Saschka Unseld – The Blue Umbrella (short)

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

All it took was one rainy day in Los Angeles for Pixar layout artist Saschka Unseld to sprout an idea. While standing outside, Unseld, who had already worked on a number of Pixar films including “Toy Story 3,” “Cars 2,” and “Brave,” noticed an umbrella that had been tossed in the gutter.

“I just stood there and looked at it,” said Unseld, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany. “It was battered and drenched. It made me feel very sad. That image just stayed with me. Then, that idea developed into a story about the umbrella and what happened to him.”

Pixar executives liked the story so much, they decide to make “The Blue Umbrella” the studio’s 12th short animated film to coincide with the theatrical release of a Pixar feature. In this case, “The Blue Umbrella” will show before every screening of “Monsters University” starting June 21.

In “The Blue Umbrella,” which Unseld wrote and directed, a blue umbrella faces numerous challenges during a rainstorm with the help of other inanimate objects that make up a big city.

During an interview with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Unseld discussed how his short animation captures the spirit and emotion of Pixar films before it, and the particular process it took to make difficult decisions about the main characters’ characteristics.

“The Blue Umbrella” was the most realistic looking Pixar film – short or feature – I have ever seen. Did you go into this project with the idea to make everything look that lifelike?

Saschka Unseld: Yes. It was painstakingly created by all the people on our crew. At the beginning, the intent was to make it feel like we were in a real city. I wanted there to be this magical moment when these inanimate, everyday objects come to life. That’s really something I wanted to bring to the screen. I wanted these characters to make me smile and laugh every time I looked at them.

Was not identifying the city the story takes place a conscious decision?

I always pictured a big city like New York or Chicago because they have these canyons of streets. But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a specific city. I just wanted it to be a symbol for a big city where there are masses of people on their way to work.

I’ve interviewed a handful of Pixar animators over the years, and if there’s one thing they all say it’s that they want to keep the animation they create for Pixar in a “Pixar world.” But I think “Blue Umbrella” is the first Pixar film I’ve seen that doesn’t follow that same rule. Do you think your film has broken new ground for Pixar Animation Studios?

I think we did just based on the excitement of all the animators. We brought characters to life with a lot of heart and emotion and connected the audience to that. Pixar can make a film stylized or cartoony or it can do it like we do with “The Blue Umbrella” and make it look real but still have the same emotional connection. It’s with the same intensity and the same amount of love and passion. It really goes back to the earlier Pixar shorts like “Luxo Jr.,” which at the time was complete photo realistic. That, too, is about an inanimate object coming to life.

I’m glad you brought up “Luxo Jr.” What was the thought process when you decided to give the two umbrella characters mouths and eyes? It was the only characteristic I recognized as something that was computer generated. The character Luxo Jr. didn’t have those features.

It was a very interesting process going through the design phase of that. We brought in a lot of designers to have a brainstorming session. We went through all the possibilities that could give the umbrella all the emotion and give the animators the ability to animate those emotions.

What were some of the other options?

We played around with a lot of things. We thought maybe we could give the umbrellas a pattern that looked like faces. Or maybe the raindrops that fall on them form the faces. Or maybe the folds on the umbrellas form the faces. We always came back to giving the animators enough flexibility to communicate the emotion of the umbrellas through their faces. If we had done that through a pattern, it would’ve restricted the animation too much. For me it was always making the umbrellas part of the photo realistic world. They are real umbrellas. They belong to real people. The faces are just the interpretation of what the umbrellas feel like.

Since Pixar came into the scene in 1986, their short animated films have been nominated for 11 Oscars and won three times. The last time, however, was 12 years ago with “For the Birds.” Is that something you think about when you make a short like this – to get back to being the best in this category?

Of course an award like the Oscar is a badge of honor. Everyone would be happy about it. But awards don’t come into play at all. The main thing is connecting with the audience. We had a screening the other day and I saw the audience laugh and smile at something we showed them on the screen. Sitting in the cinema is super exhilarating. People are really reacting to what you show them. That is the highest pedestal you can put us on. It’s just a pleasure to make someone happy. I love that.

I loved the song that is playing throughout the short. Who was that?

