Unlike the majority of films released nowadays, Pixar movies have always been treated like a major event. The amount of hard work and passion that goes into each one of their projects is something that deserves to be celebrated. For the past few years, I have been lucky enough to participate in several early press days for Pixar films including Toy Story 4 and Onward. These special press days typically involve traveling up to Pixar’s headquarters for a day or two for a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to bring a Pixar story to life. If you are a fan of animation, storytelling, or just enjoy learning about the creative process, I can tell you that it is quite the experience and one that is chock full of information. With each and every film that Pixar brings to life, there is a whole lot of heart and soul that goes into bringing it to life.
This leads me to Pixar’s latest release Soul, which due to the Coronavirus pandemic, sadly, did not get to have an early press day at Pixar but rather a virtual one via Zoom. I am not going to lie, it was a totally different experience to learn about the making of Soul over Zoom rather than in person with animators and story developers up at Pixar. There is something so special about the in-person Pixar experience. Their conference rooms are filled with art and sketches which gives you a unique perspective that can help one visualize all of the steps that go into making a Pixar film. It really can’t be replicated but I have to give the team at Disney and Pixar a lot of credit for trying their best to recreate the Pixar experience at home.
Just like the previous Pixar press days, the Soul junket took place over the course of two days. On the first day, I was invited to screen Pixar’s latest short Burrow, as well as the first thirty-five minutes of Soul. The following day, I got to take an online crash course in Pixar which was broken down into the following five sections:
- The Making of Soul featuring Pete Docter (Director), Dana Murray (Producer), Kemp Powers (Co-Director & Writer)
- Bringing the Story of Soul to Life featuring Kristen Lester (Story Supervisor) Michael Yates (Story Artist), and Aphton Corbin (Story Artist)
- A Soul New World featuring Bobby Podesta (Animation Supervisor), Jude Brownbill (Animation Supervisor), and MontaQue Ruffin (Animator)
- Jazzing featuring Jon Batiste (Jazz Compositions & Arrangements)
- Filmmakers Press Conference featuring Pete Docter (Director), Dana Murray (Producer), Kemp Powers (Co-Director & Writer)
There is a lot of Information to process within a two-hour period. Each one of the presentations highlights a different aspect of the filmmaking process and multiple people share their stories about what their involvement was in bringing the film to life. I try my best to take notes during the presentations and write down facts that I tend to find to be the most noteworthy. While this list may not cover everything, it serves as a good overview of the highlights.
10. Pete Docter has been working on SOUL for five years and wanted to be an animated his entire life. He attended the California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney himself. Docter’s got a job at Pixar very early on and the first film that he worked on at Pixar was the original Toy Story.
9. The plot of SOUL revolves around the idea of what a person is supposed to be doing with their limited time on Earth and the personal struggle of finding that out. The film is a look at life and asks the question, is a life worth living? SOUL will explore why life is worth living and why it is so important to have a passion and purpose.
8. Herbie Hancock’s MasterClass video served as a huge inspiration for SOUL. Pete Docter spoke about how they were looking for a passion for the main character Joe to have and watching this video is what confirmed that Jazz music was the answer. Dana Murray noted, “ we decided Joe would be a musician and that music would be an essential part of the film.”
7. Kemp Powers came onto SOUL two years ago and said that the film was in “rough form” when he started to work on the project. Powers took charge of the character of Joe and shaped him into the character that you will see in the final film. Kemp joked that the character of Joe is a lot like him. In fact, he used his own experiences to inform writing this character. Kemp asked, “Just how much was he like me? Well, how old is Joe? He’s 45 years old. Coincidentally, I’m also in my mid 40’s. Joe lives in New York, which is, um, my hometown, and-although Joe is from Queens, and I’m from Brooklyn, and everyone knows that Brooklyn is better [Laughs]. 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.”
6. The story team on Soul helped bring the script to life. A story team is a group of artists whose job is to help write a film with images. There were a total of 73,611 storyboards made by the story team and were used to create the final version of SOUL.
5. Story Artist Aphton Corbin stated that he and the rest of the team had to watch the whole 90-minute movie about eight times. “We sit in our theater and watch the film end to end.” The team would then have to go back into the film and change things over and over again. Story Supervisor Kristen Lester added, “We learn from it. In the case of Joe’s life, we worked on that sequence multiple times for many years. Each one was a chance to discover a truth about Joe and his experience that would make him a character we love, cared about, and rooted for.”
4. It was very challenging for the animation team to come up with how to animate a film that was centered around Jazz music. “It’s a chance for us to act out the performance, explore ideas, and take inspiration from our imposing physicality and facial expressions. Here’s some more great reference from Aaron McGriff. We’re always striving for truthful and specific performances that dive into the heart of the moment and feel relatable and real, so referencing real-life helped us to get close to that. Another great way to understand our characters is through the voice artists themselves” added Animation Supervisor Jude Brownbill
3. The animation team had to build rules around the characters being created in SOUL. There are new souls, mentors, Soul Joe, and 22. Each of them had different qualities such as the new souls who are cute, appealing, have simple, rounded shapes but no distinguishing features. Jude Brownbill notes that “the art team brought these ideas and rules to life in the form of 2D animation tests displaying great clarity, appeal, and entertainment, and they gave us this great goal to aim for as we move from 2D into 3D.”
2. Animator MontaQue Ruffin pointed out that “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.”
- Since SOUL is centered around music, this was a very important aspect of the storytelling. Jon Batiste noted that “every song has a kind of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic textures, and it brings you to a place spiritually. Even if you don’t know how to describe it, it puts you in space throughout the whole film when you’re hearin’ that music, and it really complements what Trent and Atticus came up with, and the times in the film when our music comes together when the worlds kinda collide, it’s amazing how it-it worked out. I really am thankful that we had the chance to do that because at first, we didn’t even hear each other’s music, and then, as the process started to go along, I got a chance to hear some of the music they were making, they heard some of the music that I was making, and we came together in this one moment.”