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A Marriage Story

Inside the making of the brilliant, moving first 10 minutes of Pixar’s ‘Up’

Disney/Pixar/Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!

Pixar’s Up was inspired by a single image: a house with balloons tied to its roof floating into the sky, far away from the burden of daily life. “It seemed freeing and aspirational, something everyone wants at some point,” director Pete Docter says in an email. “Getting away from everything, in the comfort of your own house—that’s where we started.”

But Docter knew that one good idea wasn’t enough to make a whole movie. During the 2009 animated film’s development, he and codirector Bob Peterson landed on making their protagonist a grumpy old man named Carl Fredricksen—it made sense that a widowed balloon salesman would want an escape. Still, that didn’t explain his mode of transportation. “Where was he going?” Docter says. “And why couldn’t he take a plane?”

The animators knew that Carl would need a backstory to answer those questions. They decided to tell it with a prologue that details the character’s life from his childhood to his golden years. But these early scenes reveal that Up isn’t only about Carl—it’s also about his relationship with his wife, Ellie. They’re kids when she bursts into his life with a shock of red hair and a passion for exploration, and the interaction leads to a deeply felt, lifelong connection.

“I remember Pete saying Ellie was the spirit of adventure,” director of photography (camera) Jean-Claude Kalache says. Indeed, the two characters bond by spending time in the abandoned shack that Ellie has fashioned into a clubhouse. While visiting Carl one evening, she shows him “My Adventure Book,” in which she illustrates her dream: to one day travel to the mythical Paradise Falls. She even makes Carl swear that he’ll take her (and her clubhouse) there. In a flash, Up snaps into a montage of their life together: the two pals fall in love, get married, buy what was once Ellie’s hideaway and turn it into a home of their own. But as they age together and life grows more complicated, their bucket-list trip becomes more and more elusive. Then, it’s too late. “We figured the best way to make the audience understand—and care—would be to connect his house to a relationship, and unfinished business,” Docter says. “We worked hard to visually train the audience to associate the house with his wife, and the unkept promise of an adventure in South America.”

The opening of Up, however, is more than just a narrative device. The movie-within-a-movie is as emotionally heavy as Carl’s helium-lifted house is buoyant. It is, without a doubt, one of the most moving film sequences of the past 20 years. “It’s the heart of the movie,” says director of photography (lighting) Patrick Lin. “I remember seeing it for the first time and, of course, crying. Actually, three times throughout production.”

It’s cliché to point out that Pixar is excellent at making children’s movies that appeal to adults. But the amount of humor, romance, sadness, dazzling visuals, and entrancing music packed into such a short stretch is startling even for a studio whose creative success was built on a mix of all of those things. The beginning of Up elevates a form that the company had already taken to new heights. “Animation is capable of so much more than we give it credit for—we tend to think of animation as just fart jokes made for kids,” Docter says. “Granted, that does describe a lot of it, but animation can do anything!”

The opening of Up lasts only about 10 minutes, but it didn’t start out so short. “With most of our stuff, we overwrote that opening like crazy,” says Docter, who also directed Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., Inside Out, and Soul. “I would guess we had 30 to 40 minutes of material that we slowly whittled down.”

The sequence can be broken into two parts: the first, Carl and Ellie’s childhood adventures; and the second, their marriage. But before they can get hitched, Ellie and Carl have to meet. And before that, Carl needs to be introduced to the audience. The first shot of his younger self is in a movie theater, where he’s watching a Prohibition-era newsreel about his hero: the intrepid—but discredited—explorer Charles Muntz. The boy’s hair is a long way from graying, but he’s wearing his signature square-frame glasses. Right away, the movie’s unique visual style is apparent. Like most of the characters, Carl seems to be built from different blocks. “We used to say ‘chunkify,’ everything,” Kalache says. “If you look at Carl, his fingers are very, very big and stubby.”

With Up, Docter told Kalache that he wanted to try something different. “It slowly shaped itself into a very theatrical approach to lighting the movie where nothing mattered at the edge of the frame,” Kalache says. “It was all about the characters. It was about the expressions, the emotion, the performance.” Whether it’s Carl staring at the movie screen or Ellie interrogating Carl when he stumbles into her clubhouse, the camera stays glued to their expressive faces. From the outset, young Ellie’s adventurous spirit is on display; the filmmakers gave her a visible aura. “I remember saying, ‘How do we capture that in color?’” Kalache says. “So throughout the movie, even when Ellie is not there, we have her spirit, and we decided, ‘Let’s pick a color.’ And pink became that color.”

As soon as they meet, Ellie is pushing Carl to match her level of boldness. Literally, at first. After he accidentally lets go of his blue balloon—with the name of Muntz’s airship, “The Spirit of Adventure,” scribbled on it—she takes his hand and guides him to the attic where it’s drifted. Then she shoves him onto a single plank leading to his lost prize. Naturally, the board snaps in half when he takes a step and he falls and breaks his arm.

Voiced by Docter’s daughter Elie (with one “L”), Ellie makes it up to Carl by sending a blue balloon up through his bedroom window. This leads to her showing Carl her adventure book and their vow to travel to Paradise Falls. At the end of their fateful visit, she climbs back out of the window. But before leaving, she pokes her head back up and says, “You know, you don’t talk very much. I like you.”

