Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Ponders Why Life is Worth Living

Pixar is known for tackling some big subjects before, and their newest film, Soul, is no different, as it was motivated by asking core questions about why we’re on Earth at all. Of course, thanks to the events of 2020, both Disney and the filmmakers then also had to tackle the question of how exactly audiences would be seeing the film for themselves.

It was announced on Thursday that Soul will now debut on Disney+ on December 25th in the US and other parts of the world where Disney+ is available — it will open theatrically in countries without the service at a date to be announced — as the latest big film distribution shakeup in the wake of Covid-19 disrupting nearly every major release this year. Last month, Fandom was among a number of outlets shown the first 35 minutes of Soul – which it must be said were very impressive and made me eager to see the entire movie – followed by a virtual Q&A with the filmmakers. At the time, the move to Disney+ hadn’t been revealed, nor did it seem to have been solidified behind the scenes, as the film’s co-writer and director, and Pixar Chief Creative Officer, Pete Docter noted at one point, “We made it to be seen on the big screen.” There are indeed some very cool and very trippy visuals in Soul, so I’d certainly advise you watch it on the biggest TV you can.

Describing the genesis of the film, Docter, the director of Monster’s Inc, Up, and Inside Out, remarked, “I basically feel like making animated films is what I was born to do, and yet there are some days where I find myself wondering, ‘Really, cartoons? Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing with my limited time on Earth?’ In fact, you know, in darker days — around now — I wonder sometimes is there any point to it? If I had a choice, would I decide to be born and come alive? And so really, it’s that thought, that struggle, that became the core of our film.”

With that inspiration, Docter said they decided the focus of their story was, “A new soul that hasn’t been born yet looks down on Earth with skepticism and says, ‘Is all that living down there really worth it?’ And we thought to convince this soul, let’s bring in a character who’s already lived to show what’s so great about the world down there. So the basic concept of the film became a soul who doesn’t want to live meets a soul who doesn’t want to die.”

GIVING FORM TO THE FORMLESS


 In Soul, middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) looks to finally be on the brink of a big break that could make him a professional Jazz musician – only to promptly have an accident that leads to his soul leaving his body. But rather than travel into the true afterlife, Joe, insisting he needs to go back to Earth, instead hides in “The Great Before,” the world where souls nurture their personalities before being born as a human.

This leads to a lot of time spent in the Great Before and among these disembodied souls, and Docter said a big question he and his collaborators faced was, “If we’re gonna make a film about souls, really our first problem was what does a soul look like?” He explained that while doing research, they found that all around the world, various religions and teachings, “would describe souls as vaporous, non-physical, formless, breath, air… It was all very interesting, but really not very helpful because how do you draw air? We had to put something on the screen. How could we capture non-physical?”

As Soul producer Dana Murray explained, “We found this stuff called aerogel, and it’s the lightest solid material on Earth, and it’s used by the aerospace industry.  It seemed to suggest the non-physical stuff in our research that we were talking about, but in a way we could actually put it on screen. So, with this in mind, we started to explore what a soul might look like, which, you can imagine, was not so easy, and so a lot of different artists at Pixar started to take a crack at this, and they came up with some really cool and interesting ideas.” Ultimately, they realized they still needed to convey some humanity, going back to a drawing Docter did early on, “Which seemed to suggest the ephemeral but also had a face.”


The tricky part was not making the souls look like ghosts, since that isn’t what they are meant to be. Murray said they decided, “If souls represent the full potential of who we are inside, maybe we could use color to help show that.”

As for the most prominent soul Joe meets, 22, voiced by Tina Fey, Docter described her as “basically a nihilist. She’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s all meaningless.’ And Joe is an optimist and he’s relentless and he works so hard.  And so you get to pit those against each other. And in that way, I think the film balances and doesn’t tip over in one direction of being too pessimistic or too optimistic.”

SOUL RULES 

Soul is introducing an entire new world, and Animation Supervisor Jude Brownbill noted that meant there needed to be rules for that world, remarking, “These are new souls who have not yet lived. They’re very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet. Because they’ve never lived on Earth, they have no concept of gravity, so they tend to float about or even fly.”


But then there are the mentor souls, who have lived on Earth before. Said Brownbill, “They are an abstraction of how they saw themselves on Earth, each with unique, distinguishing features and accessories.  Because they have experienced gravity on Earth, they walk as if it exists, even though they don’t really need to.”

Joe, though not truly a mentor, still has that Earth background, and Brownbill explained that factored into his depiction in the soul world. “How soul Joe seems himself on Earth, what’s important to him, are his hat and his glasses, and they also help us to pick him out of the crowd, giving a visual connection to his human form.  22’s never been to Earth, but she knows a lot about it and has already begun to evolve, as you can see by her teeth, her tuft of hair, and her ability to produce legs if she wants them.  From the very beginning, the art team were exploring some really interesting design rules for Soul: limbs that would appear and disappear, facial features that seemed to move anywhere on the face, big, expressive mouth shapes that filled the face, straight lines and-versus curves in the body, and really strong lines of action in the posing.”

