Soul has been the most anticipated animated film of the year for more reasons than one. For starters, it features the first-ever black lead character in a Pixar film, it has a stellar voice cast led by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey and it comes from the studio behind Inside Out. What director Pete Docter, co-director Kemp Powers and producer Dana Murray have created is perhaps Pixar’s most mature kid-friendly film. Dropping in with a Christmas packaging just in time for the holidays, Soul is an ambitious, jazz-filled exploration of the meaning and joys of life. And it doesn’t hesitate to go existential in its search. To set up the stage, the film takes us into never-seen-before realms, the kind that will leave you with tonnes of questions, like how the hell did they come up with that? In a press conference ahead of the film’s release, I had the chance to ask the filmmakers about the worldbuilding process of Soul.
Soul begins with Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist and high-school music teacher making his way to an important gig audition. Minutes after he aces the audition, he steps into a busy New York City street and falls into a manhole. Before he knows it, his soul form is in a queue moving towards the great beyond. In an attempt to get back to his body, he lands up in another realm called the “Before” world. It’s a bare yet lush meadow-like environment populated by tiny souls that are basically blueish blobs governed by Jerry (characters made of hand-drawn lines who run the place). This is where souls get their personalities before they are born on Earth. Now, not many films or tradition talk about the before life so when asked how the concept of the Before world came about, Pete Docter explained, “Yeah, we were lucky that way because as we looked around, as you say, not many traditions, religions, whatnot, talk about a before life. So we thought, ‘Well, all right, what’s that gonna be like?’ This is where we get our personalities, our interests, you know, so things like what makes me outgoing, or shy or all those kinda things are given to you there. We eventually came around to [something] like a world’s fair. We wanted it to be very non-specific in terms of culture, so if you look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s Greek, or Italian, or Chinese,’ that would be wrong because souls, we are saying in the film, come to Earth as a blank slate in that sense, that your culture is something that you learn and grow into.”
He added, “So, we were looking for something simple, geometric. Like I say, we looked at some photos of the World’s Fair from the ‘30s all through the ‘60s which were a great influence as well. This was largely the art department playing around and then in concert with our technical group to make these places. We were hoping that the buildings themselves would warp when a character goes in there, it moves, it mutates in some way that infers that it gives something to the soul. So, when you see it, you can see the characters moving, and then it sort of unwraps, and then the character comes out. Now they have outgoingness perhaps.”
Kemp Powers further explained, “One of the things I really liked the most is that even the newb souls, we call them newbs, as simple as they are, there’s a whole story in that. Like, you might not have even noticed, but all the newb souls have purple eyes because it was really important that since this is before life, their eyes are represented in a uniform colour that doesn’t happen in real life, whereas when the counsellors, the mentors, show up, they actually have the eye colour that they had in life, so Joe has brown eyes. Someone who had blue eyes would have blue eyes if they come back as a mentor, but all the newbs are universally purple to represent that blank slate nature of it, and I love those, even on something that seems on the surface so simple, that there’s that level of thought and detail that goes into it.”
The trippy worlds of Soul are interesting backdrops for its characters to look at life from distinct approaches. Through them, the film takes on some heavy subjects and the animation goes experimental to convey those subjects. The most abstract concepts are cleverly broken down in the visual storytelling in a way I’ve never witnessed. And that is, in my opinion, one of the biggest feats of the film.
Soul premieres on Disney+ Hotstar Premium on December 25, 2020.
Check out our Mash-o-Meter review here:
Cover artwork: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India