Disney+ adds a little soul to their inventory come December 25, 2020. From the minds of Pixar Animation Studios, Soul is a music-filled, animated wonder bound to hit the hearts of adults and children alike.
The Walt Disney Company invited us for a press breakdown on how Soul was made and what to expect on-screen this holiday season. In Part I of our exploration into Disney quarters, The Knockturnal explores how a complex concept became the next animated fantastical sensation.
From barbershop clippers to cabaret pianos—animators envelope the creative and sonic spirit of New York City with a twist of existentialism. Protagonist Joe Gardner (Jamie Fox) is a band teacher who aspires to tour jazz venues professionally. The chase towards his dreams gets a little detour, when he accidentally ends up in a celestial place called “The Great Before”—where souls are personalized before being assigned to a human on earth. There he meets the one soul, dubbed 22 (Tina Fey), who doesn’t want to be human. Joe must convince 22 why being a human is so great.
“Soul investigates what’s really important in our lives, a question we’re all asking these days,” said Pete Docter, the film’s director and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer. “I hope it will bring some humor and fun to people at a time when everyone can surely use that.”
“Joe Gardner is all of us,” said co-director and writer Kemp Powers. “I think anyone can empathize with this idea of questioning whether they’re doing what they’re meant to be doing. At what point do I give up on this thing I’ve been pursuing for so long?”
Typically, animated films require strong technical dexterity to appease the eye. However, Soul asked even more of artists with the uncanny need for a beyond well-rounded concept—backed up both physically and philosophically. The brainchild is a symbiotic relationship between the two that started with a deep dive into an examination of life itself.
Joe’s mundane daily routine is disturbed by his thirst to actualize his lifetime dreams and the universe’s unpredictability. In short, “a soul who doesn’t wanna live meets a soul who doesn’t wanna die,” said Docter. In this way, Soul provokes a conversation on joie de vivre and mortality. Much like Docter’s alma maters Up and Inside Out, the feature engulfs the human condition and spits out a relatable and simplified portrayal. We asked filmmakers for the key to this signature ingenuity.
“If you show [viewers] and you can create the meaning visually—which is of course what we strive to do on all of our films at Pixar—then I think you get it, you know,” said Docter. “Both in visuals and of course make it emotional…If there is a secret, that would be my answer.”
Both Docter and Powers also added the clarification that Soul is not a sequel of Inside Out—a rumor they have heard continuously.
Though not a religious film, filmmakers looked towards several world religions to establish a baseline for how a “soul” would be and what it would look like. According to Docter, the commonalities suggested 22 and friends would be “vaporous, non-physical, formless, breath, air.” Now the challenge would be to visualize such a thing. Producer Dana Murray joined Docter in researching ways to do so.
Murray noted that the crew was directed towards aerogel, one of Earth’s lightest known solids and a semi-transparent insulation method used in the aerospace industry. “But we still felt we need more humanity, like clear facial features we could recognize with expressions and attitudes,” said Murray. Docter then drew a defined face, eyes, and other facial features on the computer-rendered mockup of souls. Too ghostlike! So they tried a never-before-done technique to add color, and shaped the body with defined lines and edges. Months later, they formed the perfect animated representation of humankind as ethereal.
MUSIC AS THE HEART AND SOUL
Next, the concept of Earth had to be surrounded by Joe’s will to live on it—meaning he needed a purpose. After going through different ideas, filmmakers were directed towards an online video of a Herbie Hancock Masterclass. In it, the jazz legend recalls himself messing up during a Miles Davis set and Davis improvising in return. Filmmakers gained inspiration from that go-with-the-flow ability found in jazz music. And their character Joe would be both a literal and metaphorical representation of that.
Bring on the music consultants! Filmmakers stocked their team with a ton of living icons in music: pianist Jon Batiste from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Hancock, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails, Roy Haynes who was a jazz drummer for Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, and more.
“As an innately musical person, I find myself constantly listening to and analyzing my environment through the context of music, even when not performing,” Baptiste said. “Joe has this quality as well. Joe eventually learns that there is more to life than music.” What we play is life, and we have to relish life in order for it to come out of the instrument.”
A CHARACTER FOR THE CULTURE
One expert, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, dropped that jazz was “Black improvisational music.” Filmmakers then worked to ensure that their protagonist was Black and Black culture was accurately portrayed through Joe. African-American Pixar employees joined forces as an internal cultural trust attesting to the authenticity of the representation—as well later in production and cinematography.
When Brooklyn screenwriter Powers joined directing and writing, he noticed “Joe was a character who needed a lot of fleshing out.” What Powers had imagined Joe as was a version of himself, and he reflected that. Joe became a 45-year-old Queens native with Powers’ level of jazz fanaticism. Though Joe doesn’t have a son that he can name after jazz legends like Powers. “I reached into my own past and life experiences and tried to put that down on paper. [But] it was very important that the film transcended any one person’s life.” The crew followed Powers’ lifestyle into the classic New York barbershop, several jazz clubs, and other city motifs.
Voice actors Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and The Roots’ Questlove also advised the crew. “It’s funny because Daveed Diggs was actually a consultant before…his character existed,” said Powers.
Filmmakers also gathered in a public school in Queens, where they added a cultural consultant from. Dr. Peter Archer is a real-life jazz band teacher for middle school students. Powers described Archer as “amazingly passionate” about music which is what filmmakers wanted Joe to be.
And there you have it! Joe Gardner became an animated Black band teacher with a love of jazz and a lust for life. Stay tuned for Part II of our coverage where we get into the worlds of Earth and The Great Before, the musical hints throughout the film, what it was like snagging voice actors Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Angela Bassett, and Daveed Diggs.
For now, check out the trailer below.