I was not prepared for Disney / Pixar’s upcoming feature film Soul.
The early trailers, though boasting the typically gorgeous visuals one would expect from the sterling house of animation, reminded me too much of their 2015 Oscar-winner Inside Out. Yes, it heralded a giant forward leap in inclusive storytelling with a Black protagonist, but the “other worldly,” soul-based scenes reminded me a great deal of Inside Out‘s visual palate. What new were they bringing to the table with this latest film?
Turns out, my initial reactions were completely off-base.
Co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and team bring a tremendous wealth of new themes and visuals to the Disney / Pixar canon with a screenplay by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones. The short thirty-five minutes of the film we were provided absolutely left me wanting more. Disney / Pixar’s Soul will speak to an entirely new generation of animation lovers with its inclusive perspectives and incredibly detailed renderings of locations we’ve not seen animated quite this way before.
And I can’t wait to see the whole thing. What I did see was truly fantastic.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher with a real passion for jazz music. Thanks to a lucky break, Joe appears to be on his way to achieving his dreams until a freak accident sends him to The Great Before. Joe’s soul must find a way to get back to his body and fulfill his passionate dreams of jazz music. In traditional Disney / Pixar style, the film asks its audience to consider weighty topics such as “What makes a soul?” or “How does a personality evolve?” It’s the opportunity to explore these concepts that drew Pete Docter to the project.
“I will say for me these movies are a real gift because, for the four or five years it takes to make them, they give me a chance to come into work every day and ruminate on a single topic. In this case, that meant thinking about what makes us who we are,” explained director Docter. “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?”
Pixar visualizes these unformed souls in The Great Before in a completely different way than we’ve ever seen. Forget Inside Out. These are structurally and texturally different beings. Through their standard research process, the Soul team knew that typical representations of the soul pointed toward airy, formless beings – not exactly something easy or ambitious to animate. Ironically, a material called aerogel, the lightest solid material on Earth used by the aerospace industry, pointed the animation team toward how they would render their souls.
Early drawings appeared too close to common images of ghosts, so the team explored ways to render the souls in a new way.
“They looked a little bit too much like a ghost to us, so we thought if souls represent the full potential of who we are inside, maybe we could use color to help show that,” producer Dana Murray mentioned. “We also developed a whole new technique we’d never done before. We added line work to help to define the edges that might otherwise be too fuzzy. So then after months and months, we finally had found our Soul characters.”
But the lasting and most surprising beauty of Soul isn’t necessarily within The Great Before. Instead, the world of Queens, New York, renders as one of the most lovingly, beautifully recreated visions of New York and its boroughs that I’ve ever seen. It was a necessity for a story led by Joe, a Black jazz musician, and his friends and family.
Screenwriter Kemp Powers delved into his own background and personal experiences to craft a story that could live authentically in this world. Powers and Joe had a great in common. Both are mid-40s Black men from New York boroughs who are jazz musicians. Powers and the production team all visited barbershops and jazz clubs and public schools to achieve that enviable visual and culture authenticity so key to the success of the film.
Powers understood, however, that he could not represent every aspect of the Black experience. To achieve a wealth of expertise, the team engaged a group of cultural consultants in addition to the Black employees working on the film to ensure Soul felt real.
“We went to a group of expert cultural consultants who we relied on to help us make our story look and sound as authentic as possible. People like Doctor Johnnetta Cole; Bradford Young, the famous cinematographer who contributed a great deal with our lighting team to the look of the film; and even Daveed Diggs and Questlove, two of the performers in the film who were also great cultural consultants as far as music. We took all that research and input from our consultants, and then we put it into the script.”
That authentic Black perspective helps make Soul a decidedly unique and welcome entry into the Disney / Pixar canon.
Soul debuts Christmas Day (December 25, 2020) on Disney Plus.