Karen Moltenbrey
February 18, 2021


Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-aged middle school band teacher who is passionate about jazz. All his life he has dreamed of a career as a professional jazz pianist, and he’s had numerous shots at a stage career, but his kindheartedness always thwarted those opportunities – whether it was helping a friend or assisting his mother. But he never gave up on that dream. And then, out of the blue, he is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with one of the greats. He is determined that this time, nothing is going to stop him.
He gets the gig, and is elated. On cloud nine, Joe shimmies and sashays down the streets of busy New York City with an obvious spring in his step. His lifelong dream has come true: He will be playing alongside jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). A misstep on the street into an open manhole makes that dream (and Joe) short-lived, as Joe finds himself on a moving staircase heading toward The Great Beyond (where souls go after they leave a person’s body), only to escape to The Great Before, a strange place where brand-new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before arriving on Earth.

This unique adventure is the basis for Soul, Disney•Pixar’s 23rd animated feature, the fourth directed by Pete Docter, in addition to Monster’s Inc., Up, and Inside Out.

The concept for the film originated more than two decades ago following the birth of Docter’s son – who seemed to have been born with a personality. “It was pretty clear that we’re all born with a very unique, specific sense of who we are,” Docter says.

Thus, everyone in Soul begins with a soul – “and those souls just don’t show up unprepared; they’re trained and given personality and interests [before arriving on Earth],” says Docter of the new souls. Of course, there is a place – The Great Beyond – for old souls, too, like Joe. But he wants no part of this. He wants to return to Earth in time for his long-awaited performance. And a precocious soul named 22 (Tina Fey) might be his ticket to doing just that.

Soul is set in two totally different yet fully realized worlds: Earth, specifically New York City, which is steeped in reality; and the imagined celestial world of The Great Before. Everything about each world is unique and specific to that realm: the aesthetic, the character designs, even the music. The dichotomy creates a rich tapestry of characters that are uniquely connected and yet worlds apart.

Joe is the first Black lead character in a Pixar film, and Soul is the first Pixar film with a predominantly Black cast. “There is so much to Black culture and my upbringing that I just wanted to fit it all into this film, and being able to do that honorably and responsibly was a blast,” says Pixar’s MontaQue Ruffin, an African-American animator. “We tried to capture this feeling of when you walk into a barbershop or when you walk into a tailor shop or are walking in the shoes of Joe Gardner – the details, the mannerisms.”

Approximately half the film occurs on Earth, where artists used a realistic style – with a rich, vibrant feel – for the characters, environments, and so forth.

Cultural Influences
Work on the film began approximately four and a half years ago, “when the world was different” than today. Throughout, Pixar received advice from a number of cultural advisors, including a group within the company, Ruffin being one of them, as well as those outside, along with music teachers and working jazz musicians – all in an effort to make sure the story was authentic. And Co-director Kemp Powers, also a writer on the film, drew from his own experiences.

“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 one. We also went to New York for research trips, visiting a public school in Queens, since that’s where Joe teaches in the film,” Kemp says. “Of course, we had to visit a bunch of [jazz] clubs in Manhattan.”

Because the film had to transcend one person’s life, Powers stressed that his experiences alone do not represent those of every Black person – thus the need for the consultants throughout the entire filmmaking process, from development to completion.

It was apparent that the main character would be an artist of some type, fed by his passion. The filmmakers settled on a musician, and that evolved into a jazz musician – so it was only fitting that the character would be African-American.

While jazz did not originate in NYC, this highly recognizable city has a rich jazz history. “But it’s not just about the music,” says Powers, who grew up in the city. “It’s about the dynamism of that world. Soul is a story about the meaning of life and the connections we make with each other. In New York, people are literally bumping up against one another. Diversity is visually evident on every single street. There’s no place quite like it.”

Yet, the human world depicted in the film had to be authentic to the New York City experience: solid, physical, and reflective, with lots of color, says Steve Pilcher, production designer. “It’s very tactile, with a history of wear and tear. Buildings, railings, and pavement are weathered or bleached. Nothing’s really perfect in this world. It’s very organic and interesting,” he explains. “There’s texture and tons of variety, color variation, weather conditions, wet and dry surfaces; all that beauty we take for granted becomes evident, particularly once you’ve been in The Great Before, where everything is based on almost perfect symmetry.” 

Hitting the Right Note
Once it was determined that the main character was a musician, the filmmakers knew that music would be an essential part of this film. Just as there were cultural consultants, there were musical consultants too. Nevertheless, Soul is not a full-blown musical, as the story, which is grounded, was not a fit for that genre.

The two worlds of Soul have two distinct styles of music that help shape and define each. Singer, composer, songwriter, band leader, and jazz genius Jon Batiste (pianist from The Colbert Show) produced the jazz compositions and arrangements that amplifies the gritty New York City side of the film.

Because Pixar was animating a film whose primary focus was on playing jazz music, it was vital to get the notes correct. “When you see Joe’s hands playing [the piano] in the film, that’s Jon’s playing,” says Producer Dana Murray. “Our animators studied reference footage of Jon at the piano to capture details of how he plays – everything from how his fingers move to the breaths he takes.”

