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Soul Preview: An Early Look at the New Pixar Film

With the announcement this week that the Pixar film will debut on Disney+ Christmas Day, Vital Thrills got an early look at the anticipated Soul. For the Soul preview, we talked to director Pete Docter, producer Dana Murray, co-director Kemp Powers and more.

Soul introduces Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.

SOUL – Concept Art by Jason Deamer . © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

To kick off the Soul preview event, Docter spoke about his feelings on the story. “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?'”

He continued: “And to convince this soul that it is, we thought, well, let’s bring in a character, who has already lived, to show what’s so great about life. So, the basic concept of the film was formed, a soul who doesn’t want to go live meets a soul who doesn’t want to die. 

SOUL – Concept Art by Celine You. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“But if we were going to make a film about souls, our first problem was what does a soul look like? So, we did a lot of research, looking into the teachings, the many philosophies and traditions around the world, and what we found most was that people described the soul as vapor, nonphysical, formless, breath, air. All very interesting, but not very helpful, because how do you draw air?”

Murray explained that some of the research they did in terms of creating the look of the souls was to take a look at a substance called Aerogel. “It’s the lightest solid material on Earth, and it’s actually used by the aerospace industry…”

SOUL – Concept Art by Ernesto Nemesio. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The big concern was that they didn’t want the soul to look like a ghost. Murray explained the solution: “If souls represent the full potential of who we are inside, maybe we could use color to show that.” She said that the lines around the edges could define the emotion and give articulation to the characters.  

We got to see a bit of the film, so if you’d rather not be spoiled, scroll down. In the Soul preview, Joe (Foxx) is a jazz musician. Well, he’s currently teaching band in a school, but all his life he’s been waiting for his big break.

SOUL – Concept Art by Harley Jessup. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

When one of his former students gives him a chance to audition for a well-known jazz musician, he jumps at the chance. He gets the gig… but on the way home, he falls into a manhole and dies.

As his soul floats off into the afterlife, he runs the other direction, only to find himself in the place where souls go before they’re born or reborn. There he meets a soul with a very low designation number, 22 (Tina Fey), who just doesn’t want to be born as a person.

SOUL – Concept Art by Ricky Nierva / Steve Pilcher. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

As Joe goes through what his life was on Earth, he realizes that there is so much he didn’t do. He’s also trying to convince 22 that life is worth it. They manage to get themselves down to the living world, which is where the footage stopped. Whew! Spoilers are over.

Music is a huge part of the film, and that comes to us from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, as well as Jonathan Baptiste, who you’ll know from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As a treat for those attending the Soul early press day, Baptiste played us some piano music.

SOUL – Concept Art by Tim Evatt. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Kemp spoke to us about Joe and who he is. He explained that he and Joe “had a lot in common.” He said, “I realized that in many ways Joe was me, so I was able to use a lot of my own personal experiences to inform writing the character.”

Kemp, who used to be a music critic and is a musician himself, said this came naturally to him. He spoke about spending time at the barbershop before things were shut down. “We took our crew there so they could see and feel what it was really like to be in a barbershop,” he said.

SOUL – Concept Art by Celine You. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

He explained that the did research trips to a Queens, New York public school where Joe would have been teaching and met Dr. Peter Archer, who is “an amazingly passionate middle school jazz band teacher,” and plays in a jazz club to learn about his life.

He also spoke about bringing the Black experience to the film. He told reporters, “I always said to Pete and Dana the film had to transcend one person’s life. It’s very important to understand that I don’t represent every single black person’s experience. 

SOUL – Concept Art by Bryn Imagire. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“It’s important on this journey that we reached out further, and that started at home.  We partnered with a number of consultants on this film who we kept close throughout the entire process. This wasn’t a rubber stamping situation. They were part of the development the entire time. Here’s a photo of some of the African-American Pixar employees who became what we called our ‘internal culture trust.'”

Kemp said that they consulted experts outside of Pixar as well, “including many music teachers and working jazz musicians from New York City and right here in Emeryville.” 

SOUL – Concept Art by Camilo Castro. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

He continued: “And of course, here’s some of our most well-known cultural consultants who we relied on every step of the way to make sure that our story was authentic.”

He mentioned Dr. Johnnetta Cole as well as “Bradford Young, the incredible cinematographer. Even Ahmir Questlove Thompson and Daveed Diggs, two of the performers in the film, also served as cultural consultants.”

SOUL – Concept Art by Grant Alexander. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Soul will debut exclusively on Disney+ on December 25, 2020. It will release theatrically in international markets on an as-yet-unannounced date. The movie also features the voices of Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson a.k.a. Questlove, Angela Bassett, and Daveed Diggs.

You can watch the previously-released trailers for the film, as well as the conversation from Essence Festival, below.

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