CREATING EARTH


As important as the Great Before is to Soul, so is the tangible world Joe comes from and wishes to return to. Which meant it was important to find what drove him. Said Docter, “We recognized that a lot of the film needed to be about Joe’s life on Earth, and we needed something that Joe could do that showed the promise of life, some passion that he had.” Ultimately it was seeing a video of an online MasterClass from Herbie Hancock that was the eureka moment. Murray said they then decided, “Joe would be a musician and that music would be an essential part of the film,” with John Batiste writing original Jazz compositions for Soul, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch provide the score.

Soul is co-written by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, Star Trek: Discovery), who is also the film’s Co-Director, and he explained that when he joined the project a couple of years ago, “Joe was a character who needed a lot of fleshing out. I very quickly realized that in many ways Joe really was just like me, so then I could use my own experiences to inform writing this character.” Powers noted that he was a similar age to Joe, shared a similar New York background, and “Joe is a musician, and coincidentally, I used to be a music critic, I’m a musician myself, and my son is even named after the jazz great, Charles Mingus.”

(L-R) 'Soul' filmmakers Co-Director Kemp Powers, Director Pete Docter, and Producer Dana Murray

Powers said, with a laugh, that he told Docter and Murray early on, “’I don’t represent every single Black person’s experience,’ so it was really important that we reached out further, so we partnered with a number of consultants on this film who we kept close throughout the entire creative process.” This included speaking with African-American Pixar employees, which Powers described as “our internal cultural trust.” On top of that, Kemp noted, “We also turned to tons of experts outside of Pixar, including many music teachers and working jazz musicians from New York City and right here in Emeryville [where Pixar is located].”

AUTHENTICITY AND RESEARCH

One of the film’s animators, MontaQue Ruffin, remarked, “Joe Gardner is Pixar’s first African-American lead, and being a person of color, you can imagine how special it was for me to work on a film like Soul. This film means a lot to me because I was able to animate characters who look like me and, ultimately, celebrate the community that I come from.”

Ruffin added, “As animators, we strive to immerse ourselves in the subject that we’re animating, and we’re constantly searching for the details and specifics that make our characters as authentic as possible. Doing our research is key. It always has been, and it always will be.  As a team, we needed to take trips to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.”


Said Kemp, “I was a huge fan of Pete’s work before I ever met him. One of my favorite Pete Docter films was Monsters Inc and one of the things that stood out was how they animated fur at the time. I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, Pete, I want to see black hair rendered the Pixar way!’ And the only way that’s gonna happen is if we  have a black barbershop scene.’ And of course Pete was like, ‘Well, it has to make sense for the actual film.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, give me a chance to write the scene and I’ll make it make sense within the film.’”

Yes, the barbershop made it into Soul, and indeed a barbershop was among the places the filmmakers visited for research, along with a school like the one Joe teaches at and, of course, clubs representing the New York jazz scene he strives to be an accomplished part of.

BEYOND DREAMS

Pixar often strives to subvert or put a spin on elements we’ve seen in other films, and such was the case with Soul.


Said Powers, “I think one of the things that actually moved me about the potential of this was… there are just so many film,  particularly family films, that come out with this idea of ‘chasing your dreams.’  It’s always kind of like the same kind of story. Like if you believe strong enough, you can accomplish your dreams. But we were really trying to thread a needle I’ve never seen anyone thread before, [that] the people who achieve their dreams aren’t the only ones whose lives are of value. Actually, everyone’s life has equal value, whether they achieve those dreams or not. And it’s about our willingness to be personally satisfied. It sounds like very heady stuff but we do have a lot of humor and it’s an understandable concept we’ve learned.”

THE COVID FACTOR

Regarding actually finishing the film after the pandemic hit, Murray recalled, “We were really at the height of our crew, almost. I was like, ‘I guess we’re done. I don’t know!’ We were being kicked out of the building. And it was just incredible to see. We got really lucky because we were in such the backend technical part of the filmmaking process. Most people were able to pick up their machines from their offices, drive them home, and in a day or two they were up and running and it was kind of mind-blowing. We still finished production on time. We did have to delay our post-production but it just shows how amazing everyone is and how resilient people were. I’m very grateful we got to finish it.”


Added Kemp, “I don’t think there was anything in the film that we ended up not doing because of that. I think we-we got every single thing that we wanted completed.”

Docter praised what he called an “amazing team,” and Murray said their one lament was, “Not getting to finish together and have a big wrap party.”

Soul will be released December 25, 2020 on Disney+.

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