Not long ago a journalist asked me to name what I considered the most important film of the last 15 years and I somewhat perversely suggested Pixar’s short The Blue Umbrella (2012) directed by Saschka Unsled. I’m not really a fan of “important” films because the term too often implies overt social relevance rather than artistic/cinematic/film-historical value. Surprising no one, my vote didn’t make the journalist’s cut — romance among umbrellas is not yet a burning issue, apparently. So I will make the claim here, in blog form. I’m elevating these seven minutes of cinema to the pantheon of “importance” because I think they develop the medium in a fundamental way. To be precise, a fleeting moment of graphic change near the end of the film, about four seconds long, might have implications for how we understand cinema.
I only know about The Blue Umbrella because my former student (and blogger) Lilly Holman brought it to my attention during her senior thesis research . The short tells an unassuming story of two umbrellas in love: Blue and Red exchange glances on the street, a gust of wind pulls them apart, and they are reunited. I think Blue Umbrella ranks with the best of the Pixar shorts. Like most of them (don’t judge the form by Lava) it is elegantly crafted, touching, and powerfully visual (not a line of dialogue). It has the clean and simple storytelling of Luxo Junior, the tactile world building of Tin Toy, and the emotional flow of Partly Cloudy. Holman can fill you in on why all of these films deserve our attention on her Manic Pix(ar) Dream Girl vlog series.
The movie is also a bravura technical experiment in photorealist animation. The opening shots mislead viewers, using framing, pacing, and a slight camera jiggle to convincingly emulate location shooting. A mailbox appears to be filmed through a telephoto lens from across the busy street as passing cars make blurry intrusions in the foreground.
The closer shot is zoomed in and unsteady (in the illustration below, the mailbox moves slightly down and up in the frame) as though the cinematographer struggled to keep the composition from a distance.
The painstakingly detailed world is indistinguishable from live-action. Until the objects start moving in impossibly expressive ways (the mailbox smiles), most spectators assume that Pixar’s artists have abandoned their digital workstations for an afternoon on a Manhattan street. Only the umbrellas’ minimally drawn and faces belong to what we might conventionally call a “cartoon.” Limited to eyes and a mouth, the schematic designs have just enough detail to suggest gender: Red’s eyelashes strike me as feminine (as does her conventional role as the desired object, but that’s a different blog).
In its realism, The Blue Umbrella erases the boundary between art and representation; it turns technology that we usually associate with high-end special effects into a completely synthetic and verisimilar world. The look lends gravity to the love story and the love story lends poetry to the everyday. Storefronts, sidewalks, mailboxes, and sewer grates gather feeling.
This is all clever and moving film making, but the moment of importance occurs at the end. Beaten and disheveled, the Blue umbrella rises from the pavement and a red sheen of light passes over it. He looks up and discovers that the Red umbrella has entered the frame, her color reflecting off his surface. The subtle change in color underscores their reunion; warmth and love suffuse the frame just before Red comes into view.
It is an emotionally charged play of color temperature that harkens back to Walt Disney’s experiments with Technicolor in the 1930s, as when the warm glow of Mother Mouse’s hearth beckons her wayward son back home in The Flying Mouse. The Blue Umbrella’s widescreen sheen more closely resembles Robert Elswit’s cinematography in Punch Drunk Love (2002), but it participates in a long history of color control in animation.
The “cartoon” can now take on a photoreal cinematographic skin. This is beautiful, but not obviously important.
The truly groundbreaking thing is that the animators did not plan this color effect, they discovered it. The Blue Umbrella employs Pixar’s “Global Illumination” system, a program that emulates the physical characteristics of light in an artificial space. The color effect takes place because, essentially, a real red umbrella held over a real blue umbrella under street lamps would create a warm glow. As Unsled explains to The Verge: “We had the moment when the red umbrella is being held over the blue, and there’s this reflection on blue which is the bounce of her light. That was never planned for. That wasn’t boarded like this, it wasn’t something we gave direction to for the lighter…. We got something and were like, ‘Oh, let’s use that because it’s beautiful.’ ”
This strikes me as more than an impressive technical achievement–it might be a historical turning point. One quality that separates photography from drawing, or cinema from animation, is film’s openness to contingency, to capturing an unexpected or unintended event. Film historian George Sadoul famously observed that the audience for the Lumiere Brothers’ first public projection of motion pictures in 1895 were captivated by “the trembling of the leaves through the action of the wind… of nature caught in the act” as much as they were by the baby eating his breakfast in the foreground.
Cameras capture the contingent, the transient details of a world in flux. Ephemeral, unnoticed texture seeps into film, sometimes despite the filmmaker’s intentions. This quality was the cornerstone of André Bazin’s aesthetic theory. He proclaimed, “All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives advantage from his absence.” In photography’s power to “lay bare the realities,” to record an event rather than construct an image, Bazin saw the prospect of a unique art form. His favorite filmmakers, particularly the Italian neorealists, coaxed meaning from the world rather than imposing it; the camera, in Bazin’s view, was like a magnet passing over and collecting the iron filings of reality. Vittorio De Sica, for instance, created the drama of The Bicycle Thieves in collaboration with the living texture of the Roman street.
François Truffaut, Bazin’s student and a vocal proponent of “faith in reality,” similarly celebrated accidental details caught by the camera. He found “the height of truth” in Debbie Reynolds’ unconscious gesture when she adjusts her skirt to cover her leg at the end of the “Good Morning” number in Singing in the Rain. Though her character wouldn’t have cared, the actress revealed her sense of propriety before the camera. Such interweaving of reality and illusion would seem impossible in a cartoon. If Betty Boop or Jessica Rabbit adjust their skirts, they do so only at the will of the animator.
This is not the only rationale for seeing film as an art (though some of Bazin’s followers would claim otherwise), but since its inception only live-action cinema could boast “happy accidents” from the wind in the trees on a location to the gestures of an actor on a sound stage. Thousands of unanticipated micro-details give real life to the moving image.
When Red passed over Blue, Unseld stumbled across an unanticipated revelation. He observed a play of light that he did not place there. These few milliseconds of The Blue Umbrella ease this line of demarcation between live action and animation. In a small way, perhaps the digital world crafted by Pixar has taken a step toward passing a cinematic Turing test. A transitory and fleeting fact of the world emerged on film (or in the digital render), and the artist found a way to make it serve the story. In a small way, perhaps the world has changed.