Interview with Saschka Unseld, director of The Blue Umbrella – Transcription

The Blue Umbrella Saschka Unseld Interview
Photo of Saschka Unseld © Pixar Studios

Below is a very informative and entertaining interview that we conducted with The Blue Umbrella Director, Saschka Unseld. The interview touches on many areas from the technical challenges, to the sound design, to the photo-realism that has captivated audiences so far. Additionally, if you would prefer, you can listen to the entire interview in audio form by clicking here.

“There is actual  purpose in doing random things just for fun” – Saschka Unseld

Pixar Post – PP: Before we get into some of the more serious conversation and some of the questions we wanted to bring up that we have been following your photos on Instagram even before we specifically knew that you were the director of The Blue Umbrella – we’re both artists at heart and we must say that we really appreciate your take that you do on everyday items. Julie really loved the commuting pieces and the broad landscape pieces are just fantastic.

Saschka Unseld – SU: Wow, thank you.

PP: So, first off thank you for those. It’s always a great inspiration to see what other people are doing and you have such a different eye than I do – it’s a very unique point of view. A point of view that could be taken for granted, but you capture it beautifully.

SU: That’s really nice. You know the funny thing is that, I always ask myself, I enjoy doing those photos and Instagram things and stuff like this but it’s kind of weird because it’s just for myself – not for a project. It takes a lot of time just doing them on the side but the nice thing was with the short The Blue Umbrella the initial idea actually came out of one of these photos. The very first photo on the blog (Rainy City Tales 332) is of an umbrella in the gutter. It was a photo that I actually took, and made an animation test with that a couple of months later just for the heck of it because I enjoy doing it. And then at one point it kind of evolved into a story, but initially, it was just kind of random stuff I enjoy doing without sense and purpose and I always wondered, ‘why am I doing this stuff’ and then the Pixar short came out of it…out of something I just did for fun and it was nice…I felt an approval towards myself that there is actually purpose in doing random things just for fun.

PP: We were able to view the short prior to speaking with you.

SU: Yay! That is pretty awesome!

PP: Yes. It was PHENOMENAL! We don’t understand how this isn’t a live-action film.

SU: I’m pretty excited to have it actually released. I feel like the small snippet that we released kind of barely scratches the surface of what the short actually is. So, I was excited that people got excited about the except as well and you don’t even know what’s coming at you.

PP: Agreed! After we saw it we were way past goosebumps and our brain had to essentially process it the first time we watched it and then we had to come back a second time just so we could take it all in. The first time we were just going, “What! What?!”

SU: It’s actually gorgeous on film as well as on stereo. The stereo is pretty amazing! If you see it in 2D I’d recommend looking out for a cinema that shows it on film because the film grain and the celluloid really adds a whole other dimension to it as well.

PP: Speaking of realism and what blew our minds so much. At about two minutes into the film one example of it that totally floored us was a close-up of some rain boots. We were wondering if you could talk about how the technology behind this enabled that realism to happen…how is it possible?

SU: Basically, it’s a whole bunch of work with amazingly talented artists here and we tried to get a lot of people on board who previously worked on commercials and visual effects to try and get a different take on what the whole thing could look like. It’s funny, if you look at visual effects movies, huge set pieces are completely CG – you just never realize when you see the movie. It’s not that it never existed before – the technology of it. Using that in an animated movie and kind of crossing that line more on what is animation and what is real was something that we were really interested in doing. Loads of it was the amount of research in regards to how surfaces age and how the objects feel. It’s based on the physicality and how does weathering look on these things. I think a lot of this research that made it into the final picture makes it really feel real. It doesn’t feel like pristine asphalt you can sense a certain way that its aged over the years and years.

PP: Absolutely. That certainly does come across and is something that we’ve seen in other Pixar films and between the way the items look (with the aging) as well as the camera work and the extreme shallow depth of field, it’s almost closely mirrored to Wall-E in a way, at least from our perspective.

SU: Wall-E especially in the first third of it was trying to base the way the camera moves and the depth of field and the lighting into reality. Wall-E did that to a certain extent with classic iconic 70’s sci-fi films – we tried to do the same and give it a bit of a ‘found footage’ feel to make it like you are witnessing something that is going on. Color-wise, I was hugely inspired by films from Wong Kar-waiChungking Express and In The Mood for Lovethe way lights are used especially at night to just paint the canvas with big splashes of red and blue. Even though we’re photo-real, we try to be artistic and have the images feel nearly like impressionistic paintings with the way we used lights and colors to counter the dreary realism we start within the beginning.

