Pixar's Saschka Unseld on bringing umbrellas to life

The Pixar director will give a talk next week at HP ZED Paris. We chat to him to find out more.

Saschka Unseld is speaking at HP ZED Paris on Wednesday 9 April

Working as a technical artist at Pixar since 2008, Saschka Unseld shot to fame last year after creating The Blue Umbrella, the Pixar short that screened with Monsters University in cinemas.

A love letter to the beauty of the rain, the film was notable for its use of photorealistic animation and stunning illumination techniques (find out more about how it was made in this article).

But for Unseld himself, the biggest leap was moving from layout artist to writer and director in one fell swoop.

Scary experience

"It was an amazing but also scary experience," he recalls. "Everyone here is so insanely talented, and my team asking me for feedback on their amazing work can sometimes feel a bit intimidating."

The Blue Umbrella used an attention-grabbing photorealistic style

But he turned his technical experience - he'd previously worked as a layout artist on Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 - to his advantage, he adds.

"The great thing about coming from a technical department was that I could talk with my whole team eye to eye about the challenges they were facing," he explains. "I understood their work process because I had done most of the jobs on a project myself before. So together we were able to come up with solutions for things that we otherwise wouldn't have."


It was Unseld's idea to use a photorealistic style for The Blue Umbrella, which many assume is a mixture of animation and live action (it's actually entirely animated).

"The idea for the look was all based on a test animation I had done a few years earlier that I showed during my pitch," he explains. "This was an animation of a street grate. At the time I simply shot it on my phone and then animated it in the computer. The interesting thing when I showed it to people was that they didn't expect the object to come to life. It was magical because it was a real object and not a stylized cartoon. And I wanted to keep that magic."

So will we ever see a photorealistic Pixar feature film? Maybe, he says, adding: "The look of a film always depends on what style is best for the story. If someone has an amazing story idea that needs to be done in a photorealistic look than it will happen."

Many assumed the film was a mix of live action and animation - but it's 100 per cent pixels


Another reason The Blue Umbrella grabbed attention was the amazing lighting, created using Pixar's in-house Global Illumination system, which was also used in Monsters University (read more about the lighting effects in that movie here).

"It's an amazing additional tool that can be used to get a more realistic feel for how light bounces off in a scene," enthuses Unseld. But again, he stresses, what's important is not the technique but the creative vision. "In the end it is up to the director, the art director and the artists if this is the right tool for what they want to achieve creatively."

Other software used by Unseld - who's most recently been working on upcoming Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur - includes Pixar's own internal software, Presto, and Maya, in which most modelling is done. "There's also some simulation in Houdini and we recently started evaluating Katana for use in lighting," he adds. "The Blue Umbrella was actually the very first Pixar project to use Katana."

Win a trip to Los Angeles!


Masters of CG is a competition for EU residents that offers the one-in-a-lifetime chance to work with one of 2000AD's most iconic characters: Rogue Trooper.

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Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.