There has been quite a bit of hype on the internet about Disney Pixar’s Soul. After some unexpected released date changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film will now be made available to Disney+ subscribers beginning on Christmas Day. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of the film, Soul follows a man named Joe Gardner voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe is a middle school music teacher who dreams of becoming a professional jazz pianist. After being presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, an unexpected accident occurs, causing him to travel to another realm. In this realm, he meets 22, voiced by Tina Fey, a soul that has not yet lived and does not understand the appeal of being alive. Together, they must work to get Joe back to earth in time for a big gig that could change his life.
In September, I was invited to partake in an exclusive early press event centered around Pixar’s latest outing, Soul. You can read about that experience and as well as some key takeaways from the event here: 10 Things You Should Know About Pixar’s SOUL. However, for this piece, I will be focusing on the filmmaker’s press conference that took place during the event. The press conference was an intimate 30 minute Q&A where Pete Docter (Director), Dana Murray (Producer), and Kemp Powers (Co-Director & Writer) spoke in great detail about the film and what it was like to bring the story of Joe Gardner to life.
When asked about Pixar’s animation and their continued effort to further push the art form with each new project, Docter, Powers, and Murray had a lot to say about the topic:
Pete Docter: “Well, I think some of the things that were the first for us anyway, I’m not gonna speak for all of humankind (laughs). But the things we presented in the talk between the sort of vaporous form lines as characters. When they go to a movie, I think people want to see something they feel like they have never seen before. They want their brains to be scrambled a little bit. And that’s the fun of it for us is like how do we approach this in a new way? Even from concept on, I mean this film was really born of thinking, “okay, what would we do that would require us, that would force us to do something new that we haven’t seen that is not just humans?” Of course, there are humans in it, but the souls are a big part of that.
Kemp Powers: Yeah. The soul world definitely, particularly those counselors, is funny with the counselors because they’re quote, unquote living lines, look simple, and actually, they, I think they were the single most complex thing to do in the entire film. In producing the film, that was a challenge because so much of the stuff in the soul world we didn’t know how we were gonna do it that we basically ended up animating everything soul related like at the end. Like that was the second half of the film. So we were really working out of sequence because the film takes place about half and half, half in the soul world and a half in the human world. But we-we basically like, okay, at some point, we’re gonna figure out how actually to animate these boards right. This was my first time on a Pixar film, so I think I-I was kind of up at night more worried about it than Pete or Dana was because they know that they always figure these things out. But I was seriously like, okay. At what point are we gonna actually figure out how to animate this? (laughs) Of course, with the amazing team that we have, they figured it out.
Dana Murray: Not new technology but animating Jon Batiste’s hands, too. That was really new for our animation team and really pushed people. I know it was challenging, and they did a beautiful job.
When asked about the fear that POC audiences have about a building trend about black characters not appearing black in the film, the team had a lot to say about that concern.
Pete Docter: Yeah. We were unaware of that as we started, but we certainly became aware. Um, I hope that when you see the whole film, uh, there is plenty of Joe on screen. What you saw today, I don’t know what the percentages were, but I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of, uh, where he goes, people he’s with. Uh, and then the other part is in the soul world and-and hopefully it’s clear, but that’s meant to be Joe as well, uh, even just in soul form.
Kemp Powers: I think it’s a legitimate concern. But it’s also about context, you know. For me, I’m as sensitive to those things as anyone else. It is definitely about the context in which you tell this character’s story. There were a lot of caution cones we had to put up about, you know, being sensitive about for the first time telling a black man’s story in an animated film. Being aware of how easy it is to-to go off-off the-off the rails. Of course, you want to do certain things that are-that are entertaining. But that was another reason why, like I think we, uh, we-we-we, you heard it mentioned earlier that we screened the film for lots of different audiences. This was actually the first time Pixar did a screening for an all-black audience. Um, and I’ll admit, that was, for me on a personal level, one of the most anxiety-inducing days I had on this film because I’ve spent years, um, working on this movie that ultimately I wanted to show to my family so that they could be proud of me. And that black audience in that theater, in many ways, represented my family. So I can’t tell you how relieved I was, um, at the end of that screening to-to hear like the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it. But again, it’s not. We’re not trying to; we’ve never at any point tried to dismiss people’s concerns. Animation is not an industry where there’s been a great deal of black representation. It just hasn’t. I feel that Pixar is one of the few places that’s been very genuine in recognizing the shortcomings and making a tremendous, tremendous effort to start to rectify it. And I think this film is like that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director. It’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many black people in general in positions of power in animation. In the few years that I worked at Pixar, I watched many black animators and black story artists increase. Um, you’ve met a lot of them today. I love the fact that rather than talking about it, Pixar was moved to action. And I can speak to that as I have witnessed it.
Dana Murray: Yea, and I think that’s why we relied so heavily on our consultants, and we leaned into those difficult conversations. It was something that we didn’t want to not talk about. So I actually appreciate the question.
Lastly, when asked about COVID-19’s impact on finishing the film, Pete, Kemp, and Dana shared their thoughts on a struggle they managed to overcome.
Pete Docter: Yeah, it was tough.
Dana Murray: When we went into shelter in place, there were seven weeks of production left. =So we were really at the height of our crew almost. I don’t know. We were being kicked out of the building. And it was just incredible to see like because, and 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 ’em 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 shows how amazing everyone is and how resilient people were. But I’m very grateful we got to finish it. That’s just ’cause where we were at in production.
Kemp Powers: And I don’t think there was anything in the film that we ended up not doing because of that. I think we got everything that we wanted to be completed, right?
Dana Murray: Yeah, besides just not getting to finish together and have a big wrap party (laughs).