Our First Impressions of Pixar’s ‘Soul’ After Screening 35 Minutes – It’s a Living Art Piece

Pixar Soul First Impressions Review

What if your toys awoke when you left the room? What if a rat could cook? What if you could choose to be born on Earth, would you? Hold up — that last question is a bit meatier than the standard Pixar question. 

Pixar’s, Soul, releasing December 25, 2020, on Disney+, is undoubtedly heavier due to the film’s overarching topics of life and death — but, in the best way — it’s even more so about how you live. Soul is not a dark film — there are a lot of gag moments that will make you laugh (wait for Abraham Lincoln’s cameo), and the cultural significance of this being Pixar’s first film with a black lead (and Pixar’s most diverse vocal cast to date) are all elements that feel real and relevant.

Pixar Soul Barbershop

Along with screening approximately 35 minutes of Soul during a virtual Pixar press event a few weeks ago, we learned how the story came to be, how they crafted what a soul would look like, and we even got to listen in to a live musical performance from jazz musician (and one of the composers of the soundtrack), Jon Batiste. To be honest, my heart raced a little bit getting to see and hear Jon chat about his process and listen to him play — I’m a big jazz music fan and my worlds were colliding with Pixar and jazz!

Pixar Soul Moonwind sign spinner
Moonwind, the sign spinner is much more than meets the eye in Soul

The visuals throughout are beyond stunning and the team has accomplished something truly amazing in the way the outlined 2D characters in The Great Beyond look in the 3D space. Between the high emotion we’ve come to expect from a Pete Docter film, and the stunning visuals, so far, this is feeling like a living art piece — especially since it’s so much about life and living as well.

Pixar Soul Behind the Scenes

Below is a list of the Soul crew members we were able to chat with and some of our favorite moments from the session.

SESSIONS AND CREW

The Making of Soul — Filmmaker Presentation
Presenters: Pete Docter (Director), Dana Murray (Producer), Kemp Powers (Co-Director & Writer)

Bringing the Story of Soul to Life — Story Team
Presenters: Kristen Lester (Story Supervisor) Michael Yates (Story Artist), Aphton Corbin (Story Artist)

Soul New World — Animation Team
Presenters: Bobby Podesta (Animation Supervisor), Jude Brownbill (Animation Supervisor), MontaQue Ruffin (Animator)

Jazzing — The Music of Soul
Presenter: Jon Batiste (Jazz Compositions & Arrangements)

HIGHLIGHTS

The construct of the film, according to Pete Docter is, “A soul who doesn’t want to go and live, meets a soul who doesn’t want to die.” 

Pixar Soul Screenshot with 22 and Joe
(Left to right) Joe Gardner, 22, and Jerry the Counselor

The Great Before is where souls get their spark (among other things) — this defines their key personality traits before being born on Earth. The feisty soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), has trouble finding her spark, so Jerry the Counselor has paired her up with mentors for years without success. 22 still has no desire to go to Earth. Joe accidentally becomes 22’s mentor and on a journey to find more about her spark, learns about himself as well. Maybe life isn’t about one grand moment, maybe it’s the culmination of many tiny moments.

Pete Docter recalled a moment similar to this and said, “I remember one day I was biking and I stopped and picked a raspberry. It was warmed by the sun and became the most amazing raspberry I ever had. I still remember that nearly-nothing moment vividly. 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.”

Pixar Soul Storyboard Drawing
Soul storyboards by Tony Rosenast

Kristen Lester guided the team of story artists through the process of turning the script into images. Altogether, there were 73,611 storyboards that were delivered to the editorial team (that’s leaving out the images that hit the cutting room floor) — getting any hand cramps thinking of all that art?!

The calm, cosmic nature of The Great Before is heavily contrasted by the more gritty, big-city feel of the New York City streets. Pete mentioned the many artists that went into defining the characters as well as the worlds they populate.

Pixar Soul Concept Art by Harley Jessup
Concept art by Harley Jessup
Pixar Soul Concept Artwork
Concept art by Steve Pilcher

The soul form of the characters was challenging to create — what does a soul look like? The team realized that souls shouldn’t look like ghosts since this is before life and your full talent and possibilities aren’t utilized yet. The team took inspiration from an unlikely object called, Aerogel. Nicknamed “frozen smoke,” the beautiful substance helped provide the light and airy, yet solid look of souls.

MonteQue Ruffin spoke about Pixar’s famed research trips to create authenticity within the films. Along with visiting New York barbershops, schools, and African history museums, it was also paramount to get Joe Gardner’s piano playing accurately represented in the film. He noted that Jon Batiste was not only a cultural consultant, but a visual reference as well since he wrote the jazz music Joe plays throughout the film. 

Pixar Soul Piano Concept Artwork by Tim Evatt
Joe Gardner’s Hands by Tim Evatt

Dana Murray notes, “When you see Joe’s hands playing in the film, that’s Jon’s playing. 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 part we loved hearing about was how the hands had to be animated traditionally, but the piano parts were imported and animated automatically by using the MIDI data within the music files. Now, that is a great idea.

Pixar Soul Jon Batiste in the Studio Recording the Soundtrack
Jon Batiste and Pete Docter

Throughout the development of Soul, Pixar was focused on cultural accuracy. Learning through the development of Coco a few years back, the Soul team brought on a team of cultural and musical consultants to ensure they were properly representing African American culture in a thoughtful way. Along with the team of internal Pixar artists, the consultants were involved throughout the entire film, rather than just “signing off” on a film at the end. 

Cultural and music consultants include Dr. Peter Archer, Jon Batiste, Dr. Christopher Bell, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Daveed Diggs, Herbie Hancock, Marcus McLaurine, George Spencer, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, and Bradford Young.

Pixar Soul Cultural Consultants

Pixar’s Soul is rated PG and has a runtime of 89 minutes — get ready to shed a tear and slow down to smell the roses a bit after watching the film.

Finally, be sure to chat with other Pixar fans regarding the first impressions of Pixar’s Soul and what you find across the web in the Pixar Post Soul Forum thread.

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