A Short Story Long: How an Animated Pixar Short Gets Made

The rustle of the wind. A drop of rain. The chirping of birds, and the slide of a chess board across a concrete park table.

These are the quiet, everyday sounds we've come to associate with Pixar's (now Disney's as well) short films. Mostly dialogue-free affairs, the films became a hallmark of the company after "Geri's Game" won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1998. That short — depicting an old man playing chess against himself in an empty park — tells a full story with drama, humor and sweetness in under five minutes. It gained wide exposure with audiences both young and old because it played before "A Bug's Life," Pixar's second feature-length film, which grossed $162.8 million domestically.

A new frenzy was born. Pixar, once a small division of the LucasFilms graphics department, churned out a new blockbuster every few years (five of the top 10 slots for box office records for animated features are occupied by Pixar movies), and with the films came new shorts as well. By and large, theatergoers weren't the only ones who noticed the outstanding quality of the snippets; since the success of "Geri's Game," seven of the eight short films launched to accompany feature releases were nominated for Academy Awards in the category. "For the Birds," which showed before "Monsters, Inc." took home a statue.

Time will have to tell whether an Oscar is in the future for "The Blue Umbrella," Pixar's latest creation, now playing in theaters ahead of "Monsters University." Written and directed by Saschka Unseld, the short follows, as the title would imply, the travails of a blue umbrella. Animated in a painstakingly photorealistic style, the blue umbrella is the only pop of color in a greyscale urban landscape. As the rain falls, the rhythm builds to music (think of Blue Man Group, but animated, or that atmospheric music segment that used to run on Nickelodeon's "All That"), and so the story builds as well: Blue is carried through the streets, greeting his "friends" (drainpipes, street grates and other everyday industrial touches cleverly animated to look like human faces) with smiles. He spots a red umbrella and they flirt silently, until they're separated. Blue tries desperately to get back to Red, but will he make it, or will he lose her forever?

This plays before a children's movie, so you can likely guess the ending ("When I go see the movie from Pixar, I hope to be coming out from the cinema with a happy feeling and not with a depressed feeling," Unseld said. "You could, of course, go with the crazy European arthouse way and give them a bad ending, but ultimately I think it's the wrong audience to do that."), but that doesn't make the short any less enjoyable or impressive.

Director Unseld came to Pixar in 1998 after working at an animation studio in his native Germany. He directed shorts there, but when he made the move to the Emeryville, Calif. headquarters of Pixar, he was forced to specialize. He chose layout and cinematography, a technical department that focuses on the visual elements of the films. He's worked on "Toy Story 3," "Cars 2" and "Brave," then went to focus on his short film, a development that surprised even him.

"The funny thing was when I started here, I thought, 'I directed a couple,' and I thought, 'I'm done with it'," he told me. "'I enjoy focusing now just on doing cinematography and camera and layout.' But then for some reason, some stories came up that I thought I really wanted to tell, and kind of it caught up again with me, even though I thought I was done with it. Storytelling wasn't done with me."

The door for story ideas is always open at Pixar, but the process is by no means short. Mentoring and collaboration are key to Pixar's culture, but there's still a general model for becoming a short director, one that Unseld broke. Most shorts directors come from the story department, while Unseld works in technical. He said that the distinction the names of the departments imply, however, is misleading.

"People, mostly people outside, think that there's the technical department and then there's the creative department, but it's more of a mislabeling that the technical department is called 'technical,' because the people who build the sets, the people who do the cinematography, of course they need to be savvy technically, but ultimately they all need to have the artistic vein and need to have their artistic input onto the film, or otherwise it would look like technicians did the films, and they certainly do not look like that," he said.

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And of course, getting your short made isn't so simple as having a good idea: Potential directors meet first with colleagues to develop their stories, then must pitch three fully-developed ideas to a panel of directors, such as Pete Docter, Pete Sohn, Bob Peterson, and a couple of heads of story, like Jason Katz. Then, once that panel chooses a story idea, a final pitch must be made to John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney.

Lasseter not only holds the keys to the company and the ultimate nod of approval, he has an impressive resume to back it up: He directed both "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life," "Cars" and several other films, and acts as the executive producer for all Pixar productions.

Luckily, Unseld held his own: "The first words out of his mouth when I finished pitching were, 'That's so awesome.'"

From there, Unseld spent the better part of a year working on "The Blue Umbrella" with his team, checking in every two to three weeks with Lasseter to show him new footage and review new developments. Pixar also screens works in progress for fellow animators to offer feedback on, critiques that Unseld said changed the tone of the film for the better. For example, Blue is at one point crumpled in a gutter, in danger of being run over by a truck, and the city tries to move him out of the way: A drainpipe spits water to propel him, a traffic barrier skitters in front of him.

"It came out as a collaborative thing, we were at one point talking about it feeling weird that the city was just watching them," he said. "It would look kind of a bit creepy. So we started to think that probably they know each other, because everytime it rains, they come to life and the umbrellas come to life, so they should know each other and not be strangers."

The shorts are not only used to try out new directors and grow talent for eventual features, but also to test new technology and techniques in animation. A feature usually takes half a decade or more to produce, while the short's production time of approximately a year is more welcoming to experimentation.

"You don't want to be stuck with using the same techniques you used 20 years ago; you want to be like a small company 20 years ago that kind of can just experiment with things," Unseld said. "You never want to lose the experimental vibe that a small company has."

"The Blue Umbrella" is by far the most photorealistic picture Pixar has produced, a style that we may see more of in the future.

And, of course, it was a test of Unseld himself: As director, he had to lead a team and work on every aspect of the production, the same tasks demanded tenfold for feature directors. Dan Scanlon, who directed "Monsters University," directed a short that appeared on the "Cars 2" DVD before getting a feature gig, "Geri's Game" director Jan Pinkava co-directed "Ratatouille," and more. In 2006, Lasseter announced that he wanted to put an emphasis on shorts at Disney and Pixar in hopes of fostering future talent, a sort of farm team of directors.

Asked whether he will eventually direct a feature of his own, Unseld laughed.

"I mean, who doesn't?" he said. "It would be an incredible honor. I'm working on ideas, but I never get happy with them. It's kind of like the same with shorts, you have to come up with an idea and a story that doesn't only get yourself excited, but also gets this massive crew of people excited. And a short is just a one-year commitment for everyone, so it's kind of — it takes a good amount of excitement of everyone to get excited for a year — but a feature is like, five or six years of so many more people. So you better make sure the idea is really fantastic."