With the pop of a balloon and the flash of a camera bulb, Carl and Ellie’s story jumps forward to their wedding. All of a sudden, the pace picks up and the film starts to feel like a home movie. “The camera doesn’t really start moving until after they get married,” Lin says. “And I would use a very gentle lateral camera movement of tracking and panning just to kind of say that, ‘OK, they’re going through life.’”

Originally, the montage had dialogue. But according to Docter, storyboard artist Ronnie del Carmen suggested that they should let composer Michael Giacchino’s piece, “Married Life,” do the talking. “Being [a] fan of silent films, I kept pushing to see how much we could take out, and discovered that it seemed like the less we had the more emotional it felt,” Docter says. “No dialogue, no sound effects—just music and visuals. It’s pretty tight. Every shot is a setup for elements we use later in the film.”

The “Married Life” section begins like a fairytale. Carl and Ellie work together at the zoo. They buy their house, renovate it, and give it the same multicolor paint job that Ellie had long ago envisioned. They picnic in the park, where they look up and see clouds shaped like turtles, flying elephants, and babies. Soon, they’re decorating a nursery with a stork mural and a mobile made of little dirigibles.

But then a slow camera pan to a darkened doctor’s office brings Up’s first profoundly emotional moment. Ellie is crying and Carl is resting his hands on her shoulders. A physician is explaining that she’s suffered a miscarriage. The next scene—Carl looking out the kitchen window at Ellie, who’s sitting on a chair in the yard, eyes closed, red hair blowing in the light wind—is crushing. And to the chunk of the audience that still considered Pixar to be nothing more than kids stuff, the sudden seriousness was legitimately shocking.

But the makers of Up knew that even feel-good stories need pathos, and like a real couple, Ellie and Carl’s lows were as important to their relationship as their highs. When the movie was still in the storyboard stage, the filmmakers considered cutting that plot point. “There was a time that a few people at Pixar felt that the miscarriage went too far, so we tried editing it out,” Docter says. “Without it, that montage was not as emotional, of course—but interestingly the rest of the film suffered without it and we didn’t care as much through the whole movie. So of course we cut it back in.”

Thankfully, Carl and Ellie’s story doesn’t end there. While they’re mourning, he makes her smile by bringing out her childhood book. From then on, they joyfully start to save money for a trip to Paradise Falls. But various expenses that crop up cause them to dip into the jug of cash that they’ve set aside, and before they know it, they’ve grown old. By the time Carl finally is able to buy two plane tickets to South America, Ellie has fallen too ill to join him. The last time we see them together is when he visits her in the hospital, where Carl announces his arrival with a message in the form of a blue balloon. Ellie is looking through her old scrapbook, which she eventually nudges toward him. It’s her final gift, and also a charge—she wants him to pick up where their adventures together left off.

After Ellie’s funeral, which is decorated with pink flowers and balloons, Carl heads back to the house that now belongs only to him. This is where their home movie ends. “We have a really, really small camera pullback,” Lin says. “It’s almost imperceptible. And then the camera comes to a stop.” When Carl opens the door and walks inside, the soft pink light shining on the house dims out.

To Docter, the puzzle of the four-and-a-half-minute “Married Life” sequence took a while to solve. “We made lots of changes and adjustments, and it was really hard to know whether we were making it better or breaking it,” he says. “Some days it would be super emotional, and other days we wouldn’t feel anything at all. Oh no, we took out three frames—did we break it?”

His anxiety was understandable. After all, the sequence had to tell Carl and Ellie’s story and set up the rest of the movie. But Docter and his team’s tinkering ended up working. “Through the rest of the movie,” the director says, “when you look at the house being pulled across a mountaintop, you fill in all the emotion of that failed promise.”

But that doesn’t mean that what happens after the first 10 minutes is as heavy as everything that comes before it. Up, after all, is still for children. “The concern is really about having a cartoon [about] a 70-year-old man,” Lin says. “That is always the concern. ‘Well, are kids going to be interested in that?’ That’s why we added other elements.” There’s a villain in Muntz, a talking dog named Dug, a bird named Kevin, and most importantly, an 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer scout named Russell who the Ed Asner–voiced Carl befriends.

Yet in Carl’s thoughts—and in the world of Up—Ellie is never far away. Late in the movie, when Carl looks through her adventure book for the last time, the filmmakers bring the audience back to the beginning. “We started calling back to the same type of camera shots,” Lin says, “which is the lateral movement and pushing so that it brings the audience directly back to Carl’s married life.”

Up opened Cannes in 2009 and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won two: Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. But more than anything else, the massive hit will be remembered for its first 10 minutes. “It definitely reaches very deep,” Kalache says. “It’s Pete Docter’s style. He really knows how to connect with the audience on a very, very deep level. I remember when we watched the movie with friends and family, we took my kid’s class, and the average age was maybe 10, 11. They were all crying after this sequence. I mean, it’s so powerful.”

Thirteen years later, it still makes Kalache cry.

By now, Docter is used to being told that the opening of Up is a tearjerker. “Pretty wild to think that something we created as an explanation for something else still affects people like that!” he says.

To him, the reaction to “Married Life” remains as uplifting as thousands of helium balloons. “A woman just today told me she was 16 when she saw it and bawled her eyes out,” Docter says. “Obviously a 16-year-old has never had a spouse die. But I figure there’s something universal about the desire to have a lifelong partner, and even the thought of that loss must be pretty foundational to us as humans.”


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