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How Pixar's Soul created the 'Great Before'

By Nivea Serrao
Soul Pixar

When it comes to depicting vaguely metaphysical ideas, Pixar movies have made somewhat of an art of it. Be it the vibrant and musically filled afterlife of Coco, or the more abstract workings of a preteen girl's mind in Inside Out, the studio has always pushed itself to find new and often visually stunning ways to translate these concepts into something audiences can feel and comprehend.

Pixar's latest film, Soul, is no exception.

The movie tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, who dreams of becoming a professional jazz musician. Unfortunately for him, the day he gets his big gig is also one that sees him have an untimely accident, sending him to the Great Beyond. Unwilling to give up on his dream just yet, Joe finds a way to escape, and lands himself in the Great Before, a place where newly formed souls first gain their personalities before being sent back to Earth to live their lives as the people they go on to become.

It's here that Joe encounters a young precocious soul named 22 (Tina Fey), as well as a range of "counselors" whose job it is to wrangle these young souls. They all go by the name of "Jerry," though they're voiced by different people. It's also where Joe discovers the mentorship program, which sees young souls paired up with those of people who've already lived, with the older souls guiding the young ones to find their "spark," some mysterious factor that indicates that they're ready to head down to Earth. No one knows what it is that triggers it, with the thing that causes that spark varying from new soul to new soul.

"We wanted the world of souls to be non-specific to any specific culture or background," co-director Pete Docter told SYFY WIRE. "Originally we just had Richard Ayoade as the voice of all the counselors… Then we realized that we wanted the background souls to be from everywhere because these mentors that were coming from Earth to train the new souls would have come from everywhere around the world."

The result is one of Pixar's most inclusive and international secondary voice casts yet, with Alice Braga (Elysium), Wes Studi (Penny Dreadful), Fortune Feimster (Life in Pieces), and Zenobia Shroff (The Affair) all joining Ayoade (The Mandalorian) to each voice a different Jerry.

"When we started with just Richard as the counselor, it felt kind of limiting," explained Docter of the choice to bring on more actors to play the Jerrys. "It was like he was then omnipotent and knew everything, and we had a lot of story points that these counselors needed to know, but that counselor over there shouldn't. So we separated [them], and that allowed for more entertainment, just from the vocal performances."

Soul Artwork (Pixar)

The decision to not pin the Great Before to any specific culture is also reflected in the visuals of the film. The realm is depicted in the form of soft, almost ethereal transparent shapes, with a soothing pastel palette: cool greenish-blue for the ground, and pale pinks and purples for the sky. There are also various structures in abstract shapes present, each meant to represent a new personality trait that the new souls are sent into to gain.

"We experimented for a while and ultimately looked at some World's Fair images from the '40s and '60s," said Docter of one of the inspirations for the visuals of these structures. "There are these buildings that are meant to inspire and be austere. Some of them are shaped like big tires, some of them are just cool, abstract shapes. And that was where we started. We wanted it to feel explicit to what it's doing."

As for the counselors, or "Jerrys" themselves, they originally posed a challenge to the film's art department, as they could be literally anything. With the characters described as "the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend [it]," the art department began looking at different sources for inspiration, exploring everything from Swedish sculpture, to nature, and even light.

The design process saw the art department create a wire sculpture so they could see what the character might look like from different angles and wearing different expressions in different forms, leading to countless physical drawings and designs in order to help those who'd be designing the character digitally.

"Just as the art department explored the possibilities of what the counselors could be, the animators did the same," explained animation supervisor Bobby Podesta during a special presentation. "We began exploring shapes and expressions, movements, and transitions. The animators didn't just animate a model. They animated a design. The characters captured a sense of a living one, a piece of art, a form that was understandable yet ethereal."

Thus, the counselors are rendered as flexible, "living" white lines that channel a hint of Picasso's penchant for depicting faces (by way of Forky in Toy Story 4), stretching and contorting as their interactions with various characters require. It's the kind of animation the team at Pixar hadn't known they were capable of.

"We didn't know how we were going to accomplish this," reflected Podesta on the team's effort to push themselves, thus resulting in the development of a whole new technique of animation. "The art was challenging the technology, and the technology was inspiring the art."

Soul Pixar

The counselors aren't the only ones who benefitted from this new method. It was also used to animate a character named Terry, an accountant for the Great Beyond who takes it upon herself to find the missing soul, aka Joe. Voiced by Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok), Terry is a shorter, more squat version of the longer, more fluid counselors, moving with less flow than they do.

"[The story] got more complex once Terry was introduced, because she wasn't initially in the film," co-director Kemp Powers explained to SYFY WIRE. "When we were building a backstory for her, we wondered, 'Well, if this is kind of an office type situation, how would [Terry and the Jerrys] be hanging out in the cafeteria?' When [we] started imagining all these made-up scenarios of these Jerry counselors and the relationship they might have had with one another, it prompted a lot of the different personalities."

Of course, all this talk of a possible afterlife, and an accountant tracking souls might bear a slight similarity to another project that was being written and shot while Soul was in production: NBC's high concept afterlife-set sitcom, The Good Place. But was it one of the sources of inspiration that the upcoming Pixar movie drew from?

"We had already started on the film and I was maybe a half year, a year, into it and somebody said, 'Hey, have you seen this show called The Good Place? It's Mike Schur,'" said Docter, who is a fan of Schur's work. "At first I was scared. But I think it really explores a lot of different things than what we ended up doing. I'd love to talk with them about it."

Soul — directed by Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (Star Trek: Discovery), and produced by Dana Murray (Inside Out) — comes out Christmas Day on Disney+. Depending on the availability of the streaming platform in international markets, it may be released in theaters too.