To Infinity and Beyond: How Pixar Uses Film Techniques to Drive Emotion

Note: The following post is based off a presentation that I gave in my Junior Seminar class last week.

Since its inception in 1979, Pixar Animation Studios has revolutionized the movie industry. The studio started its work as a special effects branch of Lucasfilm and in 1986 was purchased by Steve Jobs. By that point, Pixar had found success in their revolutionary computer animation as well as award-winning short films, but their greatest achievement came in 1995, when Pixar released Toy Story, the first-ever full-length animated feature. Since then, Pixar has released 17 more feature films, including Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles, and garnered eight Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature.

Pixar has found success through both their animation and storytelling, utilizing both to create compelling and iconic films that have been both box office hits and critically acclaimed. The complexity and warmth of these stories has attracted audiences of all ages, but perhaps the most crucial element to Pixar’s success is its ability to emotionally connect with audiences. This ability is achieved chiefly through three means- animation, music, and characterization.

Pixar is best known as an animation studio and for good reason. The animation used to create Toy Story was ground-breaking, and since then Pixar’s technology and subsequent animation has evolved with each film. The stellar animation is used to enhance the story and is one of the major techniques Pixar uses to drive emotion.

The art of the Pixar films draws audiences in, but it also functions to add to the story. The backgrounds used in the Pixar movies, from Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story to the brain headquarters in Inside Out, are stunning while bringing to life unique concepts. These settings are used to establish tone. In Toy Story, the stark contrast between Andy’s bright and friendly bedroom and Sid’s dark and frightening bedroom establishes the tones of their respective parts of the movie.

Animation is also crucial to Pixar in that it brings the characters, which are many times inanimate objects or simply non-human. Characters like Woody from Toy Story have comical movements that are used to establish their personality and sometimes create humor, giving the audience compelling and realistic characters to follow. Animation is also used to express emotion in these characters. Inside Out producer Jonas Smith said “I think there’s something to that in an animated movie that allows you to get closer to these things than you could get to just a photograph”, and this philosophy has been used to show and oftentimes exaggerate emotion.

One perfect example of this philosophy is found in Monsters, Inc. In this scene, Sulley, the protagonist of the film, scares a robot child but doesn’t know that the girl he has been hiding from authorities, Boo, is next to the bed. When she screams, her expressions are exaggerated to create staggering emotion. The link:

A second technique employed by Pixar is the score of the film. The music in the Pixar films has been critically acclaimed, from winning Academy Awards for the score of Up to songs in Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3, but this music goes beyond being simply an element of the films. The notes draw audiences in by connecting viewers to the characters’ emotions, establishing the tone for scenes, and escalating intensity during action sequences.

There’s no better example of the use of music than in the montage of Carl and Ellie during the movie Up. The music makes the emotion feel genuine and powerful, and then variations of this theme are planted throughout the film to return audiences to this same emotion. Watch at your own risk:

Another, less heartbreaking example is my favorite scene from The Incredibles. In this scene, Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible hacks into villain Syndrome’s computer and learns that Syndrome’s machines have killed dozens of superheroes. At the same time, fashion designer Edna Mode clues Bob’s wife Helen into his pursuits and gives her a tracker to see his location. As these two clips play out, the music escalates and the intensity grows. When the two storylines converge and Mr. Incredible is discovered, the music reaches a crescendo. While this scene doesn’t drive emotion as does the montage from Up, it utilizes music to make the audience feel the rush of Mr. Incredible. Here’s the scene:

Lastly, a specific storytelling technique that Pixar uses expertly to drive emotion is characterization. Pixar thrives at creating characters that you care about, even if they’re rats, monsters, or bugs. Characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Dory, Mike, Sulley, and Remy are just some of the many examples.

To create complex, compelling characters, Pixar gives these characters understandable dreams and motives. These driving factors are relatable to members of the audience, even if they’re not, for example, a rat. The characters are shaped through their interactions with each other, like the connection between Buzz and Woody in Toy Story. Most importantly, the protagonists have multiple layers to their personality and are dynamic, meaning they change throughout the film. These techniques cause us to connect to the characters, paving the way for us to feel their emotion.

One excellent example of character development is one of the opening scenes of the movie Wall-E. The film is about a robot, Wall-E, who lives on an abandoned Earth and serves simply to clean the mess that the humans left. In one of the opening scenes, we are introduced to Wall-E through a montage that takes us through one of his days at work.

In only two minutes, this robot protagonist has become real. His personality is evident and we, as an audience, are connected to him and want to see him fulfill his dreams.

Pixar has reached the apex of the animation industry by creating high-quality films that are both revolutionary in animation and unique in story. Above all, these films send powerful messages that resonate with audiences of varying ages and give filmgoers the emotional experiences they deserve.

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