Understanding Pixar's Emotional Storytelling
As someone who grew up watching Pixar movies, to now being deeply interested in the art of storytelling, I often wonder: Why have we all at some point or the other, cried while watching Pixar movies? More specifically, how does Pixar make us cry?
As the movie Soul rolled its end credits, I turned to see my Dad, a grown man in his 50s tearing up watching this animated movie meant for kids. I wanted to laugh at the obscurity of the situation but that would make me a hypocrite, considering all the times I have mourned over the opening montage of Carl and Ellie in Up.
Let’s dig deeper and look at some techniques which these profoundly talented (yet sadistic) creators at Pixar, use in their films to hit us right in the feels.
In simple terms, a movie has a beginning, middle and end. Interweaved with the middle we have the conflict, and a resolution with the end. Pixar goes beyond this structural skeleton and incorporates what is known as story beats — the most pivotal events or moments of the story. Quite evidently, emotional storytelling is a goal for the story artists and with the use of various story beats, they try to test responses that each sequence educes from the audience.
An interesting anecdote shared by a story artist at Pixar which exemplifies this, is how the final version of Finding Nemo differed greatly from its earlier versions. The director of the film wanted to include scenes of Nemo’s parents’ lives (a story beat) through flashbacks in the beginning, with the scene of Marlin’s wife and eggs being killed by a barracuda (another story beat) revealed towards the end.
In this version, the audience did not connect well with Marlin as they did not understand or empathise with his actions. To fix this, all the flashback scenes of Marlin and his wife were edited out and the scene of Marlin’s wife and eggs being killed was shifted to the beginning. Restructuring this story beat let viewers; one – feel sad over Marlin’s loss, two – empathise with his overprotective demeanour over Nemo, and three – rooted for him on his journey to find Nemo. All these complex emotions so seamlessly grasped from us!
Therefore, a simple way to add layers of emotional complexity to your story would be to identify important story beats and arrange them within the structure, in a way that works best to get the expected audience’s response.
Going back to my personal favourite Pixar moment is without a doubt, Carl and Ellie’s opening montage in Up. A barely 10-minute dialogue-less sequence, it successfully manages to hit all the right feels (cue: waterfalls). What makes that specific montage so emotional (apart from its poignant story beats) is that it is a flashback.
Flashbacks are a great narrative tool that enable your audience to learn something about your character and/or their lives.
As a screenwriter, one can use flashbacks in a variety of ways but let’s see how Pixar employs them with specific examples.
Up until the flashback, Anton Ego is portrayed as a cynical, uptight food critic limiting any opportunity for the audience to like him. As he takes the first bite of the ratatouille (that would decide the fate of Gusteau’s restaurant), Pixar incorporates a brief 20-second flashback of Ego being transported back to his childhood, looking visibly upset and in tears. Young Ego is then comforted by his mother’s cooking which, cut to the present day, is what the ratatouille reminds him of.
That’s it. No dialogue. No frivolous cliché. Just a moment of nostalgia that comforts Ego and perfectly lays down the resolution of the film. By remembering his childhood meal, we catch Ego in a moment of vulnerability and witness his change of heart making him more likeable and accessible to the audience.
Toy Story 2
If you want to let out a good cry, I recommend you rewatch Jessie’s flashback in Toy Story 2. Pixar yet again, brilliantly tugs at our heart through a no-dialogue flashback. The flashback tells the story of how Jessie’s former owner outgrew playing with her. It is emotionally devastating due to Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful background score When She Loved Me, accompanied by the montage depicting Jessie’s worst fear: being abandoned. It is effective as it outwardly manifests Andy’s suppressed fears of abandonment too, and thus foreshadows the ensuing conflict for the rest of the film.
Overall, if you wish to add a note of emotional dimension to your story or character, befriend flashbacks. They need not necessarily be dialogue-heavy or have sappy montages to be effective, but can work perfectly by illustrating a simple yet enriching narrative exposition.
There is no way I can talk about Pixar’s ability to make us cry without giving well-deserved credits to their brilliant musical score. There are two specific ways through which sound designers at Pixar subtlety manipulate the audience:
Establishing a theme: An effective way to use music to convey more than just sounds is to attach an identity or theme to it and then use it as a leitmotif — a recurring or frequent idea, which further establishes the theme of the story.
In Monsters Inc., composer Randy Newman uses variations of the same musical score in different scenes, thus establishing familiarity in the audience’s memory and turning it into a theme of Boo and Sully’s relationship. If that isn’t enough to effectively evoke an emotional response, Pixar goes a step further.
Contrasting sounds and emotions: Furthering the example of Boo and Sully’s recurring score, it is interesting to note that a seemingly happy tune can be used synchronously to a sad scene.
The first time we hear the tune is when Sully tries to put Boo to sleep and reassures her that no monsters will come to get her; a peaceful and wholesome scene.
Next time, the same tune is used when Sully scares Boo causing her to cry (and inevitably breaking her trust). Using the same “happy” tune over a moment of conflict in the film, the creators cause a visual disruption, which further intensifies the audience’s emotional response. Finally, by fortifying the leitmotif, the now established theme of the tune is used for the heartbreaking goodbye scene. Since we have already been primed to the familiar tune, it hits us harder in the feels as we anticipate an end to Boo and Sully’s friendship.
When writing a character, what makes them memorable? Moreover, what drives the action forward? These are important questions that need to be addressed when sketching a character.
Let’s take the example of Joe Gardner, the protagonist of Pixar’s latest release, Soul. Had Joe been a “perfect” character, he would have been content being a high school music teacher sharing his passion with others. If he was perfect, he would not fight against the inevitability of death or ruminate over his unfulfilled dreams. Choosing this route for the character would be a drag, the lack of urgency to move the plot forward would end in an unsuccessful attempt at making the moral clear. In reality Joe, like the rest of us, is flawed. He is a dreamer who is so blinded by his passion and pursuit of his “big break” that he loses out on enjoying the gift of life and opportunities in front of him.
From Lighting McQueen’s narcissism to Mr. Incredible’s attachment to his past glory or even Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s vanity, one can distinctly observe flaws in these protagonists.
Pixar skilfully uses these flaws as obstacles (hence, introducing the conflict) in the way of the character’s wants and needs.
We as viewers root for the characters as they struggle and tackle these flaws, hence, in the end when we see them overcome the conflict and transform into a better version of themselves, it is tough not to shed a tear!
Let’s break away from the mechanics of filmmaking and look at how our psychology is rendered by animated characters, causing us to cry. Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3 expresses that,
“Live action movies are someone else’s story. With animation, audiences can’t think that. Their guards are down.”
Unkrich was really onto something with this argument as in the history of visual storytelling, it is observed that we humans readily identify more with representational visual cues than more “real” or life-like presentations. It is the childlike, animated features of these characters that allow universal identification. This is exactly why when we see cartoon-y and simple representations such as those of the emotions in Inside Out, or the waste-collecting robot in Wall-E, we find ourselves relating to them and even to a certain extent becoming them.
Moreover, we are likely to unconsciously feel deeply for Pixar characters due to their baby-like features — their big eyes, tiny bodies that make them look even more vulnerable. Think about Sadness from Inside Out!
To sum up, Pixar films, albeit animated, stay with us forever because they made us feel something. As a filmmaker or writer, you can incorporate these tools in your works and sadistically rejoice in the joy of making your audience cry!
P.S: Tears were shed while writing this blog, strictly for research purposes of course.
Pixar in a Box: https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/pixar/storytelling
How Pixar Uses Music to Make You Cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8HePfa7WYs&ab_channel=Sideways