Score to Screen: UP

9 min read

Carl and Ellie are in love. They get married and start a new life, a new adventure. The following five minutes, in the Disney-Pixar animated film Up, is an immensely moving montage of the choicest of moments picked from the couple’s married life, spanning a few decades. Enough has been said about the ingenuity of the screenwriting in this episode (by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter), which is acute in its observation, and concise. I would like to direct attention towards the accompanying music.

Michael Giacchino’s score writing here is screenwriting too. The score diligently follows the moods and emotions of the characters. It brings to these vignettes a sense of order, linearity, coherence and cohesion, even though they happen over decades and witness sweeping transitions.

This is an attempt to look and hear closely the Married Life montage from Up to examine how music is married to the moving images.

EXT. DILAPIDATED HOUSE — DAY

Carl carries her past a “SOLD” sign. It’s the same house where they met as kids.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE — DAY

Still in their wedding clothes: She saws as he hammers.

Ellie’s theme—a musical piece that is recapitulated in multiple instrumental variations in the montage first appears earlier in the film as a slow, simple, lilting 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.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — DAY

They push two chairs into place side by side in the living room.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE — DAY

Ellie finishes painting “Carl & Ellie” on their MAILBOX. Carl leans in to admire her work but leaves a messy paint handprint on the mailbox! Oh well; Ellie adds her handprint as well. They smile.

Mute trumpet has the sound of the carefree, the relaxed, the frivolous; perhaps due to its past association with cartoons. So, when Ellie’s theme is played on a mute trumpet, to accompany the small, cute moments that the couple share as they enthusiastically build their new home, it seems to suggest that though Carl and Ellie are now adults, a newlywed couple at that, their growing up has had no effect on their utterly charming innocence.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE – DAY

Their house now matches Ellie’s colorful CLUB HOUSE DRAWING from her childhood Adventure Book.

The shot of the repaired house helps to achieve a smooth transition, a seamless segue into the next chapter of their lives. So the accompanying score is effervescent, with swelling strings, and this registers the surging happiness in Carl and Ellie after having accomplished their first job together as a couple. It fits musically too, for it leads the orchestral piece organically to the next section, in which there will be a new iteration of Ellie’s theme—on a new instrument.

EXT. RURAL HILLSIDE — DAY

They run up a hillside together. They lie side by side on a picnic blanket. She describes the clouds. He watches as a cloud transforms into a turtle. Carl closes his eyes and smiles. He’s lucky to be with her.

Carl and Ellie are growing up, now engaging in adult activities like going on a picnic. Ellie’s theme too matures in sound; it doesn’t develop or transform, the melody remains as is, only its body, the carrier, changes—from a mute trumpet to a fiddle-like violin. Although the piece has an intrinsic waltz rhythm, it doesn’t yet have a percussion to embody the rhythm. Only after the couple’s life has settled into a set pattern, it is heard in the backing as a steady, confident, percussive layer; not a heavy, pronounced drum beat but a tender jazz-waltz brush stroke.

EXT. ZOO — DAY

Ellie emerges from the South America House, dressed in her Zookeeper’s uniform.

Carl shows off his new BALLOON CART and uniform. Behind him the balloons lift his cart off the ground. Carl jumps to catch it. She giggles.

After the fiddle completes playing the theme once, a secondary melody, a part B, appears on a mute trumpet here, merely as a conjunction to the next instrumental variant of the theme. This is also one of the most presciently scored moments in the film. Laid over the mute trumpet melody is a layer of strings ascending and descending a sequence of notes, in order to emulate the movement of the balloons lifting the cart, and Carl pulling it back down. The cart’s movement is crucial, and it needs underlining. As we will see, the rest of the film is based on Carl’s balloons.

What the score does here is a sort of ventriloquism—directing the audience’s attention to a specific moving entity in a frame by playing a piece of music that faithfully replicates the direction and tempo of the object in motion. This is an instance where the score is as much a storyteller as any other device in play at that moment.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — DAY

Carl and Ellie sit side by side in their chairs, reading. Without looking up from their books, they hold hands.

Ellie’s theme is now heard on a piano. Its sound is more rounded, assured, pronounced and crisp, compared to its sound in the childhood version. The waltz rhythm continues but the percussion leaves the ensemble. All is well. They are happy.