The hand motion was extremely nuanced but very important to Pixar. “It’s one of those things that goes back to Pixar’s roots,” says Animation Supervisor Bobby Podesta. “We make films that are accessible to everybody and want the whole world to appreciate, but we also know that there will be people who are experts in whatever it is.” For instance, the filmmakers focused on a lot of details while making Cars, knowing that car aficionados would notice otherwise. The same holds true for the guitar playing in Coco.

“Not everyone will get it, and we could have faked it, but we would know. And they would know,” says Podesta.

Joe’s hand motion is all keyframed; no motion capture was used. “If you’ve ever watched Jon Batiste play piano, it’s extreme fast. He’s a virtuoso,” comments Podesta. So, for the piano playing especially, the animators imported MIDI data; the keys would light up, so [the animators] could determine which keys were being hit at a certain time. They then interpreted that by hand, moving each finger on the character accordingly.

While Batiste provided the music for scenes in NYC, it was Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails who took on the ethereal notes from the soul world. “Their music is so different [from that of Batiste] yet somehow is perfectly matched for the film,” says Murray.

The music here is further differentiated in the various realms: The Great Beyond (for deceased souls), The Great Before (for unborn souls), The Astral Plane (a mystic place near The Great Before); there are also specific locales such as The You Seminar (where a soul’s life summary is laid bare) and the Hall of Everything (where souls go to interact with possible interests). The realms each have their own identity in terms of sound as well as aesthetic.

Unlike the realistic aesthetic of Earth, The Great Before is an abstract, illusionary world crafted entirely from the artists’ imaginations.

While filmmakers were able to tap into real life when it came to the New York City scenes, The Great Before (and The Great Beyond) had to be created from scratch. This ethereal world has a kind of softness to it, thanks in some degree to motion blur.

“It is a very pastel palette, somewhat desaturated. We wanted to make sure the souls fit perfectly without getting lost, so they are a little brighter,” says Steve Pilcher, production designer. For instance, “we bleached the color in the Hall of Everything. Everything there is recognizable, but there’s no color in it unless you interact with [an object].”

Meanwhile, for The You Seminar, artists and Docter built a world that is totally new, albeit deceptively simple, with big, bold shapes and abstract buildings.

Soul Mates
At The Great Before, Joe finds himself in the midst of an ethereal array of inhabitants who are formed from the creative minds of the artists, including new souls who have not yet lived, mentors who once lived, and counselors there to assist.

But, how do you visualize a soul, which is essentially air? With a lot of R&D, imagination, art, and technology. In the film, new souls are cartoon-like, cute, and appealing, with simple, rounded shapes; they are underdeveloped, with no distinguishing features yet. Because they have never lived on Earth, they have no concept of gravity, so they tend to float and sometimes fly.

And then, “How do you animate characters that break physics, or how do you create a 2D look in a 3D world?” Podesta asks rhetorically.

Since these purple-eyed new souls are in the process of being formed physically as well as in essence of being – personality (acquired at the various Personality Pavilions), passions, and traits – their models are evolving as they prepare for their trip to Earth. As a result, they have recognizable limbs that can appear and disappear, and facial features that can move anywhere on the face, but more importantly, which gave them the ability to emote.

Soft, foggy, and vaporous, the souls have a somewhat translucent form, with a gradation of prism-like color, with warm light passing through one side and cooler light on the shadow side. TDs set up a system within Pixar’s Presto that automatically lined the edges that mattered while ignoring those that didn’t, with a tapered brushstroke-like line on every frame. This further defined all the articulation of the characters, as hazy--edged facial lines helped anchor the eyes and mouth in what are somewhat muted facial features.

“Our cross-department collaboration also ensured we were able to build rigs that could hit those really big, graphic, appealing mouth shapes and expressions we saw in the art, with control and flexibility to craft the silhouette into straight lines or sweeping curves, and push and pull the body into beautiful lines of action. This gave animators the power to pose and animate soul characters in clear, appealing, and entertaining ways,” says Jude Brownbill, animation supervisor.

As character modeler and articulation artist Jonathan Page points out, achieving the volumetric look was hard because the souls contain a shading treatment built within SideFX’s Houdini in which they have some depth and also a kind of penumbra around them, along with a multi-color treatment. “Getting that look right using the volumetric shading approach was difficult,” he says. A separate shading treatment was used for the characters’ eyes.

The animators were further challenged when it came to the articulation for features that appear and disappear at random – a hand will appear and then disappear, or will transform from a mitten-like appendage to one with digits.

Lost Soul
Among these new souls is 22, who doesn’t quite comprehend the appeal of the human experience. Indeed, many new souls need help in finding a special spark for their trip to Earth. Assisting them are mentors, extraordinary folks who once lived and are meant to inspire, people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Archimedes, Mother Teresa, and more. This mentorship has always worked for every new soul – with the exception of 22.

Even hundreds of years at The You Seminary failed to yield any result. So Joe becomes 22’s mentor, charged with showing her why life is worth living, and she gets to visit Earth temporarily with Joe as her guide.

