30 July 2018
Bringing Our Emotions to Life
Writing and directing is no easy task for filmmakers, but developing the initial story is even harder. This was especially true for Pete Docter, creator and director, of Inside Out. His initial idea for the film was inspired by his daughter whose varying display of emotions sparked his curiosity about what was really going on inside her head? This inspired him to create a film from the perspective of the things that control us the most – emotions. This is what makes it unlike another Pixar film, as they are central to the plot. As Ana Swanson of the Washington Post says, it “does more than just capture these emotions” (cite). Arguably, the most important element in the film is the strategic use of color. I will use the color coding in the mise en scene in Inside Out as evidence for classifying its genre and to represent the film’s social significance as it represents each key emotion and how they control our behaviors and shape our relationships. This film separates itself from other Pixar films as it teaches child and adult audiences the value of acceptance (or compassion for other’s feelings) by fantasizing the human mind and personifying the emotions into characters, animating the tiny little voices in our head that control our personalities and highlight our unique selves.
Inside Out can’t have any social significance unless it reaches a large audience, and luckily for this film, that was Disney’s goal. We can look at how Disney ensures they will produce a successful film through political economy. According to Eileen Meehan, political economy is, essentially, “all about the money” when it comes to large Hollywood productions. Therefore, a company’s decision to make a film is strictly about business and what will make them the most profitable. (Meehan 49). It’s no surprise that Inside Out joined a long list of top grossing Disney films, as this conglomerate knows how to be successful. Pixar’s $175 million budget seems small compared to the $857 million it generated in gross sales, earning its title of the 14th highest grossing animated film (Verhoeven et al.). Not only did it dominate the box office, it also received over 90 awards, including an Oscar for the Best Animated Feature Film (IMDb). A significant amount of its success comes from Pixar’s various marketing strategies to promote this film. According to MediaPost, Disney spent $24.4 million on advertising to reach 4,638 national TV airings (Friedman). Blogger Roberto Comparan gives us an insight into Pixar’s clever marketing strategies. The company held a competition for fans to create their own content for the film (i.e., movie posters), distributed downloadable content to use on social media, and used Twitter as a platform for followers to ask questions and gain more insight about the film. This is an example of a pre-production strategy to build up audience anticipation. Another marketing tool used by companies is intertexts, or media products that expand the story world. Like other conglomerates, Disney uses its internal markets to exploit this product in every holding it can. From plush toys to deluxe toy sets to video games, Disney proves that this film is just one component in a product line (Meehan). While Disney may stay within its internal market to exploit its product, conglomerates may also consider selling its property to external markets. By licensing its intellectual property to corporations like Walmart and Target, Disney is reducing its risk (if the product fails they don’t lose money) and generating revenue (corporations are paying Disney for the rights to use this property). While I could not find an exact number, I have no doubt this merchandise brought in a substantial profit for Disney. Now, it is important to know what the film is about before I can discuss its social significance.
Inside Out follows the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, who struggles to adjust to her new life in San Francisco after leaving her hometown. Her emotions are her guide – joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust – and we witness how her life becomes imbalanced as they begin to conflict with each other. Taking place in headquarters, or Riley’s mind, we learn how these emotions both influence her behavior/actions and feelings toward short-term, long-term, and core memories. The central tension lies between Joy and Sadness as Joy is consistently trying to prevent Sadness from touching memories and negatively affecting Riley. After these “emotions” leave headquarters, the audience watches as they struggle to navigate their way back. Without these two, Riley can’t help feeling angry and withdrawn. At the film’s climax, Riley runs away and gets on a bus back to Minnesota. In the meantime, Joy and Sadness make it back to headquarters and it is Sadness who saves the day as Riley can finally feel this emotion again. As the film concludes, Joy learns that all emotions, including Sadness, are crucial in a person’s life. After all, emotions are essential to building relationships.
It seems obvious to classify Inside Out as an animated, children’s film because it was produced by Disney Pixar Studios. I would agree that this was the best genre for Docter to use to tell his story. The implication of this film’s genre serves two important purposes to support its social significance. It explains the effects of emotions on behavior in a way that children can better understand and teaches them that is it okay to display other emotions rather than joy. Furthermore, it appeals to the adult audience as they learn what’s really going on inside their child’s mind and to accept that adolescent development may be the cause of these mixed emotions. Adults (parents) need to understand that children are learning how to control their emotions during adolescence. To support these claims, I will discuss Rick Altman’s and Jason Mittell’s approach to how films should be categorized into genres. First, I will look at Altman’s approach who is interested in semantic and syntactical views.
