Joe Gardner is an animated middle-school band teacher with a passion for jazz. When he gets a shot at touring professionally with a famous jazz singer, Disney and Pixar Animation Studios turn his life upside down and inside out. Soul drops on Disney+ on Dec. 25, 2020.
The Knockturnal caught an inside glance on how the film was made. In Part, I of our coverage delved into the existentialism theme driving Walt Disney Company filmmakers, and the New York motifs behind protagonist Joe’s background. Now, we take a look at the two worlds balanced between Joe (Jamie Foxx) and his new friend, 22 (Tina Fey).
Soul took about five years to make. It is a collection of multiple geographical settings that filmmakers wanted to have unique visuals for. Choices in color, light, and personality showcase life outside Earth in The Great Before, The Great Beyond, The Astral Plane, and The You Seminar. Plus, animators had to imagine living in them as well as on Earth to discover character’s motivations, facial expressions, and connections to physics.
THE GREAT BEFORE
In Pixar’s animated world, souls exist in a celestial and abstract dimension called “The Great Before,” prior to being assigned a human body. Here, filmmakers draw attention towards identity and purpose. Souls develop their sense of character, while in a uniform physical presence. According to director Pete Docter, the team took on the answers to: “Where did we get our talents, our skills, our personalities, and how are we using them? Given our limited time, are we making the most of our lives, and are we using what we have to leave this place better than it was before we got here?”
The animation team had to establish rules of how an ethereal figure would look and act based on them essentially being pre-Earth. “They’re very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet,” said animator supervisor Jude Brownbill. “Because they’ve never lived on Earth, they have no concept of gravity, so they tend to float about or even fly.”
There new souls go through a series of character-building elements in The Great Before to prepare them for Earth. For example, Personality Pavilions establish the quirks of each soul. Areas like those help fulfill the requirements of The You Seminar that sets the bare minimum souls must attain before they can become human.
A collection of souls who have already experienced life on Earth also inhabit The Great Before. Mentor souls belong to humans after death. “They are an abstraction of how they saw themselves on Earth, each with unique, distinguishing features and accessories,” Brownbill continued. “Because they have experienced gravity on Earth, they walk as if it exists, even though they don’t really need to.”
Counselors are figures who oversee the order of The Great Before. They are all called “Jerry.” “So, with the counselors, we were able to animate characters unlike anything we’ve seen before in film,” said animator supervisor Bobby Podesta. Filmmakers were already accepting the challenge of combining 2D in a 3D world and maneuvering around physics to do so. But Podesta described the counselors as “the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend,” a challenge in itself to visualize. Animators looked towards Swedish sculpture, nature, and light to find a middle ground between living and a malleable ethereal.
In a fated stroll down city streets, Joe is uprooted from earth into The Great Before and assumes a plasmic aesthetic like souls before him. Animators allowed him to keep his signature glasses and hat, like mentor soul souvenirs. He meets soul 22 who has faced difficulties passing The You Seminar. 22 learned about Earth by visiting The Great Before’s Hall of Everything, which has made the soul evolve already. She has teeth, some hair, facial features that travel around her face, and legs that can appear and disappear when she wants.
We initially enter this colorful and optimistic vision of Earth where Joe is excited over the prospect of a career performing jazz all over. So, 22 acts as a total foil once brought to Earth. “A new soul that hasn’t been born yet looks down on Earth with skepticism and says, ‘Is all that living down there really worth it?'” Both frame life in different ways. One is determined to make his life on Earth as fulfilling as possible. One treats the cycle of life as pointless if the Great Before is both the beginning and the end. The director continued, “A soul who doesn’t wanna live meets a soul who doesn’t wanna die.”
Earth brought its own set of needs for filmmakers. Joe is Pixar’s first African-American lead. Animator MontaQue Ruffin experienced making a character that not only looked like him but had details similar to his everyday life. “Sharing with my colleagues what it’s like having aunts like Mary Lou and Melba, and what it’s like growing up going to a Black barbershop was remarkable.”
Elements from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, barbershops, tailors, and New York City became relevant to creating life on Earth. Authenticity was important here, versus The Great Beyond being a world imagined from scratch. “It was equally as challenging to craft a performance that would resonate as familiar, authentic, and more than a little musically specific,” Podesta said.
Joe’s way around a piano also drew great prominence. A pianist’s hands are more technical than the freely moving ligaments of souls. Musician Jon Batiste, who produced the jazz that accompanied the film, acted as a model for animators. “We also recorded video reference of Jon Batiste’s hands as he played the piano, and by having this information not only did it allow us to inspect hand movement and finger articulation, but it also served as a visual roadmap,” said Ruffin, “and by having these resources available to us, it was up to us to animate that performance through Joe Gardner frame by frame.”
The all-star cast also became reference points for filmmakers. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey joined Ahmir Questlove Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, and Richard Ayoade. Brownbill said, “Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx gave us an incredible amount of heart, humor, and fun to reference and emulate, and the animators worked really hard to research Tina, and Jamie, and all our voice artists, making sure to infuse their spirit and specificity in every performance.”
SCREEN AND STREAM
The playful nature of the lead voice actors are captured in Soul. Foxx takes it a step further by bringing his character Joe into real life. He partnered with eyewear brand Privé Revaux to emulate Joe’s glasses. The Disney & Pixar Soul Collection by Privé Revaux retails three blue-light blocking glasses and prescription lens options for fans to wear as they stream.
Soul is available on Disney+ on Dec. 25, 2020.