Start from the perspective of character. Ellie is taking the lead, and Carl lags behind. She’s energy and adventure. He’s slower, but still eager to follow.
Take a look at the motion of the shot. The characters move from left to right and the camera also moves from left to right. This gives the shot a sense of purpose and inevitability. The characters are moving with the world.
Don’t take it for granted that they’re moving from left to right. This is a film made for Western audiences by a Western animation studio. English reads from left to right on the page. The motion of left to right feels more natural. Inevitable.
Look at the scope of the shot. It’s a wide shot, presenting plenty of background detail. The sky, with prominent clouds, takes up half the frame. The grassy hill takes up the other half.
Consider the importance of the sky to this story. Not only will we be looking more closely at those clouds in a few shots, but the hook of this film involves taking flight. Even at this early stage, we’re meant to pay attention to the sky.
Don’t discount that it’s a hill. It could have been a flat park space, but this scene is staged on a hill. The diagonal slope creates a more dynamic image within the frame.
Remember the positions of Carl and Ellie for later. Remember that this montage is built around showing you images that are similar, but not the same, and that those changes are a crucial part of how the story is told.
Ellie and Carl lie back on the blanket, watching the clouds. Specifically, Ellie is describing what she sees to Carl. Think about the last shot: Ellie is active and in control. Carl is passive and following her lead.
Look at the colors. Both of them are wearing yellow that blends in with the blanket. These are characters in sync with each other and the environment they’re creating.
Look at the hands. Ellie takes Carl’s hand as she describes what she’s seeing. Hand holding is an important motif for this entire montage, establishing the connection between the two of them.
Don’t forget that you have Carl’s hand displaying his wedding ring to the camera.
And the camera is in motion. Still moving from left to right, like the last shot. There’s a sense of continuity of momentum with the last shot. We’re still feeling the energy of Ellie’s run up the hill and the camera tracking with her.
This dynamic camera move ties in with the dynamic staging of the shot. The blanket is framed diagonally, with the two of them lying on it at diagonals and the corner of the blanket pointing at the top of the frame.
Take a moment to think about the props. There’s a picnic basket full of food, but it’s ignored, off to the side. The important part of this moment is how the two of them relate to each other. Things that could be the focal point of a scene for another pair of characters are mere decorations for these two.
It’s important to remember that every shot is building up the idea that Carl finds Ellie more essential to his happiness than anything else, so showing them enjoying a picnic could diminish that by dispersing the focus.
Every moment counts in this montage, and every moment must be lazer focused so that the audience can follow the essential dramatic and emotional thread of the sequence.
You know how somebody says, “Hey, doesn’t that cloud look like a turtle?” Then you squint, and you kind of see the shell, but it could also be a taco, or a Ford Fiesta? That’s not what’s happening here.
We see the cloud change shape into an unambiguous turtle. This isn’t to suggest that Ellie has some previously unmentioned powers of telekenisis or weather manipulation, but to show the power of her imagination. It is a visual suggestion of her enthusiasm and creativity.
The appearance of the clouds and their motion puts us again in the point of view of Carl and Ellie. The clouds are tracking from right to left, in opposition to the previous shots that moved from left to right. This not only continues the work of associating our perspective with that of the characters, but prevents the motion of the camera and objects within the frame from becoming too predictable and repetitive.
So why a turtle? Turtles are notoriously slow. They hide in a thick shell for defense. They carry their “homes” on their back.
Ah. There we go.
This is a movie where a man will make his house mobile. At one point he will literally drag it. Carl will try to carry his home with him, like a turtle.
Another thing to keep in mind for a later shot: A turtle is a real, common animal, and this is the first shot of cloud imagination we will see.
We’re back to the left to right direction of the tracking shot facing Ellie and Carl, but now they’re framed more closely. We’re being drawn further into their world. We’re being asked to focus more closely on their behaviors and reactions than the whole tableau of their picnic.
Ellie is building on her exuberant body language with the way she uses her hands to help express her vision of the turtle.
Carl takes a passive role, going so far as to close his eyes. He’s letting Ellie filter the image to him. He’s allowing her the space to tell her story.
We’ve moved from watching clouds to the Zoo. How do we know it’s a zoo? There’s a big sign that says so at the start of the shot.
Duh-doy, right? Except that it needs to be broad and clear for specific reasons.
