Understanding Pixar’s approach to camera structure can help you apply similar ones your own projects, whether they’re animated or live action. Recently, we had the chance to chat with Lin about the camera structure within Inside Out. Listen to our podcast with Lin below, or continue reading to get a synopsis of Lin's discussion.
[Warning: Contains spoilers]
Your camera language essentially determines how you want your camera to communicate or "speak" to the audience. For example, your camera language might depend on a specific lens length or shot length (ex: medium, close-ups, etc.). Since Inside Out's story takes place in two very different worlds, (i.e. the inside world vs. the outside world), Lin wanted the camera language to deepen this contrast. Widening the distinction would also help the audience understand when they're in one world versus the other.
Lin and his team designed two distinction camera languages, one based on perfection and the other one imperfection. The thinking was that the film's external world is real and so should feel imperfect and flawed. In contrast, the internal world of Riley's mind is characterized as virtual and imaginary and so could be perfect.
[caption id="attachment_47305" align="alignnone" width="800"] Comparison of the film's two camera languages[/caption]
The Pixar team inscribed the external world (i.e. San Francisco and Minnesota) scenes with flaws by incorporating lens distortions and focus pulling mistakes. Also, they used more organic, kinetic camera movements for steadicam and handheld looks. The camera paths were also less determined, seeming to roam throughout a space with no definite track.
In contrast, Riley's mental world was seen through less lens distortion and more in focus. What's more, the camera movements were much more studio-like. The result was usually a dolly, track, boom or crane shot with a fluid and mechanical looking motion that was more predictable.
Visual intensity progression
While contrasting these two differing visual styles may not seem ground-breaking, their execution throughout the entire film certainly took a unique approach. Lin's team shifted the two visual languages to reflect Riley and Joy's changing emotional arch throughout the story. As the emotional intensity progressed, the contrasts in the two camera languages would become more profound. Sometimes the visual styles of the two worlds differed little, other times it was very noticeable. The team meticulously mapped out their camera plan to match different acts of the story.
The Inside Out example shows how to create a specific theme for your project and then adjust your cinematography to reflect that theme. In this case, Pixar used strong contrasts to help identify the different worlds and to help support and reflect the emotional intensity of the characters. To do this effectively, it's helpful to know what specific physical camera elements "say" about a characters emotional state. For example, horizontal lines can communicate a physical and mental "openness" while verticle lines can help suggest that a character feels enclosed, small or trapped. These examples, of course, represent only one element (i.e. cinematography) of a total project. When used in conjunction with set design, color schemes, blocking, sound, and others, the overall effect is amplified.