Unlike the barely formed new souls, mentors have lived on Earth, appearing as an abstract of how they saw themselves on Earth, with unique, distinguishing features and accessories that make them recognizable to the audience. They also have experienced gravity and walk accordingly, even though it is unnecessary to do in this realm. On Earth, Joe identified with his hat and glasses, which he wears in this new realm.

Line Drawing
Even more unusual than the new souls are the counselors, ubiquitous characters that are kind of a 2D construct but also inhabit 3D space, formed out of a three-dimensional line. All named Jerry, these higher--dimensional entities make sure The Great Before runs like clockwork. They are cheery, optimistic, patient, and enthusiastic, serving as camp counselors of sorts to the new souls in the very chaotic environment of The You Seminar. Similarly configured Terry maintains the accurate count for The Great Beyond; when Joe flees, Terry tracks him to the ends of the earth to restore the count.)

The counselors describe themselves as “the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend and getting their forms mostly right,” says Podesta.

Page, however, describes them in more precise terms: “They had to be 3D objects, even though for the most part they appear kind of as 2D shapes – kind of a 2D construct that also inhabits a 3D space.” They emit light; they interact with the world around them.

The artists grew inspiration for these characters from Swedish sculpture, nature, and even light. Then, the art department began exploring and drawing forms until they had somewhat of a recognizable character that was malleable enough to be almost anything. The form they settled on was simplistic: a line. “Not just any line, though,” Podesta points out. “We’re talking about a living line.”

Modelers at Pixar started out by creating 3D wire sculptures, as animators evaluated how the characters could take shape, viewing them from different angles and dimensions with different expressions and in different forms. Then the animators began exploring shapes, expressions, movements, and transitions.

As Podesta points out, the animators didn’t just animate a model, they animated a design. “The characters captured that sense of a living line, a piece of art in a form that is understandable yet still ethereal,” he says. “To achieve the sense of design within the animation, our animators had to pull from their backgrounds as artists to craft a visually stunning performance.”

An entire style language had to be devised from scratch, and then it had to be consistent – which is more difficult than it might seem. “You might think that a line looks like the easiest thing in the world to animate, but the technology behind creating these counselors is mindboggling. There’s a lot of layers,” Podesta says. “The counselors are one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever animated at Pixar.”

Because the counselors were living lines, their shape could be literally anything. Animation had to hit whatever shape they needed and have enough controls so arms could appear at different points – and blend eyes, a nose, and a mouth in a very simple line, always maintaining a smooth line, Page says. In fact, animators could control every point if they wanted to, and move those points around.

Initially, the group looked at a spline-based solution akin to what was used for Hank’s tentacles in Finding Dory, but found that too complex for what was needed here, so they used a NURBS curve. So while the control points the animators were choosing were a bit offset from the final curve, a baseline was always maintained.

“In each of those characters, it’s just a curve with about 310 to 330 control points [animators] could use to pose [the character]. Some of those control points could turn into an arm. We have controls in there that could tag the parts of the line to indicate an arm right now, or a hand, or an eye. And they would have the kind of standard arm control with elbows, or they could treat it just as a simple line,” Page explains. “In some instances, they could take each one of those control points and just pose it by hand to make a specific shape. They’re just taking a line with a lot of points, but we had systems whereby they could go from the super-complex to the very simple, and from a more standard rigged character to just a single line.”

Then, procedurally within Houdini, the team would create surfaces to the camera, and determine which of those surfaces they were using to cut out of a bigger surface, or which were shaded. It was all done per frame, with a kind of tagging on the line, Page notes.

“For instance, when one of the counselors laughs, the whole body wiggles. It changes form and then pops back into shape,” says Podesta, although the process was very labor-intensive.

There is a model underneath the form so that animators could identify the head, the arm, the torso, and so forth. On top of the model, though, animators were manipulating the lines.

Podesta believes the counselors are characters unlike anything seen before in film. Nevertheless, the performance had to resonate as familiar, authentic, especially with the realistic animation outside of The Great Before. “At first, we didn’t know how we were going to accomplish this, but we knew we must,” he says. “All along this unique journey, the art was challenging the technology, and the technology was inspiring the art.”

Page concurs, noting that in terms of character modeling, the crew at Pixar “did things within shading and volumetrics, and within Houdini for the characters, that we had not done before. And for the counselors in animation, that was an entirely new process for animation to interact with the 3D model in a kind of free-form link from a line to a character.”

The End, or Rather, the Beginning
In Soul, Joe finds himself on an eye-opening journey – one that he didn’t expect to take. “Joe Gardner is all of us,” says 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?”

So, for those who think Soul is about life and death, they are incorrect. “It’s about finding that thing that makes life worth living,” says Murray.

It’s also about a person’s inner drive. “No matter how far we’ve come, we sometimes wonder about greener grass. We’re always pushing,” says Co-screenwriter Mike Jones. “There’s always that drive in an artist to create something, to never be satisfied.”

As Docter points out, 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,” Docter says. “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.”