EXT. RURAL HILLSIDE — DAY

Again, at their picnic spot, they watch clouds. Ellie sees an elephant with wings. Carl gives it a try and points out a BABY. Ellie lights up, excited. She sees ALL the clouds as babies! Carl is stunned … but smiles.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, BABY ROOM — DAY

Ellie finishes painting a wall mural of a stork carrying a bundle in its beak. Carl hangs a mobile above the crib.

Ellie sees clouds in the shape of an elephant with wings, but Carl sees a baby. Then she sees all the woollen clouds as babies. The piano, halfway through the melody, passes it on to a tinkling vibraphone, the instrumental sound that has always had an association with the appearance of all things related to babies in films. But, the vibraphone has to let go of the melody midway, incomplete, possibly due to the short length of the footage, but perhaps also because the couple’s desire to start a family is short-lived too.

INT. DOCTOR’S OFFICE — AFTERNOON

Carl touches Ellie’s shoulder as the doctor explains. Ellie drops her head in her hands.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — AFTERNOON

Carl looks out the window. Ellie sits alone under a tree, the wind in her hair.

Bad news. Sad news. She can’t have a child. The tip-toeing waltz has been snatched off their feet. Life slows down, and so does the music. Ellie’s theme is heard on a sombre, slow, solo flute. And soon, life comes to a standstill. Ellie’s theme is now heard on a lonely, unaccompanied piano.

Besides the choice of instrument, this is proof of the immense emotional impact a slight temporal change made at the right time can yield. It also is a testament to the core strength of the melody that can express by itself myriad moods and emotions without any significant harmonic changes.

The theme does undergo major harmonic transformations later in the film: there is an exhilarating and stirring orchestral reprise when Carl literally lifts his house up using a thousand balloons and heads to Paradise Falls; here, Ellie’s theme gloriously spreads its wings far and wide to all nooks of the orchestra. Also, towards the end of the film, there appears a brisker, more heroic version of the theme, when it is pitted in a battle against the antagonist Muntz’s theme.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, YARD — AFTERNOON

Carl joins Ellie. He hands her the Adventure Book. She smiles.

A flute rises just as Ellie lifts her head with the hint of a smile in her eyes. There is hope again. The orchestra picks up from where it left—flute, piano, fluttering strings—but it does so in measured steps, its ascension slow and gradual.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — AFTERNOON

Ellie paints a MURAL of their house atop Paradise Falls over the mantle. Carl organizes a compass, map, binoculars, and native bird figurine beneath the painting. It’s their shrine to Adventure.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — AFTERNOON

Carl sets A JAR on a table, “PARADISE FALLS” written on it. Ellie drops in a few coins. She looks at Carl and crosses her heart. Carl crosses his. A SERIES OF SHOTS The jar slowly fills as Carl and Ellie toss in spare change.

Their car blows a tire.

The two stand by the jar, reluctant. Carl BREAKS the jar. New tire. Carl in the hospital with a broken leg. Breaking jar. A storm rages. A tree falls, crushing the roof. Breaking jar.

The waltz and the verve return to the melody when Carl sets a glass jar on the table. The theme plays on mute trumpet. The version we heard in the beginning plays in its entirety hinting at a life returning to normalcy. They now have a goal, a purpose, something to look forward to, and they are just as hopeful of achieving it as they were once. They are children again.

It could have been a totally different variant of the theme, an altogether new instrument playing Ellie’s theme, and that could have made the orchestral piece richer and colourful, but Giacchino refrains from introducing anything new. Ellie’s theme on mute trumpet has come to define a certain joyful phase in their lives, and so, when they return to that exact emotional space and phase after a prolonged period of abject pain and despair, the score must return as well.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, FRONT HALL — MORNING

Carl struggles to tie his tie. Ellie helps. They walk out the front door arm in arm.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, FRONT HALL — 3 YEARS LATER

Ellie struggles to tie Carl’s tie as they rush out the door. A SERIES OF SHOTS as Ellie straightens Carl’s ties. Stylish 1950s ties. Wide ‘60s ties. Paisley ‘70s ties.

Decades pass by in a few seconds. A melody different from the main theme is played here because their lives have been uneventful for the most part.

