Pete Docter was at his most inquisitive on “Soul.” That’s because, unlike the Emoji-like personalities that embodied “Inside Out,” the animated characters that inhabit Pixar’s celestial fantasy are more abstract. “What do souls look like? What are they made of? Where do they come from?,” asked director and chief creative officer Docter. “There must’ve been something before we were born that somehow infused us with the essence of who we are.”
And so Pixar went on its most ambitious exploration yet to solve the problem of creating these ethereal characters of The Great Before. That’s the pre-birth training center where aspiring jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) finds himself after eluding death in The Great Beyond. He teams up with risk averse new soul, 22 (Tina Fey), on a journey to discover the meaning of life in Pixar’s first Black-led feature. “Fundamentals that came through again and again were people would describe souls as vaporous, non-physical, formless, breath, air,” said Docter. “How could we capture non-physical?”
It began with an early, baby-like drawing from Docter that was ephemeral but suggested clear eyes and a face. Color and line work were then added to these semi-opaque, soft characters. They developed a somewhat light bulb shape with no permanent arms or legs. But they didn’t want them to look like ghosts, so the art team examined rainbows and prisms along with rocks, minerals, and opalescent glass. One artist mentioned the ultra-light Aerogel and that became the aha substance that lead to more concrete research.
“The art team brought these ideas and rules to life in the form of 2D animation tests displaying great clarity, appeal, and entertainment, and they gave us this great goal to aim for as we moved from 2D into 3D,” said animation supervisor Jude Brownbill. “Early experiments, testing, and animation was done in a very rough form, and the characters team then began to render them as volumes, exploring and inching closer to that ethereal soul look.”
They eventually landed on a prismatic character in which warm-colored light passes through on one side and cooler light passes through the shadowed side. “However, we noticed that clarity was being lost in the face and in the hands,” Brownbill added, “so technical directors in articulation, shading, and tools set about solving this in a classic case of art challenging the technology and technology inspiring the art.”
The technical directors made this a reality with a new system for rendering edges that mattered and ignoring edges that didn’t, “all with a really clear, tapered brush stroke feel on every frame,” Brownbill continued. “Silhouette lines and hand lines became very important because the way we connect those hands actually read or they become less impactful,” she said.
In addition, facial lines were hand-animated to appear, disappear, and change thickness with each expression. This was very time-consuming, so the technical directors figured out how to automate these lines, helping to anchor eyes and mouths and keep them on model, and to provide clarity and extreme emotions such as confusion, fear, and anger.
Soul characters were divided into two groups: New souls that have never lived on earth and tend to float or fly, and mentor souls, who have experienced life and are an abstraction of how they viewed themselves on earth, walking as though gravity exists. They possess unique or distinguishing features, such as Joe’s hat and glasses.
And the most difficult mentors to animate were the Counselors. They were metaphysical energy imbued with special wisdom. “They describe themselves as the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend,” said animation supervisor Bobby Podesta. “We started with inspiration, drawing from dozens of sources like Swedish sculpture, nature, and event light. The art department began exploring, drawing countless forms until a form that felt most recognizable as a character yet malleable enough to almost anything emerged.”
That character concept was comprised of a living line — both two-dimensional and three-dimensional — devised during a brainstorming session. Pixar artists then created a 3D version of the imagery in wire, highlighting what the characters might look like from different angles and in varying forms, adding a hand or a thumb or all fingers. Then they created additional controls for animators, developing further tech for a new kind of curve, allowing animators to turn on and off each individual control point. This offered smooth shapes as well as the ability to sharpen or add angles.
Pixar had never created this type of 2D animation done in 3D before — almost defying logic in the way the Counselors performed with personality and charm. There are five Counselors in all and each named Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Zenobia Shroff). “The Counselors were the most challenging to do,” added Podesta. “We were perfectly balancing being an artist and actor together at the same time.”