We’re back watching clouds. Repetition with variation. Look for what’s different.
They’re wearing different colors. Ellie has completely changed her color scheme, going with a pink dress against the yellow blanket. Carl has yellow in his pants and tie, but he’s wearing some browns and blues that also differentiate him from Ellie’s wardrobe.
The camera is back, but the picnic basket is gone. We’re casting aside any suggestion of a picnic. They’re here to lie back and daydream.
We’re also seeing the repetition of Ellie taking the creative lead, with Carl looking over as she points at what she’s describing.
But changes are coming…
Ellie has moved on from actual animals. Now she’s imagining a flying elephant.
But not a Dumbo flying elephant. There are actual wings involved.
Think about the imagery: Something improbably large and heavy taking flight. It’s fantastic, but there it is. This kind of imagery is worming its way into your brain, helping to prepare you for a house to take to the skies.
It’s also moving Ellie a step further in her imagination to contrast with Carl’s attempt at cloud daydreaming that’s coming up. She’s willing to push things to a fantastic extent, while Carl’s imagination will be shown to be a little less so.
Think about the contrast between the man we saw at his wedding and the boy who introduced the film. Carl had an imagination and a lot of enthusiasm, but he was still timid when faced with Ellie. Think about his family of “rigid puritans,” and how they don’t seem like the type to help a child foster their sense of imagination and wonder.
With that kind of backstory, Carl taking a turn to describe what a cloud looks like is a big deal.
Also contrast this with the earlier shot where Carl was content to close his eyes and listen to Ellie. Now he’s active and taking part instead of letting Ellie drag him along.
Think about how we don’t see them heading up the hill before this moment. They’re already there. Nobody was leading, no one was following. Two people, separate but together.
Good job, Carl. Way to imagine.
Think about the contrast. Ellie is imagining something impossible, while Carl sees something seemingly common.
Look at the reactions. Carl was content with his cloud daydream, but Ellie is turbo-charged, looking to build on it.
A baby isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?
A billion babies.
This shot isn’t just a joke without motivation. Look at Ellie’s family from earlier. Lots of kids. That’s her frame of reference. Since we’ve seen her family, we can understand this part of her personality.
“Are you pondering what I’m pondering?”
Stop it. This is an all ages appropriate film. We’re not going to talk about that part of the look. But it’s there, okay? You can totally read that side of things into this moment.
This is a reaction shot conveying to us that Ellie and Carl are planning to do something about the bazillion cloud babies they just saw. It’s a bridge to the next shot.
And the next shot is a doozy.
You could argue that this is two shots due to the transition between spaces, but, for the purposes of talking about both of these moments together, I’m using the justification that the continuous tracking motion of the camera unites these moments in a single shot.
Now that we have that out of the way, we need to talk about positive and negative charges.
A positively charged moment is when something goes right for the characters, but the strongest positive charges come when that forward momentum is tied to a deeply desired goal.
Think back to earlier in the montage when Ellie and Carl were fixing up their house. They were excited, making it happen, and they succeeded. It was a positively charged series of events. They set a goal and we saw examples of how they worked to achieve it.
A negatively charged moment is a setback to the pursuit of a goal. We haven’t seen too many of those so far. There’s logic to this.
Too many positively charged moments in a row and the audience will lose interest and connection. It will seem like the characters aren’t facing any actual difficulties, and the audience will feel a decreased sense of suspense. The audience loses interest, since there’s a lowered sense of concern or dread for what might happen next.
Too many negatively charged moments in a row and the audience will pull back due to an overload of sadness. Some films wallow in misery, and that may work in certain circumstances, but you can’t always be certain that an audience will stay with you if you pile setback on top of setback with no sign of a positive shift to come.
Ellie and Carl have had a long string of positives. The wedding. Fixing up the house. Finding work together. Their connection. But when they set out to start a family, they face a serious setback.
That juxtaposition between a series of positive moments and a large negative setback is emotionally crushing for the audience, which helps us connect to how devastating a moment this is for Ellie.
We aren’t living her entire life along side her, so the slices of life that we do get to see need to give us the trajectory of her emotional arc. By setting us up with all those positively charged moments, the sudden negative feels more strongly charged. It’s like a drop off on a roller coaster.
Let’s pull back and start with the end of the positive moments: Building a nursery.