You have early readers in the audience, and ZOO might be a word that clicks for them easily. It’s short and to the point. You don’t need the name of a specific zoo, because you don’t want that extraneous information cluttering up your brief shot and distracting from the main point of the sign’s inclusion: Telling the audience we are at a zoo.
Also think about the importance of balancing general and specific. A specific name for the zoo would place Up in a clear location. It would take it further into the realm of our world and out of its own. In the next shot, we’ll see part of why it’s important that there be room for interpretation as to where, exactly, Carl and Ellie live and work.
We’re also starting to set up Carl’s relationship with balloons. More on that in the next shot, but for the moment, let’s appreciate the splash of color the baloons provide. They’re eye-catching because of how the colors contrast with their surroundings. Greens, browns, and whites make up the trees, architecture, and pathway. We’re meant to look right at those balloons after reading the sign, and the colors and camera motion direct our eyes.
Speaking of the camera motion, there’s still kinetic energy from the previous shots, but now it’s pushing forward, through the gate, instead of tracking from left to right (or vice versa). There are only a few moments that are framed in a static setup during this montage, which both helps keep up the energy of the sequence, and also helps to draw attention to those moments when things aren’t moving.
We’ll get to those.
Also of note:
- We’re at the South America pavilion. This is keeping the connection to Paradise Falls alive.
- Ellie’s carrying a bird. We’ll talk about that more with the next shot as it moves in for a closer look.
- Ellie and Carl work together. Think back to the previous shots showing how exclusive their world is. They are so tightly nit, that there seems to be no part of their lives where they are separate.
We cut from the establishing shot of the zoo to this closer two shot of Carl and Ellie. We’d better start with the big, important, obvious detail.
The balloons lift the cart.
Why do we need to see this? Because if we don’t believe that balloons can lift heavy objects, we won’t buy into the entire hook of the film: That a man flies his house using a ton of balloons.
Why do we need to see this now? Because it’s far enough away from the key, dramatic use of the balloons that it doesn’t feel contrived. Because it’s nestled in a moment that is telling us about other things, so we don’t see that the movie is blatantly shoving this bit of setup in our faces.
Because it plays as a joke.
The first time we see it, it’s a joke. Later in the film, it will be an important dramatic device. The humor, brevity, and other information in this shot are like the spoonfull of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Look at the structure of the joke within this shot.
- Carl sees Ellie and gets distracted by the bird she’s carrying.
- While he’s not paying attention, the balloon cart starts to lift off the ground.
- As Carl turns to show off his balloon cart to Ellie, he realizes it’s trying to fly away. Pride switches to shock.
- He leaps to catch the cart and Ellie laughs.
By making Carl surprised by the balloons being strong enough to pull up the cart, it makes it more believable to the audience. He’s just as surprised as we are, and it helps bridge the gap between the rules of our world and the physical laws of the film’s world. We learn that gravity still works, but that the lift generated by these balloons is stronger than we might initially expect.
Now let’s look at Ellie. She’s carrying a brightly colored bird on her arm, similar to the bright colors of Carl’s balloons. Similar, but different. The film is using colors to make a connection. Both are related to flight, and both balloons and birds play an important role in the story to come.
Also consider how at ease Ellie seems with the bird. Contrast that with Carl’s befuddled reaction to the balloons. Ellie continues to be the member of this pair who is more collected, confident, and capable.
One last thing: This shot is establishing their work uniforms. These outfits will play a further role within this montage, so they need a clear setup.
Carl and Ellie sit in their chairs and read. Carl reaches out and Ellie takes his hand.
Let’s look at how, once again, they’re separate, but together. Two chairs instead of one couch. Two books. Two different mugs. Two lamps.
Look at the way their clothes match the personalities they’ve displayed so far. Carl’s is pale and plain. Ellie’s shirt is a bright print, with a pattern that relates back to the pattern on her chair.
Also, take a look at the development of the room compared to the previous setup (Shot 10). The clutter has been cleared away. We’re using tables instead of stacks of books and boxes. There’s a shelf up on the wall. This is a moment of enjoying the life that they’ve built together. This is what success looks like to them.
Again: Hand holding. It’s a sign of affection that everyone from 3 to 103 understands. Their bonds are still strong. Even when they’re quietly reading next to each other, they still want to be aware of each other’s presence.
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