CS virtual set visit: Pixar/Disney+’s Soul
ComingSoon.net recently got the opportunity to take part in a virtual behind-the-scenes tour of the making of the upcoming Jamie Foxx-starring Pixar fantasy adventure Soul, including a look at the storyboards from early in development, the first 35 minutes of the film, crafting the music and more! Check out some of the early artwork shown during the presentation in the gallery below!
What Was Shown
For the first part of our virtual Soul junket experience, ComingSoon.net was treated to the first 35 minutes of the forthcoming Pixar film, giving us an idea of the general pacing and direction the story is headed as well as introducing us to the worlds of The Great Beyond and The Great Before, ending with a cliffhanger hook that would lead into the real major conflict of the film.
We were then given an opportunity to explore the behind-the-scenes development for the story with co-writers and co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and producer Dana Murray, including Docter’s personal connection to the film’s conception.
“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,” Docter jokingly recalled. “I was so into it that I found and then went to a school started by Walt Disney. 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.
“I really felt like making animated films was what I was born to do, and yet, there are some days that I find myself wondering, ‘Gee, really, cartoons? Is this 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?’” Docter continued. “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 actually 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?’”
The presentation then transitioned from discussing the evolution of the story across Docter, Powers and co-writer Jones’ desks and into the artist’s room, in which the group then had to figure out how to draw the specific material they had in their minds for the appearance of the various souls in the film.
“We found this stuff called Aerogel and it’s the lightest solid material on Earth, and it’s actually used by the aerospace industry, and it seemed to suggest the nonphysical stuff our research would talk about but in a way we could actually put on screen,” Murray explained. “So, with this in mind, we started to explore what a soul might look like, which was not so easy. A lot of different artists at Pixar took a crack at this, and they came up with some very cool, interesting ideas, but we still felt like we needed more humanity, like clear facial features we could recognize, with expressions and attitudes. So, we came back to this early drawing that Pete did and it seemed to suggest the ephemeral but also had a face.”
“We really thought that 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 of course crucial for animation,” Docter described.
“We loved these renders, but we thought they looked too much like a ghost, so we thought, wait a minute, if souls represent the full potential of who we are inside, maybe we could use color to show that,” Murray noted. “ So, then we also developed a whole new technique we’d never done before, um, and we basically, uh, would-we cli-we created these lines around the edges that could basically define, um, uh, all the articulation that might otherwise be too fuzzy to clearly see.”
Once they had the story and look of the souls situated, the filmmakers then moved into figuring out how to create the interest in the wayward soon-to-be soul of 22 (Tina Fey) and came across an online master class taught by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, in which the topics he discussed really served as “the perfect metaphor for life” in Docter’s eyes.
“At that moment we knew that music would just be an essential part of this film, and we were incredibly lucky to partner with Jon Batiste, the pianist from The Colbert Show, to compose all the original jazz music for the score, and then for the Soul world we got to work with the great Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, composers from The Social Network,” Murray explained.
When it came to finding the jazz side of the music development, the filmmakers turned to Batiste, who found the film “has a lot of light in it” and “life force energy” that he connected to his own early life experience getting into the music world.
“The film has this ethereal air because it’s going between the real world in New York City and The Great Beyond which is where souls are born and where they figure out their purpose and where the souls go once a person’s soul leaves their body in their death,” Batiste described. “I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal, accessible form with melodies and harmonies that had that same spirit. If you listen to, like, these kind of chords, there’s an optimism in them and it’s also a bit melancholy at the same time, and there’s ways that you can modulate and change the key and it just hits you right here. It’s a very soulful feeling. Like, check it. [Plays piano notes, laughs] I feel that over here by myself. Hello!”
“Joe is a musician, um, and coincidentally I used to be a music critic and a musician myself,” Powers added. “I mean, my son is even named after the late great, jazz great, um, Charles Mingus. So, diving deep really came naturally and thankfully, I didn’t have to do this alone. 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 of course, 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, and so that was a really great experience as well. The research and my personal experience definitely helped develop Joe in the story.”
