Soul Creators Tell Us How Pixar Gets Away With Making Kids Movies So Deep
Pixar has long been a synonym for quality, and its newest film Soul proves that the vaunted animation studio is still at the peak of its powers when it comes to crafting beautiful, thought-provoking stories.
In case you’ve missed it, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz musician who on the day he gets his big break accidentally dies – oh dear – and finds himself in the afterlife. Desperate to get back to his body and live his dreams, Joe teams up with rebellious soul 22 to find a way back to Earth.
Needless to say, the film is tremendous – but what else would you expect from Pixar? In fact, let’s be honest, most Pixar films are capable of going toe-to-toe with even the best live-action films when it comes to the craft of filmmaking.
Unfortunately though, so often in animation we forget about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to get these incredible pictures off the ground, so when Disney offered us the chance to spotlight some of the incredible talent behind the film, we jumped at the opportunity.
We were lucky enough to sit down with a few of the great minds behind Soul earlier this week, including writers and co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers as well as producer Dana Murray, and drill down into how Pixar takes a simple idea and turns it into a magical epic.
UNILAD: It’s such an extraordinary film; it’s obviously got spiritual links to Inside Out, which I know you [Dana and Pete] worked on, but where did the idea for the film come from?
Pete Docter: Well, I guess the concept came from watching my son, who’s now married, and realising that even as a baby he seemed to have a personality that I could track, and thinking to myself, how’s that possible? Where does that come from?
So I started imagining what happened before we were born; not the man and the woman coming together thing, I knew that, but that sense of who we are and where does personality come from? We then came up with the world that led us to the larger question of: what’s the point of it all? Why send souls down to earth? What are they accomplishing?
In a sense, it then became an argument back and forth between the characters and ourselves about whether life in all its disappointment and suffering is worth it, and if so, what makes it worth it? And that sounds perfect for a kids film, doesn’t it? [Laughs]
UNILAD: I mean, this is a recurring thing with Pixar – you are not afraid to deal with lofty topics in an accessible way for kids and adults. I mean, I thought Inside Out had me asking some questions, but Soul was like a secret philosophy lesson – what was that? Do you ever worry about losing your audience when telling these stories?
Pete Docter: Oh yeah, we worry about it all the time, and that’s why we’re constantly thinking about how to make it as visual as we can and provide the drama. We have to remind ourselves that this is supposed to be a story, so it’s about characters who we care about.
That’s the lion share of our work – coming back to those craft elements, and working out how you sustain interest and keep people guessing.
Dana Murray: One thing we did, and we did this on Inside Out as well, we had a kid’s screening of one of our really early visions with storyboards and stiff characters.
So employees bring their kids, and then we sit down and have breakdown sessions with the kids about the film, and it’s pretty amazing hearing a five-year-old sit down and tell you exactly what just happened. So we do get that receipt early on to make sure we’re not crazy.
UNILAD: That’s interesting, because there’s this super-grand concept abut the meaning of life driving Soul, but it’s actually quite an easy to follow human story. How difficult is it to drill down into that core story?
Kemp Powers: I mean, it’s hard – you start with your personal experience. Everyone involved in the project, the editors, the animators, we all bring our personal experience to bear in the service of the story.
That helped me because my own experience mirrored that of our main character, Joe. I was able to come from this personal place of being a middle-aged Black man growing up in New York, who has been dreaming of a career in the arts, but who was getting up in age and was past his sell-by date [laughs].
It was pretty much a mirror of my own career, which began as a man past his sell-by date in my early forties, so it felt very personal, but that doesn’t make telling a story any easier. Honestly, it’s done through trial and error with version after version, and sometimes there are things that come from the heart that don’t work for the story, and they have to go.
It’s about trying to find that balance of things that serve the story, are structurally sound, and hopefully have that emotion and heart that evoke that feeling in us. Ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do, evoke a feeling, and a question we often asked ourselves was, how does this make us feel? It has to be ’emotionally sound’ – which is a term I’m making up now – and it’s almost as important as having [the film] be structurally sound.
UNILAD: Kemp, I won’t have the man who wrote One Night In Miami tell me he was past his sell-by date, but we’re not here to talk about that! How early in the process did you realise that Joe was a Black man? I know that’s a strange question, but this is the first Pixar film with an African American lead, and I’m curious how early in the process that decision was made?
