Soul is an ambitious, jazz-filled exploration of the meaning and joys of life is coming to Disney Plus just in time for Christmas. Pixar’s holiday flick is one of the most anticipated animated features from the studio this year and perhaps their most mature kid-friendly film. And it doesn’t hesitate to go existential, not what you’d typically expect from the house of mouse. Starring a voice cast led by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, the film written and directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers, takes us into some trippy realms to answer the question, what makes you, you? In Soul, Joe Gardner, a music teacher gets the chance to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to the “Great Before” where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. To return to his life, he teams up with a precocious soul, 22, who doesn’t get the hype around being alive.
Over the course of two cross-continental zoom calls, I spoke to some of Pixar’s animators – Bobby Podesta (Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.), Jude Brownbill (Cars 2, Brave), MontaQue Ruffin (Coco, Onward) and storyboard artists – Kristen Lester (Onward, Purl) and Aphton Corbin (Toy Story 4) to decode Soul, the process of creating the characters from scratch, infusing them with local colour and ultimately animating the whimsical worlds of the film.
Soul features an amazing voice cast led by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey. How much of an Influence does the cast have on the animation/storyboards?
Bobby: For all the performances, as animators, we’re half of the performance, we’re the visual performance up on the screen. So we’re in this kind of three-legged race towards the goal with the voice cast. And it will vary. Sometimes we’ll go and we’ll listen to recordings or watch the recordings, take videos while the voice cast is recording, pull up mannerisms because these are amazing actors. We use those as ingredients in what we’re trying to cook. Sometimes we’ll pull from our own lives, from people we know, a world of experience, [Montaque, you talked a lot about this,] some of the shots you animated you go to yourself, your own memories and the people you knew to draw from and I think it really showed on the screen.
MontaQue: Yeah, specifically speaking about the African American community, Joe Gardner being the first African American lead, the barber’s shop and the tailor’s shop scenes and getting those details right. I was an animator on Soul and a part of our internal culture trust so that really allowed not only us but other African American artists at Pixar to get together and share with Pete and Kemp what our life experiences were. Like going to the barbershop and growing up with aunts or having a mother like Libba Gardner. I think that’s critical. At Pixar, we strive for authenticity and the heart. If we do our job right that will be felt by many.
Kristen: Sometimes the actors have a big influence on the performance of the characters so just knowing who the voice actor is going to be, helps you create the character and what their performance and acting is. It can definitely influence your storyboards in the beginning when you first come on and go “oh this person is like Jamie Foxx that means he’s gonna act this way” so it helps in that sense.
Soul is set these never-seen-before realms (the Before world and the Beyond) and then there’s the familiar New York with all its local colour. What was it like fleshing out these distinct landscapes?
Kristen: There were a lot of really rough sketches done on paper napkins and pieces of paper. We were like “How does this world work and what is its orientation with regards to us and how do you get from A to B. There was a lot of making it up as we went along.
Aphton: That was something we spent a lot of time trying to make sure that we had a good amount of both. There were some screenings were there was a lot of the soul world and in others, it was like there’s a lot of New York. Just trying to find that perfect middle ground took a lot of time and precision but we I think hit the sweet spot. I think it’s so interesting because they both have two different tones and finding ways to keep them both alive and just as entertaining. Once you get to the soul world, there’s so much going on and how do you make that just as fun as NY, what’s the best part of being back down there again? It was fun to explore.
Jude: For every film and setting, the goal is always to make it feel believable and authentic so we definitely started in a place of doing our homework. — For cars, road trips were taken across America and Coco, trips to Mexico and for Soul a lot of us went to New York, the jazz clubs and walked the streets of NY. Pete, Kemp and Dana went to schools. We say this a lot but research is done to make sure we aren’t just making things up and taking the truth from life and then stylizing it in a way that serves the story.
How much has Pixar evolved over the years and what does a regular day at the studio look like?
Bobby: Well, I will say that those early films like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, a lot of us didn’t have a lot of experience at the time so we didn’t have a lot the technical craft knowledge. We were figuring that out but what we gained and what we have is that we always try to come from a unique perspective in terms of the acting. We weren’t trying to act like someone else, we were trying to act — how we saw the performance and the world around us. So while the craft of it has evolved over the years, we have the best animators, I’d argue anywhere on the planet. Especially the thing that hasn’t changed is that we all come from this very unique place in terms of research and this thoughtfulness.
Kristen: You go to work, you get a handout and you go “this is great, it’s awesome, I’ll get right to work” and then you go and immediately get a coffee and don’t do any work because your brain is taking time to think and process all of the things you’re trying to put into the movie, that just means it looks like you’re not working but you actually are, at least that’s how it looks I hope hehe. When I see people standing around and having coffee I’m like their just thinking.
Soul premieres this Christmas on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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Cover artwork: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India