How Disney’s Pixar Creates A World With Music

by Gregory Kong  •   May 27, 2021

In light of Disney Pixar Animation Studios’ Oscar wins at the 93rd Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score for their movie ‘Soul’, we will be diving into how Pixar creates music that brings life to their storyworlds.

What is a storyworld

In all elements of fictional writing, a storyworld is diverse. The storyworld is exactly what it suggests it is, a world in which the story takes place. In other words, it is a setting in which your characters exist in the laws of different cultures and lore that you have set out. However, a story goes beyond its setting and is ultimately an expression of your characters. A storyworld shows the hero’s personal journey, which brings us to the Hero’s Journey developed by famed American professor of literature, Joseph Campbell. 

The Hero’s Journey is a mythic structure and common story template used by writers to tell a character’s adventure. There are 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey, with each step detailing the character’s arc, actions and intent as the plot progresses through three Acts.

Forming A Musical Theme

With the understanding of the Hero’s Journey, the character’s development arc becomes clear. One common musical device used by film composers is leitmotif : short, recurring melodic phrases that are associated with a character, place or idea. The use of leitmotif was popularised by Richard Wagner, a German composer, who originally developed hundreds of leitmotifs for individuals, plots and objects in his operas. 

The greatest strength of a leitmotif is its versatility as it can change as the narrative changes. For example, a character’s leitmotif is at a lower instrument to represent how they might be scared in that specific moment. Another example is when the character’s leitmotif harmonises with another character’s leitmotif to symbolise a relationship between both characters.

Music to Screen: Disney’s ‘Up’

The score for ‘Up’ bagged Pixar their first Academy Award for Best Original Score, also picking up a Grammy, Golden Globe and Bafta. The composer of the film, Michael Giacchino, likes to have one musical identity that encapsulates the tone for each of his film. For ‘Up’ specifically, he sums up the feeling of the film in one chord, where the F major seventh chord (Fmaj7) was used. Michael Giacchino described the chord as eliciting a tinge of sadness to it, yet with controlled calmness. 

The Fmaj7 chord can be heard most prominently in Ellie’s theme. In a montage where Carl and Ellie get married, Ellie’s theme opens with a slow, simple, music-box melody on a muted piano, accompanied by bouncy chords that provide the waltz rhythm, the chirp of a pizzicato string and a comical countermelody on a mute trumpet — all sounds accrued to evoke the times of impish, playful childhood when Carl and Ellie became friends. The theme exudes an endearing naivety in its first appearance in the score.  

As Ellie’s health worsens in the montage, the progressive disappearance of different sections of the ensemble playing Ellie’s theme suggests to the audience that a part of Ellie is lost each time an instrument trails off, in perfect harmony to her life and presence fading on screen. 

Eventually, all that is left of the ensemble in the final scenes of the montage is a solo piano playing Ellie’s theme as an affecting eulogy. The solo piano slows to a quiet, faint and melancholic chord before fading to a choking silence. Ellie is gone, and with her, the melody is gone too.

Ellie’s theme encapsulates her sense of adventure and influence in Carl’s life, which is why her theme comes up again in moments where Carl reminisces about her or when he finds objects in relation to her such as their Adventure Book. Throughout the film, the reappearance of Ellie’s theme inspires Carl to seek that adventure that they had promised to before. More importantly, the theme also impacts Carl to be there for a young boy scout named Russell, reflecting Ellie’s kindred nature and to never give up through his actions.

Ellie’s theme was used to tell her legacy and the life that she lived but to also depict the transformation that Carl went through after her death as he finds a new purpose at the end, which was to be there for Russell the way she was for him. Ultimately, the theme serves to remind the audience that Ellie had never really left Carl’s side and was always a guide he looks to whenever he feels lost.

With ‘Up’, Pixar created one of the saddest and most touching sequences with no dialogue, utilising music as a language to tell a story.

Creating A Soundtrack For Your Life

The simple act of listening to familiar tunes on the radio can bring back old memories – good and bad. Music acts as a catalyst for us to look back on the major milestones in our lives that got us to where we are today. Looking back at our memories can serve to help us reflect on the path we take going forward, just like how Ellie’s theme served as a reflection of what she believed in and how it influenced Carl’s actions.

You are the main character of your life and it is now time to form your very own theme song! At Insyncsg, we offer a Songwriting & Music Production programme. It is a 12-week course available for anyone of all levels of music experience. Learn how to use music recording software in tandem with learning how to write a song, covering everything from recording software 101, MIDI programming, creating interesting chord progressions and beats, expanding on song arrangements through using synths and strings, lyric-writing strategies and more. 

If you would like to further your skills or pick up a new instrument, music lessons for guitar, bass, drums, vocals and keyboards are available as well. We partner with educators who are seasoned music industry practitioners who have decades worth of teaching experience between them to help you achieve your greatest potential and reach new heights. We make music-creation and playing easy for you because everyone deserves their very own anthem.