Soul searching: Could Pixar's latest feature signal a new direction for the studio?
With Pixar's first film with a predominantly Black voice cast, the studio's chief creative officer says more diverse stories are in the works.
Kemp Powers, a writer and co-director on Pixar's Soul, believes in the old adage that "everything happens for a reason." His animated film, jointly helmed by Inside Out's Pete Docter, was supposed to be released in theaters this past June before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Hollywood studios to postpone virtually all of their premieres. It was delayed to Nov. 20, still in theaters."For some reason," Powers says, "I know that my entire family is really looking forward to gathering around the Thanksgiving holiday and taking in this film." (This, of course, was before the film ultimately moved to Disney+ for release on Dec. 25.)
A cosmic adventure about a jazz musician's spirit being separated from his body, Soul certainly feels like the kind of uplifting, sentimental story to replenish our hearts after months of quarantines. But the project, five years in the making, also arrives at a different kind of turning point for the American populace. At a time when the industry at large rethinks how it has represented people of color on screen, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement's continued fight against systemic racism, Soul marks the first feature-length Pixar film to highlight a predominantly Black voice cast, with Jamie Foxx in the lead.
During a virtual preview presentation of Soul for press in September, Docter, who also serves as the chief creative officer at Pixar after the ousting of John Lasseter, addressed how it has taken Pixar so long to invest in a story like this. "It's been way too long, and I don't know that we really have a good answer," he says. "We're always looking to reflect as much of the world out there as we can, and we're happy that it's finally happened, that we are representing a part of the population that just hasn't had as much voice in our films up to now."
It's an opportunity, even after 2017's Coco became Pixar's first title with a largely Latino cast, that may have larger ripple effects as the studio maps out its slate of upcoming titles. For June 18, 2021, Pixar plans to release Luca, helmed by Italian filmmaker Enrico Casarosa, about a sea creature who appears as a human boy and strikes up a friendship with another kid one summer on the Italian Riviera. Beyond that, "There's a lot going on right now," Docter tells EW in an interview. "The things that we've not announced yet, there's a bunch of new directors, all from varying walks of life and different parts of the world. So, that's really exciting and I think it's necessary to be able to continue to surprise people. I think when people go to movies they want to see something that they've never seen, and that's a real key — that is finding new voices. I think it's essential for what we do and what we're already starting to do. I think it's the path we're on right now."
In that same spirit, Soul is unlike anything Pixar's audiences have seen before. That speaks to the creatives who offered their experience to shape the animation, music, and characters.
The story, in its earliest existential form, began as Docter pondered — as banal as it may sound — the meaning of life. Having dedicated his existence to animation, he found himself questioning at times, "Is this what I'm supposed to be doing with my limited time on earth?… If I had a choice, would I decide to go be born and come live [again]?"
In its most basic sense, Soul is about what happens when "a soul who doesn't want to go live meets a soul who doesn't want to die," the filmmaker said during the press presentation.
Foxx voices Joe, the soul who definitely wants to live. He's a middle-school band teacher in Queens, New York who finally gets his big break as a pianist performing alongside a noted jazz musician (Phylicia Rashad). But after his audition, he takes a near-fatal spill down a manhole and his soul ends up on a celestial staircase heading towards the Great Beyond. In a frantic attempt to return to his body, he takes a tumble through the cosmos and ends up at the You Seminar, a place where souls receive their personalities before merging with human bodies on earth. It's here where Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a jaded spirit who's never been on earth and looks down on human life with a great deal of skepticism. These two opposites are thrust together when they both accidentally tumble down the portal to earth. New imagery for the film hints that one ends up in Joe's body and the other ends up, it appears, in the body of a cat.
Docter and producer Dana Murray gave Joe many different hats before deciding he would be a struggling musician in the context of the film. "What if Joe were, I don't know, an animator? Well, it might be too inside baseball [for audiences]," Docter says. "What if he's a scientist or a businessman?" Then they found a video of jazz icon Herbie Hancock recalling one concert where he performed with trumpeter Miles Davis and thought he "had just destroyed everything" when he played an unexpected chord. "I judged what I had played. Miles didn't," Hancock says in the video. "Miles just accepted it as something new that happened. And he did what any jazz musician should always try to do and that is try to make anything that happens into something of value."