“I was super excited when we first got Kemp’s pages for Joe’s life,” Kristen Lester, story supervisor, expressed. “I could tell that there was a lot of history and authenticity that Kemp had put into what he had written, but also it was a sequence that was so important because it showed Joe’s backstory and how he felt about how his life had turned out.”
“I was one of the first story artists to work on Joe’s life,” Michael Yates, story artist, said. “You heard Pete say we do a lot of drawings on every movie, but what he didn’t really say is that they don’t all end up in the film. A lot of them end up on the cutting room floor. But even if they don’t make it into the final movie, it’s important that the ideas are there.”
The next part of the presentation saw Docter, Powers and Murray all return for a journalist press conference, in which they answered questions from journalists around the globe regarding everything from the development of the film to working from home during a global pandemic.
Despite having the musical star that is Foxx in the lead role, Docter revealed that there was some areas of the script that would’ve allowed him to perform himself, but were cut out, though still crediting the performer as “an amazing musician, amazing actor and comedian.”
“I guess the only thing he can’t do, we cornered him on set and said, ‘Is there anything you can’t do, that you’re not great at?,’ and he said bowling,” Docter laughed.
“The music, unfortunately there was not any his actual playing in the film, we wanted it to all sound like authentic jazz, so it’s all John Batiste,” moderator Chris Wiggum noted.”
“But it was really cool, iin a couple of the recording studios we were with him there happened to be pianos, and he would just sit down during break and start playing, and it was pretty incredible,” Murray warmly recalled.
With the film originally scheduled for a November release, the production team still had “seven weeks of production left” when quarantine mandates were issued across the country during the pandemic and Murray found everyone was “really lucky and blessed” that this came in the latter portion of production as “the back end is highly technical.”
“People were able to just grab their machines and literally go home with them, and we were up and running in a day or two,” Murray explained. “Our systems team is incredible, everyone was just really resilient. I’d say silver lining for me was seeing into people’s lives and seeing their kids and their pets and the things that happen when you’re in Zoom meetings.”
“We ended up actually creating a documentary about the process of finishing Soul remotely that’ll come out at some future date,” Powers revealed. “We all get together and we work so hard on the Pixar campus, it was kinda cool to get a little look at, you know, people’s lives. I gotta say though, when we got the final mix done, usually when we complete these films, we get to celebrate it. We have a big theater full of everyone kind of celebrating the film being completely done, and we weren’t able to do that, so it just dawned on me fairly recently that, outside of just a handful of people, most of the folks who worked on Soul have not seen the completed mixed film.”
In looking back at the early development in which some Pixar filmmakers have often gone back to the drawing board during the multi-year process and started from scratch or changing major points, Docter confirmed there were multiple instances of this with Soul, including originally having a completely different tone for the film.
“The very first version of this took place all in the Soul world, and it was basically a heist movie, and we thought that was the best way to represent kinda the underlying theme or message that we were trying to get across, and it didn’t,” Docter revealed. “I think that was for sure a learning point. We had another later where now we were popping up and down where Joe was an actor and that was another back to the drawing board where, like, you just, for whatever reason, I think you watch the actor and you think, ‘Oh, he’s out for fame. He’s out for sort of selfish reasons that didn’t have the sorta nobility that music does.’ That might be just our own predispositions for that sort of thing, but those were all pretty early on, thankfully.”
My Review of the Footage
To no surprise, the first 35 minutes of the film is another treat of beautiful animation from the studio that’s brought us Up and Inside Out and Toy Story, featuring different character designs than typically utilized that feel really unique and interesting to look at. The concept for the film is also a work of magnificence and also Pixar finally outright dealing with the theme of death and the afterlife that they’ve frequently explored in other films, but the footage’s real problems come in the pacing. For what is supposed to be a 100-minute film, the film moves far too quickly between the human and soul worlds, introducing us to characters and areas that feel deserving of far more screen time and development than they’re given as the story rushes to get to what appears to be its real “fish out of water” conflict. Be it the marketing putting a different story progression in my head or the progress it’s possibly leading to feeling less interesting or predictable, the film’s story feels a bit disappointing in comparison to its sharp humor, beautiful animation and breathtaking music, but with another hour or so left of the film for me to watch, I’m certainly looking forward to what’s to come.