Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Blue Umbrella (2013)

WHO: Saschka Unseld directed this.

WHAT: Toy Story 3. Cars 2. Monsters University. Of the last four feature films made by Emeryville's Pixar Animation Studio, three have been sequels to previously-produced properties, populated by familiar characters, and the fourth represents the studio in its most Disney-esque of milieus- never mind that last summer's Brave was aimed at correcting the princess-passivity of the studio's parent company. There have been lots of technological advancements in the field of computer-generated animation in the meantime, and Pixar has been at the forefront of employing them. But in terms of the look of its films, the studio still embraces a very "cartoony" look- especially in its character designs. That Woody and Buzz, and Mike and Sully, look and move about the same in the 2010s as they did in 1995 and 2001 is probably a very good thing. Nobody really wants more "realistic" versions of these toys and monsters. But the arguable over-reliance on proven characters (next up: Finding Dory in 2015) may indicate a kind of water-treading in Pixar features that seems uncharacteristic of a company that not so long ago had an impressive 3-year run introducing (essentially) original characters in more-or-less exquisitely crafted stories: Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up.

Meanwhile, animation has become ever more a major part of Hollywood's so-called "live action" extravaganzas (Pacific Rim reportedly has 1594 animated effects shots), pretty much all of which try to avoid utilizing "cartoony" looks in favor of photorealistic approaches. Might Pixar want to prove its mettle in producing movies that match- or outdo- the work being done on "bake-off" contenders like Life of Pi and The Avengers? If so, their latest short The Blue Umbrella may give us a taste of directions to come. This sweet tale of an attraction between two colorful umbrellas in a sea of black ones sidesteps the uncanny valley by preventing us from seeing any human faces, but is set in a cityscape so believable that it has frequently been mistaken for a live-action/animation hybrid. In fact it was created entirely through animation, although photographs of San Francisco and New York were used as reference for the ultimate composite. Director Unseld has spoken of a character (named "Lisa") based on an object he saw on the sidewalk while walking in his San Francisco neighborhood. Going by a clue on his tumblr I believe I was able to track it down; if I'm right the object is still there in front of Paragon Cleaners on Bush Street, right at the foot of Dashiell Hammet Alley.

You might ask why an animation company might want to move away from "cartoony" looks when they ply a craft in a long tradition of masters from Winsor McCay to the Termite Terrace crew to Hayao Miyazaki, none of whom have ever needed to convince audiences they were looking at anything other than a cartoon. And perhaps they won't, and The Blue Umbrella will remain a one-off experiment in the Pixar filmography. But though countless styles of hand-drawn animation have been proven acceptable to mass audiences over the years, it's hard to deny that mainstream animated features these days have a tendency to look quite a bit like each other, as if their characters all could exist in the same universe (no matter whether it's Pixar or Dreamworks or another rival producing). It's hard to picture Betty Boop naturally co-existing with Tom & Jerry in the Yellow Submarine universe, but it wouldn't be such an aesthetic stretch to see The Incredibles battling Megamind or Despicable Me if their corporate masters allowed it. At this point I'd be excited for any new direction in the way mainstream feature animation looks, and I'd bet on Pixar being the most likely candidate to lead that way.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens multiple showtimes daily at theatres around Frisco Bay. Today is the last day to see it at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, however. Read on.

WHY: I feature this short today because I believe it's the last chance we'll have to see it screened on 35mm, which is how it's playing at the Grand Lake today. You might wonder why it's important to see a digitally-created short on film, but it appears to be (along with Digital 3D) one of the preferred methods of viewing by Unseld, who says
If you see it in 2D I’d recommend looking out for a cinema that shows it on film because the film grain and the celluloid really adds a whole other dimension into it as well.
HOW: Screens before Monsters University, both digitally everywhere except for at the Grand Lake.

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