Pixar made history when Pete Docter’s “Soul” was shortlisted last month by the Academy’s VFX branch. It marked the first time that the illustrious CG animation studio has come this close to a nomination in that category. Indeed, other than Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” no CG-animated feature has ever been nominated for the VFX Oscar. And that film was distinguished by its photoreal, faux live-action aesthetic, rather than the more stylized, caricatured look associated with CG animation.
Unlike stop-motion, though, CG has been a tough sell to the VFX branch, which in the past has nominated “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” That’s because stop-motion falls in line with the criteria of integrating effects into live action (in this case, physical sets and puppets), whereas CG animation is an outlier with its all-digital workflow. However, the Visual Effects Society has no such problem honoring animation alongside live action at the VES Awards as a result of its shared tech prowess and artistic accomplishment.
But “Soul” is different and Pixar’s use of effects is unique. Half of the film takes place in The Great Before, the pre-birth training center, where jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) escapes to elude death. The world is soft, transparent, abstract, and ethereal, and the grass, trees, hills, and pavilions appear familiar yet dreamlike. The entire vibe evokes innocence, like a playpen, and the soft, round characters change shape like playful, squishy toys.
“There were a number of technical challenges to get that kind of look,” said Jim Morris, Pixar’s president of production. “All of those characters are volumes, they’re [made of] particles, so they’re not solid models in the way that the ones on earth are in New York that you typically see in animation. They’re an effect. And because they are particle driven and self-illuminating, they put an extra burden on the artists to make them lightable in different situations. They’re not just glowy things.
“On top of that, there’s many layers to each of those characters,” Morris added. “And there’s different color reverberations through those characters. The internal and external lighting almost have physical, chromatic aberrations so you can see the trailing edge of green/blue of those characters, which was another layer of control that had to be added. And then, finally, so that the definition stays in place, there’s a lot of procedural line drawing for the shape of the hands [eyes, and mouth]. And that’s on top of this world also being volumetric. And controlling all that stuff so that it isn’t chaotic and has shape required [special] rigging.”
The organic and abstract shapes of The Great Before and its Soul characters required a different approach at Pixar. The softness of the volumetric form and changing line work necessitated a new procedural system within the Houdini animation software. They also developed an automated system for managing the large amounts of computational data for changing the performances of these amorphous characters. This impacted the way the VFX was generated, as well as closer collaboration between effects, the art department, character modeling, shading, and lighting.
“The art department really opened up the exploration with my group, the technical department,” said VFX supervisor Michael Fong. “We got to do it both together, which was really great and terrifying at the same time because we normally don’t do that. They had us try to riff on some of their ideas, and in order to compete with their faster pace, we had to rely on real-time tools that we hadn’t used before to get mock-ups really quickly to see if this is what Pete wanted for [The Great Before].”
One of the real-time tools, Motif, allowed them to conceptualize the look of the Personality Pavilions with Docter, where the Soul characters enter to develop their individual personalities. “Pete’s very story driven and has these concepts that he wants to get across to the audience, so he would give us these basic core ideas and we would have to come up with representations,” Fong added. “And we used Motif to [test them out] with Pete inside the volume very quickly. They can’t be read as buildings so we tried things made out of fog, made out of glass, we tried our usual tricks with subsurface.”
Emphasizing the line drawing around the Soul characters was also important to Docter, who referenced the Disney classic, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” So the Pixar team came up with a special edge line tool. “We had in the past toyed with doing line work at a small scale, but it wasn’t until ‘Soul’ where we really had to make a robust system that would exist for main characters and [large crowds],” Fong said. “And it was actually a lot of effort on our full character team as well as Pixar’s research and development team to develop a system for edge detection and line work that was consistent. The lines hint back to 2D and give emphasis to the characters’ hands and some of the expression wrinkles.”
The most complex character work revolved around the Counselors, who were inspired by Swedish wire sculptures. The giant, Picasso-like instructors required a unique approach to rigging, shading, and lighting. “Our system isn’t installed for controlling points on a line,” Fong said. “We had to rethink our rigging process and we rebuilt that rig about five or six times to finally get it right. And animation came up with their own ideas about making sure that the lines seemed smooth. We were moving an arm up and down a body in ways that we couldn’t do before.
“And to add to the complexity, we also had to do the shading,” Fong continued, “which is supposed to be inspired by the idea that these characters are gathering their life force from the very ground that they’re walking on. So, to see particles and energy gathering from the ground and up the wire, we had build a system that would deal with various arms at different parts of the body that overlap or don’t overlap. And we had to build a glowing membrane because expressions on wires by themselves don’t read over complex backgrounds.”
As a result of “Soul’s” unusual emphasis on volumetric shapes and particle simulation as a total effect, Morris believes it’s worthy of an Oscar nomination. “It’s going in front of a group of people that primarily judge live action and [photoreal] integration,” he said. “But, on the other hand, the complexity of visual effects is certainly the equal of anything that was done last year.”