LAST YEAR, I was talking with “Inside Out” director Pete Docter about an animation cel that dated back to the days of early Disney. Docter was immediately able to surmise details from its history, and I was reminded in that moment that the “brain trust” filmmakers at Pixar have a deep and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of their forebears of the art form.
It is no wonder, then, that these world-class storytellers are so consistently adept at reaching our emotional core and performing open surgery on our heartstrings. For more than two decades of feature film-making, they have committed to screen some of the most memorable scenes of joy and poignancy, of laughter and sadness. But how is it that they do this so well, so often, like relatively few animated Hollywood films do?
Upon the release of “Finding Dory” over the weekend, I spent hours poring over Disney/Pixar scenes that live within millions of us — trying to ascertain frame by frame just a few of the visual tricks that help deliver the viewer to an elevated state of engagement. What tools of shape and shading and composition are employed to heighten our experience?
Here are just some of the well-crafted patterns I detected:
1. LOOK UPWARD, ANGEL:
Any studio that literally titles one of its masterpieces “Up” knows the storytelling power of the skyward gaze. There so often sits our hope and optimism — the vertical lift of our great dreams and greater expectations. We are subconsciously moved by what resides in the heights.
Early in Docter’s Oscar-winning “Up,” for instance, Carl and Ellie as young couple look toward the clouds, in which they see a cumulative collection of puffy infants. The shot’s composition, like their lives’ sights, points to buoyant prospects and fertile imaginings.
From divine heights can also come sudden rescue and last-minute deliverance. In 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” Gill rescues Nemo after projectile-shooting out of the tank and disrupting the young clown fish’s path, at the dentist’s “killer” hands, to the trash bin.
In “The Incredibles,” as the children fall from a plane to their seeming peril, their ever-elastic mom — possessing the superpower of maternal instinct — suddenly becomes a saving grace from above.
And likewise, in the most realistically harrowing and dark scenes in Pixar history, Woody’s gang is rescued from the incinerator by an 11th-hour alien claw from above in “Toy Story 3.”
In Docter’s Oscar-winning “Inside Out” last year, one scene of ascension involved the tension of divergent angles, which bittersweetly pointed to both successful buoyancy and sacrificial poignancy.
2. THE POINT OF TRUTH.
When a filmmaker wants us to especially feel what a character is feeling, there is power in the P.O.V. shot, and Pixar expertly uses angles that have deepened live-action films for the better part of a century. To help us feel the sense of emotional connection in a scene, Pixar often foregrounds one character, sometimes with an over-the-shoulder shot.
This effect is particularly moving during the wordless masterwork that is the four-minute-plus “Married Life” montage set to “Ellie’s Theme” in “Up.”
“Up” builds that montage’s emotional crescendo gradually, of course, over the time-lapse arc of compressed decades, so the viewer can meditate on the POV angles. In “The Incredibles,” by contrast, the POV shots depict emotional immediacy.
In 2008’s “WALL*E,” so many of these emotionally resonant cues are employed to help us connect with WALL*E and EVE, even as these robots connect with each other.
3. THE HILLS HAVE SIGHS.
Any striking slope not only breaks the frame and captures the eye, but also often implies a difficult path ahead — or a steep obstacle worthy of Sisyphus.
In “Inside Out,” we feel the classic Gothic-technique drama of trying to scale a great distance and a towering goal — in a scene that delivers both exhilaration and mortal maturation.
In “Up,” there is a similar duality of fate. The hill that represented repose in the couple’s youth now becomes a heartbreaking symbol of decline and impending mortality. It is path as time’s passage.
Similarly, in “Toy Story 2,” cowgirl toy Jessie is left stranded and abandoned in a box by her owner near the foot of an autumnal-tinted hill. The joy of a young girl’s summer has turned to a new life’s season, and so — brilliantly framed from Jessie’s cardboard-vented point of view — we glimpse another slope that separates two people.
4. THE EYES HAVE ‘IT’.
Pixar loves the power of the extreme close-up, and few things blur the line between live-action and animation like a tight shot of eyes telegraphing recognition or fear or abject terror. Witness the mother’s gaping peepers — staring at her endangered children — right before her jet is blown out of the sky in “The Incredibles.”
5. TALK WITH THE HAND.
Few things convey intimacy so poignantly as the heartfelt touch. The deftly depicted fingers of an animated character can pluck our heartstrings, suspending our visual disbelief and rendering our sense of emotional connection complete. In “Up,” Ellie’s final touch — after years of tying Carl’s ties — is a caress that conveys decades of affection. It is a universal sense of a deeply loving farewell that renders us a puddle in its poignancy.
In “The Incredibles,” by contrast, a mother’s long reach — the hand of maternal protector — can represent miraculous rescue.
In “Toy Story 3,” a girl owner’s outstretched hand (from the filmgoer’s point of view) subconsciously pulls us in, even as it pulls Jessie from beneath the bed of the forgotten and discarded during Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” tearjerker.
And in “Toy Story 3’s” perilous climax, the joining of hands by Woody, Buzz and the gang, as they face down their would-be fiery fate, symbolize bonds of strong friendship built over years, lending an emotional depth to this world that is as close to real as “virtual reality” can get.