The semantic view is essentially a list of common traits, characters, sets, etc. among films that serve as the criteria by which films are categorized into genres. We can think of semantics as the “the genre’s building blocks” (Altman 10). Consequently, Altman is saying that as long as we watch films and others like it, we know what genre it is. I’m going to use his approach to justify Inside Out’s classification as a children’s film. There are several semantic elements that lead the audience to accept the industry’s genre classification of this film. Above all, the film’s animation is our first indication that it’s primarily made for kids (all Pixar films are animated). The setting and location are also supporting elements. Referring to Riley’s mind as the “headquarters”, turning her personalities into “islands”, and storing her ideas in “train of thought,” creates an adventurous mood that appeals to a younger audience. Pixar is not only taking its audience on a journey, but also designing a setting that serves as a metaphor of Riley’s mind. Additionally, high-key lighting enhances the bright colors, making it more fun and exciting to watch. I also noticed that the color in the mise en scene served as a contrast between settings. Unlike the bright, colorful setting of headquarters and long-term memory, the setting that Riley’s in is more neutral toned and reflects her gloomy mood. This helps the audience distinguish between the different emotions and the various settings that the story takes place. While these elements are important, I want to specifically focus on the color-coding of the mise-en-scene because it further supports the classification as a children’s film and is a “building block” that forms the structural relationships within Altman’s syntactical view.
Color-coding the “memory spheres,” costumes, and characters is important because it appeals to kids, the target audience, stylistically (more enjoyable to watch) and narratively (easier to understand the concept). First, the “memory spheres” are color-coded according to the emotion that Riley associates with specific memories. For example, Sadness touched a happy memory Riley had about hockey, changing the color to blue and causing Riley to be sad when she thinks about it. The costumes and characters are also color-coded with a different color representing an emotion. Culturally, we associate each emotion with the color its portrays. Joy has a light-yellow skin tone (with a yellow glow around her), wears a bright green dress, and has bright blue hair. The color of her skin tone and brightness of her outfit gives her a happy, energetic persona. Sadness’s entire characters is blue including her skin tone, hair, and eyes. While her sweater is grey, it still reflects her melancholy mood. Overall, her appearance and style support her sorrowful, depressing personality. Disgust’s entire character, like Sadness, is also all green. Her hair, eyes, skin tone, and dress are green to represent distaste (protecting Riley from everything she considered gross). Anger’s skin-tone is red, his hair is fire, and his outfit is a suit. While not red, I think the use of the suit represents the “masculine attitude” that emerges when we are angry. Finally, Fear is a light purple color which is a little confusing because culturally we do not associate purple with fear. Normally, we would use black to represent this emotion, but light purple is a more appealing color (especially to the film’s target audience). I think filmmakers added black in his costume to allude to his representation of fear. The use of these colors does two things. First, bright colors are a commonly used element among films in this genre and, second, it tells the audience how each emotion is controlling Riley’s behavior and what emotion she associates with each memory.
The syntactical view uses these building blocks to identify the relationships and explain the film’s cultural context (Altman 10). In other words, Altman is interested in how these building blocks are arranged into structures, forming syntactical relationships. There are several syntactical relationships created between the semantic elements. First, each “island of personality” makes Riley, Riley. When we see some of these islands collapse in the film, we are watching Riley lose a part of who she is. Her relationship with her family begins to fall apart, proving to the audience that losing even one personality trait can affect both their individual self and interaction with others. Another relationship involves mixed emotions and how adolescents experience this in new situations – they can relate to Riley and her experiences. When Riley moves to San Francisco, we see her feel all 5 emotions when she arrives at her new house. For example, all 5 were standing at the “control center” in headquarters changing how she was feeling (Joy would make Riley feel happy, then fear would make Riley scared, and so on.) I think this is an important scene because it helps the audience understand how one situation can cause them to feel several emotions and that this is a normal experience. This explains how the “tiny little voices” in our head control our personality and influence how we each react to new situations in different ways. Lastly, I think Joy and Sadness represent the most important syntactical relationship. At the conclusion of the film, Sadness is the “emotion” that changes Riley’s mind about running away from her family. She teaches Riley the importance of family and Joy realizes that Sadness, and all emotions, are essential in Riley’s life. Ultimately, this teaches them the value of acceptance and not being ashamed for feeling an emotion other than Joy. It’s important for our society to accept that our emotions affect us differently, which reflects our unique personalities. Overall, these relationships signify the film’s social significance as the audience understands how Riley’s emotions shape her understanding of herself and her relationship with her family. This leads into Mittell’s approach, who is interested in how the cultural context within a film defines its genre.