The song was a collaboration. It was between composer Jon Brion, who has done a lot of P.T. Anderson stuff, and the vocals are from singer/songwriter Sarah Jaffe. She is from Denton, Texas. I saw her perform a couple of years ago and there was just something in her voice, an intimacy, I fell in love with. For me, she was part of the project before I even pitched it.

What do you think the umbrellas will do during the dry season to keep their relationship strong – just cuddle up in the umbrella stand?

Actually, we did have some fun drawings of the blue and red umbrella in an umbrella stand kind of cuddling with each other. A lot of people have asked us if there are going to be tiny purple umbrellas someday.

Louis Gonzales – Brave (DVD)

December 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

From graffiti artist to story artist – Louis Gonzales, who started as a graffiti artist in the San Fernando Valley, has worked at Pixar Animation Studios since 2000. He takes on the role of story artist in the studio’s newest animated film “Brave.”

Working as a layout and story artist for Pixar Animation Studios over the last 12 years, Louis Gonzales has lent his artistic talent to a number of films including “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” and “The Incredibles.” As a story artist on “Brave,” Gonzales helped visualize the story of a princess who must break a curse cast on her family and kingdom.

Is it gratifying for you as a story artist to see the finished product when it looks a lot different than what you initially drew?

Yeah, it’s always good to see the film when it’s done, especially here at Pixar. We put a lot of work in at Pixar and everyone is really proud of it. Working as a story artist is considered pre-production, which is part of the planning stage. I haven’t been let down working here. I’m always proud of the movies we make.

How much research did you have to do on the country of Scotland before you started visualizing the setting for the film?

I’ve always felt it was very important to know your setting unless you’re talking about outer space or some kind of fairy land. I was lucky enough to be one of the first people with the film to go to Scotland. We were there for 10 days and soaked in as much of the culture and atmosphere as we could. We wanted to understand the country and the customs.

I read in your biography that you grew up doing graffiti art. Is that still something that interests you?

I still love it although I haven’t practiced it for a long time. It is part of the reason I’m here. Graffiti was an outlet to draw with like-minded friends. It was a big part of my upbringing. All of my friends would get together and do graffiti art. We encouraged each other to get better. It was like my own little art community since I didn’t go to art school.

Do you allow any of your graffiti to sneak into any of your drawings with Pixar?

(Laughs) I’d like to think my graffiti background is in all my art to a certain extent whether it is a direct representation or not. You don’t lose that. It’s something that will always be a part of me. But after all these years, I have evolved and grown.

Inigo Quilez – Brave

June 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Although his background is in engineering and not in animation, Inigo Quilez has found a home at Pixar.

In “Brave,” the studio’s new animated film about a young Scottish princess who must undo a curse that has been placed on her kingdom, Quilez was placed on an animation team in charge of creating the grass, trees, forests and all the other greenery seen in the film’s background.

During an interview with me, Quilez talked about his work with Pixar and what it takes to make an animated film come to life.

What has your experience been like working on your very first film with an industry giant like Pixar?

I have been working on “Brave” for three years. It’s amazing to work and make movies. I am an electrical engineer, actually, but I always wanted to do something a little more artistic. It was a dream to come to Pixar. It’s a really unique place where I can use my technical skills and help make something very beautiful.

As an animator on “Brave,” you have a very specialized job. Tell us more about what you do.

I am responsible for making everything that looks like plants or vegetation. I worked with a small team of three people. Normally, for a movie like this you would have to go to a computer and create every flower, but instead we approached it in a different way and used more mathematics. We taught the computer to create all these things for us. We developed a lot of new techniques to help with that.

In terms of research, did Pixar send you out to roll around in the grass?

(Laughs) Well, I joined the team a bit late, so I didn’t get to go with them to Scotland. They brought back a lot of images and real plants. We didn’t want to create reality, but we wanted something inspired by reality.

Over the years in animation, it seems like plants and trees and other objects in nature like water have gotten a lot more realistic. But that’s not what Pixar is trying to do?

Well, you have movies like “Avatar” where things look completely real. But that doesn’t really work for us because are characters don’t look realistic. They look more like toys. So, our backgrounds have to match with the characters. We want things to look complex and organic, but not really real.