PP: That’s actually one of the comments we had written down while watching it the first time when you mentioned the ‘hand-held’ look. It almost looks like it was shot with a really low aperture, like at f/2.8, on a handheld DSLR with a Steadicam. Obviously, there are some challenges when it comes to hair and fabric, but when it comes from a camera standpoint are there any additional challenges in adding that extra camera shake in order to make it appear more like a ‘hand-held’ look?

SU: Yeah, we wondered for a long time on how we were going to achieve it and what we ended up with is that the camera work basically goes through two stages. The first stage is setting up the shots and aiming the camera at what you want to aim at and blocking out the movement of it, for that we used the traditional pipeline at Pixar, which is the software. But then the additional step that we did after the animation was done, was that we kind of re-shot…we re-recorded the shots in a way where we could actually capture real camera movement. So I was holding a dummy camera and could film the set, and film the animation and we would record that movement. So we polished the camera by recording actual hand-held camera movement to get that specific ‘real’ feel of someone holding an object in physical space with weight to it.

PP: Wow. It certainly came across. That was one of the first things we noticed. We were so taken with not just the photo-realism but the camera work. It is definitely appreciated on our side that all of the continuity was there.

SU: I’m happy that comes through.

PP: Our reader review [of The Blue Umbrella] from MaryEllen Atkins was so thoughtfully written and it brought so much ‘color’ to the short before we were able to view it ourselves – but one of the items that she mentioned was that you had a technical challenge that couldn’t be overcome. Could you explain to us what that technical challenge was?

SU: Ultimately we have a saying here that a film is never done, it just gets released.

PP: Yes. We’ve heard John Lasseter speak of that numerous times in various books and interviews.

SU: Yeah, that’s how it is. During the production, you have to decide which challenges are the ones that are most important to you that you’re going to focus all the energy on and which ones are important to you but they take lower priority. There’s probably dozens of things and luckily slowly you forget which ones they were, otherwise they’d keep jumping out when I watch the film, but one specific one – and I believe the one I spoke with her about was there is a shot when the camera is just aimed at the asphalt and we pan up, you just see the blue umbrella lying there. Initially, I always envisioned us shooting into a puddle of water and seeing the distorted reflection of the umbrella being all muddled up in the dirty water, and then at one point it became, ‘how much time do we want to spend on this’ and how much time do we want to spend on the other things that we still have to do and my decision was well even though I love the shot, let’s just spend time on the main story and the main two umbrellas and the look of them instead of these small side details.

PP: That’s funny because when we had interviewed Mark Walsh right after PartySaurus Rex came out and we spoke with him about technical challenges and he mentioned the suds in the bathtub and it’s interesting that you say ‘some of them you just have to walk away from’, because from his perspective he was saying “no, no, no the suds have to be in there”. So, that was his one thing that he couldn’t walk away from.

SU: I had one which was exactly the same. I was like ok we have to do this and I’m fine with taking the hit in other departments. It’s when the gutter, actually we named all the characters – so the gutter is called “Gutsy”. When Gutsy tries to see if the blue umbrella is OK and kind of lifts him up a bit to see if he is fine. Initially, we animated the cloth and the movement of the umbrella there and it didn’t get the feeling of weight – how this broken cloth, soaked in water, which looks so kind of dreary – and that’s something we kicked over to the Simulation and Effects department to simulate how that cloth would move if it was kicked up and sags back down to the ground and I think that was exactly the right moment to put in all that energy because now it just feels so different because of that.

PP: We agree. It was one of my [Julie’s] favorite moments in the short – it really ‘got’ me.

SU: I’m so glad. I’m glad that it worked out. It’s really nice to see it at the end. A huge part of directing is where do you cut your losses – what do you not do – because everything is important to you and dear to your heart and every idea is a great idea.  At one point when we see the two boots of the owners when she helped him up and we see the boots standing next to each other, we had an animation of roughly ten seconds where we only see them standing next to each other and we did small animation with the boots to hint at what their conversation might be. It was fantastic! You get the whole, ‘she asks him something and replies and is a bit shy’…it was gorgeous! But, it just held up the flow of the story too much, and again it’s about what do you throw out and what are the things you focus on to carry the story.

PP: That’s actually something that MaryEllen talked about in her review was the deliberate point to keep the people in the short anonymous.

SU: It’s a thin line. We want to have the audience aware that they exist but we never want to audience to think too much about them until the very end where we make a small point about them. You never want to think too much like, ‘Oh there’s people underneath, because then that throws you off the main storyline which is about the two umbrellas.

PP: We agree. It would be too referential because, as people ourselves, we would start to think, “well what are the people thinking about…”

SU: Exactly.

PP: So, you had mentioned that all the characters have names. Do the Blue Umbrella and Red Umbrella have official names or are they just “Blue” and “Red”?

