Design and Composition in Pixar’s ‘Up’

Composition is important to every artistic medium if you wish to design the viewer’s emotional experience. As Wassily Kandinsky wrote in his book, Point and Line to Plane (1926):

“The content of a work of art finds its expression in the composition […] in the sum of the tensions inwardly organised for the work.”

Kandinsky was a modern painter, but this statement is equally applicable to video games, film, and animation. One example from animation, which I was unable to include in my book—Drawing Basics and Video Game Art (Watson Guptill 2012)—is from Pixar’s Up (2009), directed by Pete Docter.

Carl and Ellie in Pixar's 'Up' (2009)

A still from Pixar’s ‘Up’ (2009), illustrating composition and design techniques to wordlessly communicate information about the character of Carl and Ellie, and create a strong emotional tension.

There are several things to note in the above image, touching on shape, colour and texture, gesture, and composition.

Unless you haven’t seen this fantastic animation, Carl (left), has a stubborn and conservative character. His wife, Ellie (right), is the dynamic and energetic personality in their relationship. The artists at Pixar have expertly communicated Carl and Ellie’s respective characters using very simple shapes: a square for Carl, and a circle for Ellie.

Historically, the horizontal and upright lines of the square are commonly used to communicate stability and security (think, pillars of a Greek temple). The circle is variably used to communicate energy, innocence, and often femininity or youth.

Notice how everything in the image that is associated with Carl is based on a square concept from the shape of his head; his reading glasses; to the squareness of his haircut. Every object associated with Ellie is based on a circular concept, including her hair band, which accentuates her spherical head; her table; and the spherical lampshade and teacup. Even the books that Carl and Ellie are reading have been illustrated with their respective visual “DNA.”

Colour and texture
To further emphasise Carl and Ellie’s respective personalities, the intensity (saturation) of colours has also been adjusted accordingly. Ellie’s dynamic energy is illustrated with strong and varied colours, picked up by the sunlight coming in through a window off to the right. This very same light becomes more muted, and the colours less intense, when they reach Carl’s conservative side of the room.

The textures and fabrics complement the colour concepts, wtih Ellie’s armchair and clothing featuring many more details in comparison to Carl’s simple, square red armchair, and white suit.

A person’s gestures—the position their body assumes when they sit, stand or walk—is a great clue to their personality. Notice how Carl’s relatively boring personality traits come through in the way he positions his legs—equal distance apart. Ellie’s legs and feet, on the other hand, are off to one side, as if she’s ready to walk or run at any moment.

Even without the addition of animation, sound, and dialogue, we can get a very strong sense of Carl and Ellie’s personalities through the hidden visual messages concealed in their respective shapes, colours and textures, and physical gestures. However it’s important to keep in mind that we can only fully appreciate the true nature of each design element once it’s arranged within a composition, as our ability to judge the emotional qualities of shapes, for instance, requires that we can make comparisons.

But above all, if we consider the composition of the image in it’s most general form, we find that it’s comfortably balanced between Carl and Ellie. This suggests that, despite their personality differences, their relationship towards each other is harmonious.

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