Pete Docter: We came by it as a result of a couple of other decisions. First of all, we wanted a character we could root for, and as we searched for the character’s goals, we wondered whether they were an actor or a scientist – but they didn’t feel very interesting to put on the screen, and a bit selfish.
So when we came up with a jazz musician, it clicked! You know, I love watching jazz, and watching musicians play, it’s like magic, and jazz felt like something you don’t get into because you want to be rich and famous. People get into jazz because they love it.
Once we hit on that we thought, if Joe’s going to be a jazz musician then it felt like the right thing to make the character African American, because that’s the culture from which this music came. Then we realised we need help because I grew up in Minnesota, which is like ‘bland whiteville’.
We needed to know what it’s like to grow up in New York, with that musician’s culture. Kemp was our first lifeline on that, but we also had a great bunch of other consultants including Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and other amazing musicians.
UNILAD: So Kemp, when you came on board, it was just to help write Joe? And then through the process, you ended up as co-director?
Kemp Powers: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate! When I came on Joe wasn’t fully formed, and there was a discussion about whether he was even the main character, or whether [soul] 22 was the lead.
I saw endless potential in Joe though, and made a strong case that Joe’s story should be the focus. The film could have potentially deviated and gone in a very different direction, but what we quickly found out was that you can’t come in on a film like this and just write one character; there’s a whole film around them.
So very quickly I was working with Mike Jones, the original writer on the film, and with Pete on the problem solving with every element of the film; you know, no one comes on to these films and just does one thing.
I credit Dana and Pete for inviting me into other elements of the film so early on. They invited me into so many different elements of the filmmaking process that I – in my ignorance, with this being my first animated film – presumed was just normal for working on an animated film, until a little way into the process when Pete asked me to be his co-director, and I asked, ‘What does that entail?, and Pete just said, ‘You’ve kind of already been doing it [laughs]’ – so it was kind of a Karate Kid and Mr Miyagi situation.
Dana Murray: Also, when Kemp came on as a writer we weren’t thinking of a director at all, but the time he was spending working on it with the art department, editors, and he was just so deeply ingrained in the film we knew it would be impossible to finish it without him, so we were like, ‘Don’t leave us!’ [laughs]
UNILAD: I’ve heard rumours of something terrifying at the heart of Pixar called the Brain Trust, which other Pixar directors have said in the past is a sort of mortifying panel of other Pixar directors and bigwigs who offer unrestrained advice and feedback on the films currently being developed at the studio. What were your experiences with the Brain Trust like?
Pete Docter: [laughs] Well, first of all, those people who are terrified of the Brain Trust ARE the Brain Trust, so I don’t know what they’re so scared about!
It’s meant to be a way of course-correcting, because when you’re working on a film so closely for such a long time, you can not realise what you’re looking at any more, and you can lose objectivity. So it’s a way [Pixar] developed early on of keeping ourselves in check; to make sure the film is being perceived in the way we want it to be.
So we get other directors to come to take a look out our stuff, and we look at their stuff. So membership of the Brain Trust changes every time we meet; it can be Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton or Lee Unkrich, and we screen the film for them and then we go to a room and they start picking on stuff; mostly in a nice way, but sometimes it can be pretty brutal.
Kemp Powers: You know, Edwin Catmull wrote a book called Creativity Inc., which I didn’t honestly read until I started working at Pixar and we’d finished Soul [laughs], but it goes into the Brain Trust a bit. It’s ultimately a group of your peers and you’re asking them to not beat around the bush and just cut to the chase with no glad-handing – because creatives tend to have such thin skin – and instead get to the chase of what’s not working and why.
I like to equate it to the Navy Seal school – or Royal Air Force training – for writers, and the feedback can be brutal but ultimately it leads to a much better film.
UNILAD: I’ll ask my last question. Pixar’s famous for putting hints about their next project in their films: is there a tease for Luca hidden in there?
Dana Murray: There is…
Kemp Powers: [laughing] I don’t think we have time to tell you…
Pete Docter: There are other recurring Easter eggs as well – you know, like John Ratzenberger and the Pizza Planet truck – but you’ll have to find them when the film’s released.
Soul will stream exclusively on Disney+ from December 25.
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