SOUL: Pixar’s Journey Animating Jazz and the Hereafter

Pixar’s Latest Film Journeys Into Music, Human Spirituality and What Makes Someone Unique
Jon Batiste composed the jazz score for “Soul”, which arrives to Disney+ on December 25, 2020. Photo Credit: Disney / Pixar

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Pixar’s newest film, “Soul”, takes a look at the place before and after life, and how that world intertwines with our own reality and meaning, all accompanied by the sounds of a jazz score.

Pixar has proven they can give heartfelt and entertaining approaches to concepts like life and death, as in with “Coco”, and of the brain and our feelings, like “Inside Out”. With “Soul”, they embark on a brand-new journey into the unknown, while holding onto the aspect of their other films that have become a signature of Pixar, the heartfelt journey.

“Soul” takes place in a vibrant New York City and in the place where people are before they’re born and after they die, referred to as The Great Before and The Great Beyond. The Great Before is a place where people learn to be people before their journeys on Earth begin.

The story focuses on a human, Joe Gardner, (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who is a middle-school band teacher, and although he means well as an educator his own childhood was filled with the sounds of jazz and a burning passion to become a full-fledged jazz pianist himself. He sees this as his ultimate goal in life.

When an opportunity presents itself to Joe, involving playing an actual night of jazz with musicians he admires, he makes a mad dash of elation through the streets of New York City to prepare and tell his family. An accident occurs and those dreams seem just about over.

Joe awakes in a strange place, amongst other bulbous looking figures, headings towards a bright light at the end of an escalator of sorts. This is where “Soul” truly begins its journey into the strange world of The Great Beyond.

Pixar had a tall task on their hands with “Soul”, which was to create an abstract afterlife world that didn’t have any necessary cultural attachments like “Coco”, but still have some cohesion throughout. On the other hand, the Earth portions of the film needed to have a strong sense of life, culture, and music – after all it is a film about jazz.

Jude Brownbill (Animation Supervisor), Bobby Podesta (Animation Supervisor) and MontaQue Ruffin (Animator) are part of the animation team that worked on bringing these two worlds to life and giving it an overall style and character.

When you’re animating a film that has a primary focus on playing jazz music, you have to get the notes right,” says Ruffin.

On top of this, not only were the team of animators tasked with creating as accurate a depiction of jazz music as they could, they also had to dream up the afterlife from scratch, making sure they had “truthful and specific performances that dive into the heart of the moment and feel relatable and real,” added Brownbill.

She states that the starting point was overwhelming, but it all ultimately began with creating the rules of the world. Brownbill said:

“So, let’s just quickly talk about some of the ‘Soul rules’ we created. [There] are new souls who have not yet lived, the very cute, very appealing, with the simple rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet, because they’ve never lived on Earth. They have no concept of gravity, so they tend to float about or even fly.”

“[There] are mentor souls who have lived on Earth. They are an abstraction of how they saw themselves on Earth, each with unique distinguishing features and accessories. Because they have experienced gravity on Earth, they walk as if it exists, even though they don’t really need to. Joe’s Soul chose how he sees himself on Earth, what’s important to him is his hat, his glasses. And they also help us to pick him out of the crowd, giving a visual connection to this human form,” Brownbill added.

Creating the movements and looks of these two types of souls involved a lot of technology challenging art, and art challenging technology to figure out ways to make the art possible.

Podesta states, “That’s a challenge – to create the Counselor characters who were described as ‘the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend’ and getting their forms mostly right. So, we started with inspiration, drawing from dozens of sources like Swedish sculpture, nature and even light.”

The Counselors ended up being quite the challenge to create, even though they were essentially just a line form that needed to resonate as strange, beautiful, and captivating.

“So, with the design figured out, you might think, ‘Hey, that’s a line, that looks like the easiest thing in the world to animate.’ Actually, the technology behind creating the Counselors is mind-boggling. But that’s the thing about Pixar. We have some of the most talented and, quite frankly, smartest people I’ve ever met in this industry,” said Podesta.

“With the Counselors, we’re able to animate characters unlike anything we’ve seen before in film. I mean, this is really new stuff. But as challenging as it was to create something previously unknown, it was equally as challenging to craft performance. It would resonate as familiar, authentic, and more than a little musically specific,” he added.

The Culture & Sound of Jazz

The Black improvisational music of jazz is a main feature of “Soul”, defining Joe Gardner’s life, aspirations, and turmoil. It’s weaved in throughout the film, and between the jazz is Trent Razor’s industrial score which accents the scenes in the afterlife.

Getting the look and sound of jazz accurately involved extensive research, from going to places like National Museum of African-American History and Culture, to neighborhood barber shops and talking to and absorbing the stories of the African-American community.