Joe didn't fully form as a character until Pixar tapped Powers, a writer on Star Trek: Discovery. (He also adapted his own play for Regina King's upcoming feature directorial debut One Night in Miami.) The Brooklyn-born Powers poured much of himself into the character, including setting Joe as a musician in NYC in his mid-40s. "And then," he says, "I reached into my own past and my own life experiences and put that down on paper."
Many voices, both inside and outside Pixar, shaped the course of Soul to ensure it was an authentically Black story. The studio established the Pixar Cultural Trust, a group of largely Black employees inside Pixar, including Soul story artist Michael Yates and animator Montaque Ruffin. It's a similar experience to how Pixar utilized Latino creatives to offer input on Coco. The goal with the Cultural Trust was to ensure the representation would be as genuine as possible, from offering notes to the story team to working with animators to properly render Black skin tones on screen.
"This wasn't a rubber-stamping situation," Powers notes. "They were part of the development the entire time."
Voices from outside Pixar ranged from Soul voice actors Daveed Diggs and Questlove; to Jon Batiste, the pianist for The Late Show who wrote and recorded portions of the film's musical score; to Arrival's Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young. Similar to how Roger Deakins advised on Wall-E, Young "contributed a lot to the look of this film, particularly the stuff that takes place on earth," Powers says. "This is the first film not just with a Black protagonist, but there's a whole range of different Black characters with different skin tones. There was a large learning curve, I think, for our lighting team, and Bradford came in and consulted with them on a number of occasions."
The results are truly dazzling to behold. While Soul maintains a signature Pixar style of animation, it also experiments with a different visual vocabulary. One striking sequence sees Joe's soul falling off the staircase to the Great Beyond as the animation breaks from its previously established aesthetic and becomes a more 2D black-and-white experience. This particular moment, Docter says, hails from Trevor Jimenez, the film's story supervisor.
Many entities of "the Great Before" — where souls exist before heading to earth — also maintain their own distinct features.
There are the Counselors, which are manifestations of the universe dumbing itself down so that feeble human minds can comprehend them. Taking inspiration from 3D wire sculptures, the animators came up with the idea that these entities would look like living lines. "The animators didn't just animate a model, they animated a design," says animation supervisor Bobby Podesta. "The characters captured that sense of a living line, a piece of art, a form that was understandable, yet ethereal."
For the souls themselves, the team explored many different teachings, religions, and philosophies before finding their inspiration in something called aerogel, the lightest solid material on earth. Its movement and form "seemed to suggest the non-physical stuff our research would talk about, but in a way we could actually put on screen," Murray says.
Powers describes the color of the souls "almost like a very subtle kaleidoscope." No matter what they looked like on earth, what body they inhabited, a soul's light is always comprised of something of all different colors—which, on a more thematic level, was a conscious move on the directors' part.
"We don't choose our parents, we don't choose where we're born, we don't choose our bodies," Docter tells EW. "We don't know why all that is determined, but I'd like to think that inside we're all grappling with very similar things. We wanted to make that visual statement, as well."
For Powers, the cultural specificity of a story like Soul shouldn't be alienating. "I like to say that sometimes being hyper specific allows us to see the universality in all of our experiences," he explains. "I've definitely found that in some of my favorite films and some of my favorite TV shows that are often set very, very specifically in these cultures." Using Coco as an example, he notes how the universal theme of family "shines through" as the film explores the "very culturally specific world of Mexico."
Pixar has found success in balancing common experiences through specific lenses of cultures and communities, notably through the SparkShorts program, a series of short films for the Disney+ streaming platform that were made by Pixar creatives who hadn't yet directed feature films for the studio. Out, a short from writer-director Steven Clay Hunter and producer Max Sachar, became the studio's first to include leading gay characters. Float, from writer-producer Bobby Rubio, gave Pixar its first Filipino characters.
"Every success breeds more of it," Powers says as he looks to the future of Pixar's feature-film lineup. "[Soul] brought in a lot of new collaborators, me being one of the newest. I would like to think that the end results show that it was a good experience for everyone so that, going forward, there can be more collaborations like that."