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Pixar's Soul directors on how cultural specificity 'allows us to see' our universality

By Nivea Serrao
Still from Pixar's Soul

Pixar has had a lot of firsts when it comes to diversity in recent years. Its 2017 Academy Award-winning animated feature, Cocowas the first animated motion picture to feature an all-Latino voice cast. Two recent animated shorts, Sanjay's Super Team and Bao, were directed by an Indian American and a Chinese-Canadian director, respectively. And its recent SparkShorts series on Disney+ includes short films about an openly gay man (Out), and one about a Filipino father and son (Float). 

And now, with Soul, the studio is set to hit another major milestone: its first animated feature centered around a Black protagonist, Jamie Foxx's Joe. It also features well-known Black voice actors Phylicia Rashad (Black Box), Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove (The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), Daveed Diggs (Snowpiercer), and Angela Bassett (Avengers: Endgame). 

The film — which comes out Christmas Day on Disney+ — tells the story of Joe Gardner (Foxx), a struggling middle-school band teacher from New York City, who finally gets his dream job: playing the piano for one of his idols, jazz singer Dorothea Williams. Alas, he loses it all when he falls into a manhole and earns himself a one-way ticket to the Great Beyond. Unwilling to let this opportunity slip away, Joe’s quest to get back to Earth lands him in the Great Before, a mystical realm where brand new souls slowly discover and develop personalities before their births. There, Joe’s assigned to mentor 22 (Megamind’s Tina Fey), a particularly rebellious young soul who has no interest in moving on to the next stage of her existence. But the duo is forced to team up when they stumble into a portal back to Earth, kickstarting the next stage of their journeys. 

During a virtual preview presentation of the film for press last month, Pete Docter (Inside Out), one of the directors of Soul as well as Pixar’s current chief creative officer, addressed why it’s taken the studio so long to tell a story like this.

“It’s been way too long, and I don’t know that we really have a good answer,” he says. “We’re always looking to reflect as much of the world out there as we can, and we’re happy that it’s finally happened, that we are representing a part of the population that just hasn’t had as much of a voice in our films up to now.” 

The first step on Soul's journey occurred when the creative team decided that Foxx's character, Joe, would play jazz — otherwise described as “Black improvisational music” by one of the film's musical consultants, Dr. Johnnetta Cole. That prompted the decision to make the character Black. Soon thereafter, screenwriter and playwright Kemp Powers (Star Trek: Discovery) joined the team, and eventually ended up co-directing.

“When I came onto the project almost two years ago, the film was still in pretty rough form,” said Powers during the presentation. “Joe was a character who needed a lot of fleshing out.” 

Luckily Powers, who is a former music critic with a passion for jazz, had a lot in common with Joe’s character as the team had envisioned him. So he drew on his personal life experiences to help flesh out the details. Still, he was adamant that the creative team not rely on his experience alone. 

“Yes, I am a Black man, but I made it clear from the first day that I do not speak for every Black person in the world and America,” Powers told SYFY WIRE during a separate Zoom interview. “You get 20 Black people in a room, you're going to have 20 very different opinions on every single subject. So it was a collaborative effort on the cultural standpoint as well. We had both an external and an internal culture trust, both of which were equally important.” 

The internal cultural trust consisted of Black animators and storytellers from within Pixar, including story artist Michael Yates and animator Montaque Ruffin; while the external trust included Questlove and Diggs, as well as musician Herbie Hancock, jazz bassist Marcus McLaurine, Dr. Peter Archer, Dr. Christopher Bell, jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, George Spencer, cinematographer Bradford Young, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader, Jon Batiste, who not only wrote and recorded parts of the movie’s score but also served as a reference model for the animation of Joe’s hands playing the piano. 

“This wasn’t a rubber-stamping situation,” said Powers of the cultural trust’s involvement. “They were a part of the development the entire time.” 

Thus, the trust worked to ensure that the representation seen within the movie would be as genuine as possible, consulting on everything from Joe’s backstory and the musical aspects of his life, to much more technical issues, like how to light Black skin. 

Still from Pixar's Soul

“This is the first film not just with a Black protagonist, but there's a whole range of different Black characters with different skin tones. There was a large learning curve, I think, for our lighting team, and Bradford [Young] came in and consulted with them on a number of occasions,” said Powers of the acclaimed cinematographer of Solo: A Star Wars Story and Arrival. “He has a very unique look to a lot of his films that he shoots. He’s really excellent at lighting Black skin … What I love about the look of Soul in the human world is that it looks so different than any other Pixar film that comes before it in the human world, and a lot of that is due to the lighting.”

Docter noted how their conversations with Young proved quite educational for him, as well. “You think ‘lighting’ is how you make sure something is seen and that it’s all visual. [But] he broke it down to cultural and economic aspects that come into play. It was a really eye-opening discussion that we had with him.”

Over the years, Pixar has been able to find a common thread of emotional relatability in all its films, be they about toys that come to life, a family of superheroes trying to figure it out, or even the very emotions that live within us. Soul seeks to build on that, much like Coco did, by leaning into the details of Joe’s experience as a Black man in New York City. 

“Cultural specificity is not a dividing thing,” notes Powers. “Sometimes being hyper-specific allows us to see the universality of our experiences.” 

But how will this level of attention to detail and cultural specificity translate to Pixar’s future titles and the diverse experiences they might feature?

“At Pixar, we've made our living off of asking directors to tell their own story. And I think there's something about the emotional availability of that or the honesty about it that shines through in the films. At least that's the way I look at it,” explains Docter. “Unfortunately, animation has been pretty un-diverse. And so a lot of the storytelling has been told from a kind of whitebread America. But now, the world's not that, and there's more and more diversity in the field.”

He went on to add, “It takes a little while. You can't start animation today and start directing a film tomorrow. I remember Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who are two of Disney's 'Nine Old Men' animators, they said it takes about 10 years to learn the craft, to just be at the sort of base level to start. And I think that's true, regardless of whether you go on to be an animator or a director or a story person. So right now, we have a lot of people coming of age, these storytellers who have gotten into the field, and now you're starting to see a lot of different points of view and backgrounds, and the next couple of films we have coming out is going to continue that trajectory.” 

Soul will be available Dec. 25 for streaming on Disney+. In international markets not served by Disney+, the film will be released theatrically, with dates to be announced.