How Pixar created the ultrarealistic animated film, The Blue Umbrella

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Written and directed by Saschka Unseld, The Blue Umbrella is a Pixar short telling the story of blue umbrella that meets a red umbrella on the streets. As their respective owners part ways, however, the blue umbrella desperately tries to get back to the red umbrella. While the blue umbrella battles weather and traffic, other street objects, including a personified street gutter, mailing box, and a building pipe vent, try to help bring the blue umbrella to the red umbrella. At the end of the short, the blue umbrella, though battered and dirty, is united with the red umbrella and its happily ever after for the two.

The level of photorealism is unprecedented in this short. Upon the first viewing, it seems as though the video is a blend of live action and animation. The facial expressions on various street objects, however, give away the secret that it is in fact a computer generated animation that uses photorealistic shading, lighting, and compositing. Like many of its shorts, The Blue Umbrella, is used to test yet another one of Pixar’s new technologies, in this case a special global illumination technology. By mathematically modeling each beam of light in every scene, everything that is animated, including rain, looks extremely realistic.

THE BLUE UMBRELLA

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While photorealism was not the original goal of this piece, the idea of making the short photorealistic was formulated during the process of production. As the idea solidified, the team working on this project had to grow increasingly conscious of how to make things look more real. Making efforts such as not showing human faces and setting the scene to be at nighttime to shroud everything in darkness were conscious decisions to preserve the effect. Another technique they utilized was a shallow depth of field, meaning that the camera focuses on objects closer to it rather than further from it. While the shallow depth of field aided in the quest for photorealism, it also helped set a lyrical mood and artistic atmosphere for the film.

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Camera movement was especially important for the film cinematography and achieving the goals realism. Because computer generated films are made by a machine, movements, especially camera movements, tend to be extremely smooth. In real life, camera movements can be jerky and angles tend change more often. The point from where the camera shoots from may also be exaggerated in computer generated films. For example, placing a camera in small nook and then panning that camera across a scene is something not feasible in real life. Taking all of these notes in hand, Unseld decided to take a documentary approach to this short. Splicing together only second long clips and shooting from only places where it is reasonable for a human to stand, like standing across the street, Unseld was able to not only create a realistic looking animation, but also a realistic feeling film.

THE BLUE UMBRELLA

Takahashi, Dean. “How Pixar Created the Ultarealistic and Animated Film, The Blue Umbrella (interview)”. VentureBeat. Web. Nov 2013.

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