almost like a live-action film. How do you plan out how an animated piece is going to look?

Saschka Unseld: People think that computer animation has to look a certain style, but I don’t think that’s the case. Computer animation can be anything you want it to be, and I think there is way more to explore than we’ve barely scratched the surface upon. In the case of The Blue Umbrella, everything was based on my fascination with this magic moment of something inanimate coming to life and of that only working if beforehand we believe the world to be the real world we see if we go outside the cinema. That was kind of the core story thing that drove how we want this to look.

The rest came out of an emotion I wanted to achieve with the story. I wanted the city and the rain to transform into this magical, beautiful place. And visually for me, that meant using all of these neon lights that go on at night, using them to paint this really saturated, really impressionistic landscape that you have in a city if it’s dark and it rains and every surface reflects something in it. I wanted this beauty to it and that kind of drove how visually we wanted to have it look.

GIM: To make this film, you did a lot of research on weathering and aging and textures.

SU: Yeah, that was a huge part for me. I think that complexity helps a lot, makes something really feel real and not making something look like a fake set. Things like how cracks in asphalt form themselves and where they naturally happen because people walk over them or because it gets really cold in the winter in a certain kind of city or it doesn’t. Things you would find on the sidewalk where it borders onto a building. Even though the building is white, you would find splatters of paint of blue because beforehand the building had been painted in blue. Everything has a very specific detail. Nothing is random. Everything is there for a specific reason that is based on the history and the reality of that object and of the city. We took thousands of photos, picked those details that we wanted to have in the shot, and fed on the richness we have in reality to kind of replicate those in our shot.

“If you go to a big studio, you need to find this one aspect of filmmaking that you are the most passionate about and be aware that that’s going to be your main job.”
GIM: What is the pitch process like at Pixar?

SU: It’s relatively straightforward. I think that the hardest part is just coming up with a good, interesting, and unique idea. It took me a long time to find a story based on that idea that I was really, really happy with. There’s a department here at Pixar, a development department, so I kept meeting with them, telling them the story that I was thinking of telling, and they gave me feedback on what they thought about it. Then I kept going back to the drawing board again and kind of tried to figure out, is there a nice story to tell? Is there a better way to tell it? Until the point where they felt like OK, now it’s strong enough to pitch it and you have to pitch three ideas.

You don’t just pitch one idea, you have to pitch three ideas. The first step in that is internally. We have kind of this panel, which I pitched to first, which is Pete Docter who directed Monsters, Inc. and Bob [Peterson] who’s directed the Pixar movie [The Good Dinosaur] that’s about to come out. A couple of heads of story wanted to come, and Pete Sohn [Pixar animator on who worked on Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo and directed the short, Partly Cloudy.] I pitched all three ideas to them and they gave me feedback. They clearly all fell in love with The Blue Umbrella and said that they think this is something John [Lasseter, Pixar chief creative officer] would be fascinated by as well. I pitched it to John Lasseter and he instantly loved it and we started doing it.

GIM: During the pitch process, how much of the film do you need to have done or at least in your mind to have it picked up?

SU: The full story of it. It’s not like you say, “Ooh, I want to tell a love story with umbrellas.” Basically I verbally, with the help of four [still] pictures, talked through the story from the beginning to the end. That doesn’t mean the story won’t change once we start production and do the storyboards and all these things. There are loads of details that change, but one possible core idea of the story needs to be there and it needs to be strong enough that it fascinates everyone. I have basically a five-minute pitch that I trained and trained and trained upon. I actually pitched it into Photo Booth on my Mac and then watched myself pitch it, and then I tried to do better. I did it like 50 or 60 times just to improve telling a story in an emotional way. 

GIM: Visually, what do you need to show the style you’d like to do the film in?

SU: Style-wise, I didn’t really have anything at that time. What I had was four pictures just for the key moments of the story—a blue umbrella in a crowd of umbrellas, an umbrella broken on the side of a street, and two umbrellas in a cafe kind of leaning to each other, but those were basically photos I found online and just kind of drew faces on top of the umbrellas. The other thing I had was a test I had done out of completely different reasons a year or so before I pitched. On my phone I had filmed a couple of places I saw in the city. At that point, I was thinking about doing a music video, so I made three shots of faces in the city. I brought them into my computer and animated the mouths of those faces in sync to the song I really liked. I showed that after my pitch to show what I mean by city characters coming to life. 

Everyone was absolutely amazed by that pitch the moment when these everyday objects come to life. Based on that, we all decided that it should be photo-real in the beginning of the short. This magic of real things coming to life, we don’t want to lose that by making everything look cartoony. I must say, up to the pitch I didn’t have my mind set on it should be [photo realistic] or it should be cartoony or anything. I had this couple of visual fragments I wanted to show just to show people the possibilities. Based on that, we all decided the best way to do this was to have it feel completely [photo realistic] in the beginning.

GIM: How long did this project take from beginning to end?

SU: In actual production here at Pixar, it was roughly a year. I think that I started to come up with the story beforehand a year earlier, so that whole process would have been two years. Ideas had been swirling around in my head for probably two or three or four years longer.

RELATED: Animation technical director on Blue Sky Studio’s Epic, Heath Hollingshead, discusses the challenges in moving toward a photo-realistic style for the upcoming feature.

GIM: You have a background in photography and cinematography. Do you feel like having a background in those things is necessary for someone who wants to be in animation?

SU: I don’t think it hurts. I think the overarching thing is that interest in anything art-related is a big plus. I don’t think animation or filmmaking or anything is restricted to just this form of media. There are so many other art forms—paintings, sculpture, installation work, photography—where you can kind of draw ideas, concepts, and emotions from. I think generally having a wide range of interests in the art field is helpful.

GIM: For somebody who’s interested in doing animation for Pixar, what skills do they need and what software do they need to know?

SU: I think the least important thing is software. The main thing that counts is your talent, your creative talent, your eye for things. With Pixar being a big feature studio, what’s important for people to know is that you specialize in one certain aspect of the production. You either specialize in doing the animation or you specialize, like I used to do, in the camera and staging work. You specialize in just building the sets or in just creating the textures. If you want to work on all of them, you’re probably better off going to a small studio. If you go to a big studio, you need to find this one aspect of filmmaking that you are the most passionate about and be aware that that’s going to be your main job. When you apply, you should focus on that part and show your strongest work in that area of production.

GIM: What would you recommend students have in their portfolio to make them competitive job candidates?

SU: That vastly depends on which department they want to apply to. Ultimately, it is just showing work they’ve done in the field of that department they’re applying to that is artistically interesting and not just the classical norm that is out there and that everyone does. Something that tells you about the person’s artistic view on things. Because you don’t ultimately hire someone because the person is an amazing operator of a 3-D software. You want to work with a person because you find his artistic contributions interesting. I think focusing on your artistic voice is one of the most important things.

The Blue Umbrella and Monsters University open June 21.

Related Content

Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us