Just as much as Pixar had a challenge with creating a new world in the great beyond, the team of “Soul” also had the challenge of recreating as accurately as possible the world of jazz and the African-American culture and experience.

Animator MontaQue Ruffin explained his experience on working on the film:

“As you know, Joel Gardner is Pixar’s first African-American lead, and being a person of color, you can imagine how special it was for me to work on a film like “Soul”. This film means a lot to me because I was able to animate characters who look like me and ultimately celebrate the community that I come from.”

“To share with my colleagues [my experience], what it’s like growing up, going to a black barbershop, was remarkable. You know, as animators, we strive to immerse ourselves in the subject that we’re animating, constantly searching for the details and specifics that make our characters as authentic as possible.”

He added, “As a team, we needed to be honest with the things that we were not familiar with and be a sponge to those who were so that we may respectfully imbue it in our work.”

Working on the original music was also a big part of bringing the soul to “Soul”. Jon Batiste is a singer, composer, songwriter and band leader who was a direct resource and cultural consultant, and according to the crew at Pixar, having him on the creation of the film cemented the core of the film with the stylings and language of jazz, which had a profound effect on the story and overall vibe.

“Not only did [Jon Batiste] share with us his [thoughts] on jazz, but he also played live performances and walked us through his thought process while doing so. We also recorded video-reference of Jon’s hands as he played the piano. By having this information, not only did it allow us to inspect hand movement and finger articulation, but also serve as a visual roadmap. And by having these resources available to us, it was up to us to animate that performance through Joe Gardner, frame by frame,” said Ruffin.

Batiste also arranged and wrote all the jazz music in “Soul”, and his fingerprints can be traced throughout the film.

He said about his creation process, “This film has a lot of light in it, it’s a lot of light and lifeforce energy, I like to call it. And that was really the beginning of me figuring out my way into the music, the jazz music in the film, finding the tone, the spiritual tone. The film has this ethereal air because it’s going between the real world in New York City and the great beyond, which is where souls are born and where they figure out their purpose and where souls go once a person’s soul leaves their body in their death.”

I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal [and] accessible form with melodies and harmonies that had that same spirit. So, if you listen to, [certain] chords, there’s an optimism in them and it’s also a bit melancholy at the same time. And there’s ways that you can modulate and change the key and it just hits you right [in your core],” he adds.

Creating the score and involved working a multigenerational coalition of jazz and blues musicians, and Batiste highlights this in how he embedded jazz history and sound into the compositions.

“We channeled all of the greats that I had the pleasure of playing in jazz clubs with around the world, as well as the ones who I’ve listened to for years since I was a little boy like Joe when he walked in the club. And I wanted to channel their spirit through the types of compositions, you know, kind of like the first thing that Joe hears when he walks into the club, [it’s] kind of a swing feel with some of the different harmonic textures that you hear maybe in like a Kenny Kirkland record or a Branford Marsalis record from the 80s.”

“So, I imagine he was walking in the club is probably around that time, you know, the 70s and 80s and cats were playing in that way. It was the neo traditionalist movement during that time. So very specific insider references for folks who out there can hear, they’ll be like, ‘oh, I see what’s happening’.”

Industrial Afterlife

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails took charge of the other half of the film’s music, highlighting the world of the afterlife with their trademark industrial sound and merging it into a Pixar film about jazz.

Producer Dana Murray said, “It’s so ethereal. The contrast they bring is really exciting. It’s an unexpected choice for Pixar—this is like nothing we’ve ever done before. I love the combination we have.”

While John Batiste was bringing warmth and spirituality into the jazz side of the compositions, Reznor and Ross were brining an ethereal and abstract sound to the world of The Great Before and The Great Beyond.

“I really am thankful that we had the chance to do that, because at first we didn’t even hear each other’s music. And then as the process started to go along, I got a chance to hear some of the music they were making. There’s some music that I was making and we came together in this one moment and it really changed the rest of the music that I was composing for the film because I got a chance to see into their process and that also leaked into the kind of spiritual tone that I’m talking about, this ethos that we created,” said Batiste.

On a final note, it’s incredible that a studio film in the year of 2020 can be both so abstract and so full of soul, and have a creative input from so many different artists and music stylings to create this very music-centric story about people simply trying to find their way, whether it be through the frantic streets of rush hour New York City to the modern art world of The Great Before.

Batiste adds, “People need light in this time. And I’m all about bringing the light in. That’s one of the great pleasures of working with Pixar. They’ve created these films that delve into all of the cultures of the world and create it in a way where it’s accessible to all people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you experience – the stories, they transcend all of that.”

“Soul” is available on Disney+ streaming on December 25, 2020.