Even this secondary melody is resolved neatly when it ends; in fact, throughout the montage, closure for each segment comes through a neat musical resolution—like the confident, unambiguous period before a sentence that begins with a conjunction “And then”—before the next segment begins with a new instrumental variation of the main theme.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, FRONT HALL — 30 YEARS LATER

Older Carl and Ellie smile at themselves in the hall mirror.

They are old, frail, and their hair fully white, into their second childhood. For the second time in this episode, after its short-lived appearance for the cloud-babies, Ellie’s theme is heard on vibraphone, when the heirless couple turn to look at each other in the mirror together. Carl and Ellie have become each other’s child now.

EXT. ZOO — DAY

Carl in his 60s. They still work happily side by side at the zoo. Carl’s cart lifts off the ground. He casually leans an elbow on it.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — NIGHT

Carl and Ellie dance in the evening candlelight. The PARADISE FALLS JAR sits off to the side, now dusty and forgotten.

INT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM WINDOW — AFTERNOON

Carl cleans the inside of the window. Ellie cleans the outside.

Ellie’s theme is passed on to a new set of instruments again, as Carl and Ellie enter a new phase. The motif is heard on violin—not the fiddle-like violin heard earlier—and then on clarinet. These are sounds representative of refinement, of the cultured and civilized. We see the old couple act mature and elderly, with bow-tie dinner dates and ballroom dancing in candlelight.

Another important scoring decision has been made here: the score refrains from repeating the strings that rose and fell accompanying the balloon cart lifting off the ground earlier, though cart-lifting returns here as a visual motif. The score chooses to emphasize, with its return to the happy version of the leitmotif, that the couple have made peace with their childlessness and their inability go on an adventure trip to Paradise Falls.

INT. CARL’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM — AFTERNOON

Carl vacuums the Adventure Shrine on the mantle. Carl smiles at a photo of Ellie as a child, wearing her flight helmet and goggles. He looks up at the mural of their house at Paradise Falls. His smile fades. Behind him, Ellie sweeps the floor. Their dream has gone unfulfilled. Carl has an idea.

The score slows down and goes silent, just as the montage, with a series of shots showing us that a few years have passed. The score lingers on one specific moment. The thematic melody returns precisely when Carl’s eyes widen, implying that he has an idea.

EXT. TRAVEL AGENCY — DAY

Carl buys two tickets to South America.

Carl is happy that he found a way to make Ellie cheerful again: Ellie’s theme plays on a clarinet.

EXT. RURAL HILLSIDE — AFTERNOON

Carl hurries excitedly up picnic hill. He hides the airline tickets in his basket.

Behind him, Ellie falters and falls. She tries to get up but falls again. Something is wrong. He runs to her.

Ellie’s infirmity is implied by a gradual decline in the tempo of a feeble, incidental phrase played on strings, as she struggles to climb up the hill and eventually falls.

INT. HOSPITAL ROOM — DAY

Ellie lies in a hospital bed. She looks through her ADVENTURE BOOK.

A BLUE BALLOON floats in to the room. Carl stands at the door. He smiles and walks to her bedside. Ellie pushes her Adventure Book toward him. She weakly pats his cheek and adjusts his tie. He kisses her on the forehead.

That persistent waltz, the spirit, and the rhythm in the life of this sweet couple is heard no more. Silence. No music. And from silence, emerges a solo piano playing Ellie’s theme as an affecting eulogy. Ellie is gone, and with her, the melody is gone too.

INT. CHURCH — AFTERNOON

Carl sits alone, next to a huge bouquet of balloons.

EXT. CARL AND ELLIE’S HOUSE — DUSK

Carl walks into the house, holding a single blue balloon.

FADE TO BLACK.

When we see Carl sitting alone with a single balloon at the church, and then at the doorsteps of his house, all that is left at last is a quiet, faint, melancholic chord; its vibration lingers for a while before the soundtrack fades to a choking silence.


About the author

P. S. Sureshkumar is a film score fanatic. He has been writing about film scores on his blog for over ten years. He studied mechanical engineering, and he has been working as a software engineer for over fourteen years. He can always be found in transit between his hometown Salem, and London, and on Twitter at @ursmusically or at @FilmScoreFandom.

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