Unlike Altman, Mittell argues that “genre is not intrinsic to text,” meaning we have to look at the relationship among the text, audience, industry, and historical context (Mittell 7). He talks about discursive practice and how it is crucial to think about genre in relation to the film that produced it. I’m going look at this claim specifically to explain what is at stake for classifying a film as a particular genre? We can think about this question in relation to Pixar, the industry that produced Inside Out. Stylistically, the films that Pixar produces share distinct similarities, including the fact that they are all animated films. Beyond that, the setting is often brightly colored with high key lighting, the non-diegetic music is often high-pitched with an upbeat tempo, and the characters have vibrant personalities that makes them popular among children (i.e. Dory from Finding Nemo or Mater from Cars). In terms of Narrative similarities, the main characters are faced with obstacles, they seem to reflect real human emotions, and the theme revolves around some type of relationships (whether that’s friends or family). So, when the audience pours into the theaters to watch a Pixar film, they expect to see these stylistic and narrative similarities. Ultimately, this is what is at stake for Pixar because it has an obligation to produce a film that tells a compelling narrative, but also incorporates those qualities that make it a children’s film. More importantly, Pixar films are so successful because they depict these themes (overcoming obstacles or building relationships) in a way that resonates with children, the dominant target audience. For Inside Out, Pixar brings our emotions to life, creates them into childlike characters, and personifies the mind into this fantasy world to help the audience (both children and adults) understand their unique selves and why they behave in certain ways.
In conclusion, I think color coding in the mise-en-scene is the central element used in Inside Out because it serves multiple purposes. Docter and the other filmmakers not only used color to appeal to his target audience as a children’s film, but to show the way they are representing each emotion. Pixar created a fantasized world in which our emotions live and control how we act with the push of a button. While adults may view the film from a different perspective than children do, I think the clever use of color makes the audience decode the filmmaker’s ideological framework in the same way. Emotions are our guide and impact our personalities and family relationships. More specifically, the meanings Docter wanted to encode were that emotions are crucial to forming our identities and bond us together (Pixar). Most importantly, we must accept the fact that our own and other’s personalities are driven by the ways in which we express our emotions. It through this acceptance that we can build stronger connections with other individuals, including family. Once again, Pixar succeeds in using its platform as an animation studio to tell compelling narratives in an impactful way.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 1984, pp. 6–17., doi:10.2307/1225093.
Comparan, Roberto. “5 Things You Can Learn from Pixar’s Inside Out Marketing Strategy.” For The Love of Pixar, For The Love of Pixar, 17 June 2015, www.fortheloveofpixar.com/blog/2015/6/11/5-things-we-learned-from-pixars-inside-out-marketing-strategy.
Friedman, Wayne. “Disney Drops $24M In TV Ads For ‘Inside Out’.” MediaPost, MediaPost Communications, 19 June 2015, www.mediapost.com/publications/article/252415/disney-drops-24m-in-tv-ads-for-inside-out.html.
Mittell, Jason. “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory.” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 3, 2001, pp. 3–24., doi:10.1353/cj.2001.0009.
Pixar, Disney. “Inside Out.” Pixar Animation Studios, Disney Pixar, www.pixar.com/feature-films/inside-out/.
Verhoeven, Beatrice, and Cassidy Robinson. “30 Highest Grossing Animated Movies of All Time Worldwide.” TheWrap, TheWrap, 22 June 2018, www.thewrap.com/30-highest-grossing-animated-movies-of-all-time/.