The biggest impediment to Pixar’s short film The Blue Umbrella is how close its release is to that of sister studio Disney’s Paperman last year. Its story set in an evening downpour depicts the love at first site of the titular colored parasol and his red counterpart bobbing over a city sidewalk. With an unspoken attraction and embarrassed stolen glances, their would be union’s demise is simply due to their owners traveling in different directions. But much like the paper airplanes of John Kars’ 2012 film, destiny wins out with a little help from outside forces to thrust the two umbrellas back together.
A fun, whimsical experience of personified, inanimate objects, the lovers’ journey is assisted from the many metallic fixtures housed along the way. A crosswalk light, mailbox, drain pipe, and even the tiny rivets of a screwed-in plate on the pavement creak their way into lively smiles and curious eyes, using their respective abilities to play cupid once a gust of wind blows Blue away from the subway entrance his master was attempting to breach. Floating through the air until he sees Red again, danger rears its ahead as traffic and the weather threaten to destroy him.
It’s tough to judge a work strictly on its own merits when you can’t help believing you’ve seen it before. I’d love to know what my feelings would have been had I not seen Paperman because The Blue Umbrella’s simplicity may have actually struck me more profoundly. The good thing, however, is that whatever shortcomings director Saschka Unseld’s short has in story are more than made up for in sheer technical prowess. A Pixar technician and layout artist, Unseld is giving us a demonstration of brand new photorealistic lighting, shading, and composting techniques as much as his heartfelt romance. And let me just say his “global illumination” process is gorgeous.
When the film started I was completely thrown—surprised the short playing before Monsters University was a live action piece. The streetlights and signs’ glows refracted through the rain and glossy puddles with amazing precision and the fluid crowds seen as legs underneath darkened umbrellas absolutely realistic. Only when the metallic objects began bending into faces and the black eyes and mouth appeared on the two vibrantly colored shades did I realize it might be animation after all. And since the entire thing takes place with a raised horizon permanently masking faces, there’s nothing to break the illusion.
I can only imagine the rendering time needed to perfect such a style and wouldn’t be surprised if Pixar has to wait a few more years before utilizing it in a full-length feature, but it’s a stunning achievement. Perhaps the simple story of star-crossed love was a necessity to ensure the visuals weren’t overshadowed or distracted from. Or maybe still, perhaps I only remember the plot being stale because I couldn’t stop marveling at what I was looking at. Either way, Unseld’s work is a brilliant little exercise in alternative perspectives and unparalleled technical wizardry. This is the future of animation and I’m not surprised Pixar was the one to deliver it.