Interviews Movies

Breathing Life Into Pixar’s Soul – An Interview With Pete Docter & Kemp Powers

What is it that makes you…YOU? Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new feature film Soul introduces Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) – a middle-school band teacher who has a passion for jazz. Joe wants more than anything to become a professional jazz pianist. So when he’s offered a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with one of the greats, Joe feels he’s reached the top of the ultimate mountain.

But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.

Joe Gardner, however, doesn’t feel like he belongs in this land of new souls. Determined to return to his life, he teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience because sometimes souls have a little bit of trouble finding that special spark to earn their way to Earth.

Set in the fast-paced and jazz-centric New York City and the abstract illusionary world of The Great Before, Soul capitalizes on the contrasts between the big city and the cosmic realm. But it’s the contrast between Joe’s confident passion and 22’s trepidation that tells this particular story.

The Koalition spoke with director Pete Docter and co-director/writer Kemp Powers about Soul, the importance message of the film, its unique design and becoming the first-ever Pixar film with a Black lead.

“Even as a kid, I loved animation. I’ve wanted to be animator my whole life. And while I was a kid, while my friends were out playing soccer or going on dates, I was actually in my room, making animated cartoons. I was so into it that I found and then went to a school started by Walt Disney. Uh, I was lucky enough to start at Pixar in 1990, uh, where I helped create Toy Story. I got to direct Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out,” Docter stated.

“I really felt like making animated films was what I was born to do, and yet, there are some days I find myself wondering, ‘Gee, really, cartoons? Is this, uh, what I’m supposed to be doing with my limited time on Earth?’ and on darker days I actually wonder, ‘Is there any point to it?’; I mean, especially in these times. If I had a choice, would I decide to go be born and come live?”

“And so, that’s the cornerstone of our story, a soul that doesn’t want to live, looks down on Earth with skepticism, and says, ‘Is all that living really worth it down there?’; And to convince this soul that it is, we thought, well, let’s bring in a character, who has already lived, to show what’s so great about life. So, the basic concept of the film was formed, a soul who doesn’t want to go live meets a soul who doesn’t want to die. But if we were going to make a film about souls, our first problem was ‘what does a soul look like?'”

“We did a lot of research, looking into the teachings, the many philosophies and traditions around the world, and what we found most was people described the soul as vapor, nonphysical, formless, breath, air. All very interesting, but not very helpful because how do you draw air?”

So the Pixar team got together and found Aerogel, the lightest solid material on Earth, used by the aerospace industry. Thus, sparke the idea of what a soul might look like. This airy-light design is what visually separates their films from others. And from a practical design aspect it causes the viewer to focus on a soul’s facial expressions and attitudes instead.

“Yeah, we really thought the eyes and faces and the expressions made them more appealing and see what they were able to see, what they were thinking, which is crucial for animation,” Docter continued.

Through this process Pixar developed a new technique where they created simple lines around the edges that could better define the look of the character while not diminishing the effect of the aerospace look of the design. And after months of retooling the finally found their soul characters.

“But that was only half of our story because to convince 22 life was worth it, we realized a lot of our film needed to be about Joe’s life on Earth. We needed something Joe could do that showed the promise of life, something we could film that we’d all root for, and we thought, ‘what if Joe were, I don’t know, an animator?’ Well, it might be too inside baseball. ‘What if he’s a-a scientist or a businessman or…?’

“And then almost by fate we found this video which was from an online master class by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, [and] when we heard that we thought, not only ‘What a great story’; but ‘What a perfect metaphor for life: what we are given and what we do with it’; and we thought jazz is really the perfect representation. So Joe has to be a jazz musician.”

It was at that moment the team knew music would just be an essential to Soul and partnered with Jon Batiste to compose all the original jazz music for the score, and then for the soul world they teamed with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails.

Two polar opposite sounds, for two polar opposite world that perfectly matched to make a wonderful film.

“If our main character plays jazz or, as one of our consultants Dr. Johnnetta Cole calls it, ‘black improvisational music,’; we felt our main character needed to be black. And to help us find Joe, they sought Kemp Powers, the acclaimed screenwriter and playwright who came onto the project two years ago when the Soul was still in the developmental stages.”

“Joe was a character who needed a lot of fleshing out. Thankfully, Joe the character and I had a lot in common, and I realized in many ways Joe was me, so I was able to use a lot of my own personal experiences to inform writing the character. In terms of how similar we are. He’s 45. What a coincidence. I’m also in my mid-40s. Joe lives in New York, which is my hometown, though Joe is from Queens and I’m from Brooklyn, and all Brooklynites know Brooklyn is better,” said Kemp.

“Joe is a musician, and coincidentally I used to be a music critic and a musician myself. My son is even named after the late great, jazz great, um, Charles Mingus. So [it] really came naturally. We had lots of meetings and discussions about Joe, where he grew up, the important people in his life, what made him tick, and then I reached into my own past and my own life experiences and put that down on paper.”

“One place I spent a lot of time before the pandemic was the barbershop. So, we took our crew there so they could see and feel what it was really like to be in a barbershop. We also went to New York for research trips. One place we visited was a public school in Queens, New York, since that’s where Joe is the teacher in the film, and while we were there we met Dr. Peter Archer [PH], an amazingly passionate middle-school jazz band teacher. And since Joe plays in a New York jazz club, at least that’s his aspiration, we just had to visit a bunch of clubs in Manhattan, [which] was a really great experience as well.

Unlike other films, Soul has to display someone’s life and beyond. What makes Joe tick? What makes Joe the way he is? Who are the people around him and what influences they have in his life. Which is why it was important for the film to explore the Black experience. To accomplish this, Soul had numerous consultants working on this film throughout its entire process.

“They were part of the development the entire time. And then to make sure that our representation was as genuine as possible, we also turned to tons of experts outside of Pixar, including many music teachers and working jazz musicians from New York City and right here in Emeryville. Bradford Young, the incredible cinematographer. Even Ahmir Questlove Thompson and Daveed Diggs, while two of the performers in the film, also served as cultural consultants.”

As they worked together to craft Soul, there was a team that helped write the film by drawing; which is the magic of Pixar Animation. The way Pixar write their films is through visuals and the written word.

“We had a group of artists whose job it was to help us write the film by drawing. So, as we’re doing all of that, we’re also working with as a group to design our characters and environments. The story artists, are just guessing at all this at the time. They’re also doing writing and cinematography, but they’re also working on design,” said Docter.

As art imitated life, just like Joe’s they were always pushing for a better design, a better plot because that drive in an artist is to create something, to never be satisfied.

“I’ve been so lucky to work with some incredible people and make movies that have been seen around the world,” Docter continues. “But I realized as wonderful as these projects are, there’s more to living than a singular passion—as expressive and fulfilling as that may be. Sometimes the small insignificant things are what it’s really about. Almost any moment in our lives could be a transcendental moment that defines why we’re here. This film is about broadening the idea of a singular focus to thinking more widely about what life has to offer and what we have to offer life.”

Pixar’s Soul will release on December 25th on Disney+.

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