SU: They are just Blue and Red. Even the owners were Blue Owner and Red Owner.

PP: What about the goofy awnings that splashed water on Blue at the beginning of the short.

SU: The triplets! Those were the triplets and they actually have separate names they were “So” “Re” “Me” . There was a construction sign in the short that was named “PeGe” but a lot of people didn’t know how to pronounce it so there was a lot of mispronunciation and sometimes we would go, ‘who are you talking about’. We actually printed out a poster with all the pictures of the characters for initial photo reference with the names underneath so that everyone would get used to what the heck we were talking about. When new people would start on the show and before they knew about the poster they would go ‘What is everyone talking about?’

PP: That’s great! We love that! Thinking about that poster…after the short has its official release will there be any releases of background production artwork or anything like that for the viewers to be able to see a little more of?

SU: Yeah. Once it’s out it’s easier to show stuff. There are tons of making-of stuff that I shot while we were making the film and some of it I put on the blog already but there are tons more – but it reveals more of the story points of the short that we don’t want to have out there yet. So there’s a lot that I’m looking forward to putting on the blog.

PP: That’s fantastic. We’ve been eating that up. We love the behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s one of our favorite parts. Another thing that always grabs our attention is the foley sessions as well, there’s such depth in the sound. Obviously, the sound plays a major portion of the short so talk about the recording process. Were you involved in the foley sessions?

SU: I love sound design, especially in this short because it gives everything a physical reality to it. Things make sound when they move and that makes it so much more real. Barney Jones is a Sound Mixer and Sound Designer we have here working at Pixar – it was fantastic to work with him and as you saw on the videos at one point, we had a session where we gathered about 10-15 people from the team and just walk around with umbrellas next to each other in one of our screening rooms just to record the sound so we really tried to get a lot of people involved in making the sounds – but of course, most of the sounds were done by Barney. I really wish you could hear the short without music where it’s just the sound design. Every moment just sounds so fantastic and brings you so much more into the scene itself – especially in the beginning. It was super important to me that there’s this moment where we shift from reality to slowly into this magical land where the short takes place in. That shift happens in the sound design. We start with the first raindrops hitting the floor but then hitting different surfaces like a mailbox and each sound is so different. Slowly we arranged these drops in more of a pattern and that pattern becomes the rhythm for the music and the instruments come in slowly. I’m really happy with how Barney and John [Brion] made that happen in the end.

PP: We wish we could hear it too without the music – and not to discount the music by any means. You can hear the texture from the raindrops and when a car goes by you can hear the rain being kicked up. It is awesome!

SU: We had stuff with different kinds of rain, there were moments look-wise where we varied the rain a bit. Romantic moments where the rain looks really soft and smooth with the exposure creating really soft shapes and the sound is really kind of warm and has a bit of bass to it. But then there are harsher moments where we used really short exposure times so the raindrops look like dirt on the frame (really harsh shapes) and of course the sound changes as well, it’s much more dry and harsh. There’s a lot of change in the sound throughout the short to make it feel romantic or kind of ugly.

PP: Since we just got done talking about the Sound Design, talk a little bit about the music score of it with Jon Brion and Sarah Jaffe. How did you come across and decide that they were the right choice for The Blue Umbrella?

SU: So, Sarah Jaffe was interesting because I saw her ages ago and her voice always stuck in my head and I started buying all her CDs and when I pitched the short to John Lasseter and the others here at Pixar I had made a test basically. Again, one of those things that I just did for fun and I shot two ‘faces’ around the block where I was living and one of them is the first character you see in the short. The second was a building, and I animated them to sing to a song, as I first thought of it as a music video. I used a song of Sarah Jaffe’s and that kind of voice just stuck with everyone, so I was really very excited that we carried that first initial spark to use her voice through to the final piece.

Then the question became, we need a composer for this. We debated having Sarah write it but a song is a very different thing than a score and I wanted a collaboration between a composer and Sarah Jaffe. I’ve been an admirer of Jon Brion since forever and for me, the biggest reason why he was the perfect fit was his work he did on Punch-Drunk Love, where he did such an amazing collaboration with the sound design and music and it’s such an offbeat thing that it just sticks with you. He manages to put in a lot of emotion but also make it feel slightly offbeat and that was exactly what I wanted for it and it was fantastic when we brought in Sarah Jaffe and she was in the studio with Jon Brion and we recorded her voice and the collaboration between these two was fun to watch.

As we wrapped the interview, we thanked Saschka for his time and kindly asked him to pass our words of praise on to The Blue Umbrella team as well.

Do not be late to theaters on June 21, 2013, when this premieres with Monsters University – it’s a stunner and shouldn’t be missed.

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