With Pixar’s “Soul” winning two Oscars Sunday night for animated feature and original score, the timing couldn’t be better for “22 vs Earth,” a prequel short about why the skeptical sidekick (voiced by Tina Fey) refuses to be born (streaming April 30th on Disney+). Also returning is Alicia Braga as soul counselor Jerry.
Directed by “Soul” editor Kevin Nolting (a Pixar vet for nearly 22 years), the short provided an opportunity to dig more deeply into 22’s aversion to life until she meets jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who’s determined to return to Earth to play professionally in New York. “All during the making of ‘Soul,’ we wondered why she didn’t want to be born,” said Nolting, who also edited the Oscar-winning “Inside Out” and “Up” for director/chief creative officer Pete Docter.
“What made her the way she was? All these little souls go to Earth and she seems to have this problem,” Nolting added. There were no deleted scenes in “Soul” to provide any clues. Was it being intimidated by 22’s legendary mentors (including Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Jung, and Muhammad Ali )? Or the fear of death? “She has friends that she’s losing and it brings in more humanity to her,” he said.
In “22 vs Earth” (scripted by Josh Cooley, director of the Oscar-winning “Toy Story 4”), the dispirited senior soul decides to defy the rules of The Great Before by enlisting five new souls to join her resistance. This leads to some amusing, unintended consequences, which only hardens 22’s resolve to never be born.
“For me, if we were making a movie about her, this would be the mid-point and ‘Soul’ would be the third act,” continued Nolting, who enjoyed contrasting 22’s nihilism with the innocence of her cohorts, and threw in a couple of “Apocalypse Now” visual nods. “So she’s losing her friends and she’s unsure why she’s not getting the call to go to Earth or finding her spark, and this process crystallizes the path that she takes [for ‘Soul’].”
Having all the animated assets in place for the ethereal Great Before and its unique characters was a great advantage. As production departments wrapped, Nolting cherry picked available animators before they went on vacation and moved on to their next features. It also helped bouncing ideas off Docter and a few other trusted colleagues. “Pete told me to make it more kid-friendly,” he said. “That’s definitely not my natural forte; cute isn’t my normal go-to.”
Docter also told Nolting to make it quicker, which was ironic for the editor. But he had previous experience making shorts for the 48 Hour Film Project, where you have only two days to make a 4-7 minute work. “It’s a good antidote to the long process of making a feature,” he said. Directing a short also provided new insight into shaping an animated performance. “As editor, I sort of have to be the bad cop by calling out the lack of time for more iterations. I’m always guarding certain things in the cut. So it was great to have a different relationship with [animators] where I could be more open and work with them in a more collaborative way.”
Now the editor has greater insight into 22 as a result of making the short. “As we were making [‘Soul’], she plays an irritating character by definition,” he said. “How you do make that appealing to an audience? We achieved that in the feature and this just adds to that.