The first step in having a baby is not decorating a nursery. I’m not going to explain that first step here. What we have is a version of events that communicates the intent in a way that all ages can understand. There are plenty of striking visual elements showing Carl and Ellie tackling the nursery with the same gusto with which they’ve taken on every other part of their lives.
Look at the details in the room. The airship mobile, which ties in to Charles Muntz’s airship and the joy of exploration and adventure that first brought Carl and Ellie together. There’s the bright, colorful mural Ellie’s painting, tying in to her previous moments painting and working with birds. There are even the clouds, which remind us of the lazy daydreaming days Carl and Ellie spent together which lead them to this point. This nursery is a step in making this dream of a child real just in the way Ellie describing the shape of a cloud made the image real to us when they were up on the hill.
And the bird in the mural is a stork, so we have some baby symbollism in case the crib and previous shots weren’t clear enough.
Look at the lighting of the space. It’s bright. Cheerful. The rest of the wall is a light cream, which makes it so that the whole space is bright without being blinding.
And consider how this scene is furthering the emotional connection between these characters and their house. When they change their lives, they change something in their home. This is building in the idea of how important this house is to Carl for later on in the film. The house is a physical manifestation of their dreams, even as their dreams grow and change.
Now, let’s look at the transition. We’re moving from one location to another with a continuous camera move. This does several things.
- It creates emotional whiplash, taking us from the height of the positive charge to the depth of the negative charge in a swift swing.
- It adds visually dynamic motion, literally moving us from one location to the other.
- It feeds into the idea that camera motion is related to the enthusiasm of Ellie and Carl as they work toward their dreams, and that moments that are negatively charged are also lacking in physical momentum.
- It creates a tight connection between the two moments. Even though a cut could act as a question-answer setup, where one moment comments on the one after it, this continuous motion of the camera directly and concretely places us within the psychology of the characters. That feeling of “We were just preparing the nursery and then…”
- It acts as a microcosm for the entire emotional trajectory of the montage (We will get to this much later).
Let’s examine the scene at the doctor’s office.
Start with the space. Before we were in the nursery with Carl and Ellie. It was bright and wide open. Now we’re outside the Doctor’s office, watching from a distance. The effect creates emotional distance between us and the characters. We are on the outside looking in. We are voyeurs to their sadness.
Look at the way the doorway to the office directs our focus on the smallest possible part of the screen. We are looking right at Ellie and Carl with at little to distract us as possible. The hallway is dark, and details are obscured.
It also reminds me of the cinematography in Yasujiro Ozu’s films. For examples of these frames within frames, here’s a supercut edited by kogonada.
Look at the way the doorway frames Ellie, and how Ellie’s posture mimics that of the poster behind her. Just like the poster of a baby in the womb, Ellie is curled over within the door frame. The poster is in the same relative position within the frame as Ellie’s stork mural, creating a parallel in the mind of the viewer. The stork is the imagined arrival of a baby. The Doctor’s poster is a representation of the reality of how a baby arrives.
And when confronted with this reality, Ellie learns it’s not to be. She learns… something.
That’s part of the sadness of this shot. We never learn exactly what the Doctor is explaining.
The lack of specificity in this moment creates a container for the audience to fill with their own emotions. It’s leaving room for empathy and interweaving the emotions of the characters and the audience.
From what we do learn, we know Ellie and Carl will not have a baby. That carries the narrative forward. We know that unlike fixing up their house, this is one dream of Ellie’s that she will be denied.
But it’s not just that, and this is the part that really twists the emotional knife: You’ve been primed for this disappointment since the fourth shot of this montage, when we saw Ellie’s family. Her family, the one that was packed into the pews on top of each other? The one with kids and kids and kids? That choir of love and affection and joy that she wanted to add to?
This is not a passing fancy for Ellie. This is something that, while maybe not expressed right away in the montage itself, is something that is coming from a deeply felt place.
And think about that just a little bit more. How Carl & Ellie have thus far seemed to be enough for each other. How they behaved like they never needed anyone else, and what a big shift that must have been to admit that they wanted to add another member to their team. How they came around to the idea. How they prepared for it.
How these two people who thought they could make all their dreams come true will never come closer to this one than a glimpse of a cloud in the sky, passing overhead.