Pixar Animation Studios, for the first time, is releasing a short film conceived and directed by one of its technical artists, a broad category of employees whose specialties range from lighting to clothing-simulation software.
Pixar, a unit of Walt Disney Co., has won several awards for its pioneering computer-animated films, including "Finding Nemo" and the "Toy Story" franchise. The films typically originate in the studio's story and animation departments.
But the new short, "The Blue Umbrella," is the brainchild of 36-year-old Saschka Unseld, who has worked in Pixar's camera and staging department since 2008. The six-minute film is about a blue umbrella that takes a fancy to a red umbrella and, in trying to follow that fancy, gets weather-beaten and wind-blown during a rainstorm.
The short will be released in June, as an opener for the feature film "Monsters University," a prequel to Pixar's "Monsters, Inc.," which grossed $554.8 million world-wide in its 2001 release.
Before joining Pixar, Mr. Unseld went to film school in his native Germany and later started an animation company with friends, where he made animated short films for television. As a camera and staging artist at Pixar, Mr. Unseld worked on "Brave," "Cars 2" and "Toy Story 3," and was responsible for creating a computer-graphics blueprint for the new film from a storyboard. The blueprint sets out the way the characters move and cameras are positioned.
He pitched the idea for "The Blue Umbrella" to Pixar's development team and, eventually, to John Lasseter, the studio's chief creative officer. Because of the high stakes, Mr. Unseld rehearsed and refined his presentation in more than 50 videotaped practice sessions on his computer.
"If you're an animator or a story artist, part of your work is pitching your work," he said. "The process of pitching was a daunting step for me because that's not something I normally do in my work environment." In Mr. Unseld's film, everyday street objects have faces that come alive. Gutters grin, sewer drains smile and "walk" signals spy. But the animation doesn't look cartoony, as in "Monsters, Inc."
Mr. Unseld wanted the scenes to appear photographic, even when inanimate objects come to life. "We had never at Pixar attempted to produce images that looked absolutely photorealistic," Mr. Lasseter said. "We always took the tools that were capable of creating photorealistic imagery and created images the audience knew did not exist in the real world."
To achieve the "photo real" look, Pixar used special-effects techniques it hadn't used before. One was global illumination, which simulates the way surfaces emit and reflect light. "We try to simulate those things in computer animation, but the truth is, until just recently, we didn't have the computational power or clever enough algorithms to actually do the more realistic kind of computations," said Steve May, Pixar's chief technology officer. In "The Blue Umbrella," some complex scenes, such as people walking along the street, made global illumination challenging. Mr. May said that it could take 20 to 30 hours to render an image for one frame of film.
The film also marked Pixar's first use of "deep compositing," in which a scene is created by layering images with three-dimensional data, instead of flat, two-dimensional data, giving the filmmakers greater control over the look of the film and viewers the experience of greater depth of field.
Pixar is using global illumination and some compositing in "Monsters University," and found "The Blue Umbrella" to be a useful proving ground for those techniques. "What was exciting about the idea of 'The Blue Umbrella' was setting the story in a city where the city landscape has faces that come alive," Mr. Lasseter said. "Through this we could try to create some imagery that looked absolutely photorealistic, and also bring in some amazing tools that have been developed for the special-effects industry and see what we could learn from them."