How the Black Barbershop Became the Heart of Pixar’s ‘Soul’

Co-director Kemp Powers wrote the barbershop scene to provide an "authentic Black space," and it became the film's turning point.
Soul Barbershop
"Soul" Barbershop

Thanks to the insightful writing of “Soul” co-director Kemp Powers (who also wrote the Oscar-nominated “One Night in Miami”), the barbershop scene is the most important moment in Pixar’s first Black-led feature. It introduces the community that the barbershop provides, and serves as the turning point for jazz pianist Joe (Jamie Foxx) to discover his true purpose in life.

“Joe is a Black man in New York, and part of your time you go through what I call ‘authentic Black spaces,’ where you’re around other people like yourself,” Powers said. “The barbershop scene came from that, and a desire, quite honestly, to see Black hair. When giving notes on the scene about Joe getting a suit from his mom, I also mentioned that Joe needs to get a haircut. Folks said that wasn’t as important as him getting a suit, and I begged to differ. For Joe, it would be that important. It was about Joe getting a different perspective about life in his own relationships with several people.”

The barbershop scene was a late addition to the script for the Best Animated Feature Oscar favorite. Although it’s Joe’s body that enters the barbershop, his soul is controlled by the rebellious 22 (Tina Fey). That switch is what allows Joe to experience the scene’s key revelation.

“The scene did not appear until Kemp wrote it quite a ways in,” said director and Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter. “Mike Jones, who wrote on it before Kemp got here, put in a scene where Joe has a Romanian neighbor he walks by every day but doesn’t really [notice] until 22 makes him aware of her presence and backstory. When Kemp came on, he wanted to concentrate on ‘authentic Black spaces’ and pointed out that Dez [Donnell Rawlings], this barber, was a friend of Joe, but it wasn’t until he had this scene… that he started to really listen and connect with this person.”

It was the hardest scene for Powers to write, requiring 40 drafts. “It was kind of a double beat and was competing with the [neighbor] scene because they were both accomplishing the same goals,” Powers said. “The barbershop scene got really tight and became entertaining, and served the story to the point where it made the other scene obsolete.”

Soul Barbershop
“Soul” Barbershop concept artDisney/Pixar

In the barbershop, 22 philosophizes about her confusing existence as a soul. This captures everyone’s attention; Dez can’t recall Joe ever discussing anything besides jazz. Through their discussion, Dez explains that finding his spark as a barber only came about after family obligations forced him to abandon his dream of becoming a vet. This serves as a eureka moment for both Joe and 22, who realize there’s greater purpose in life that can only be attained through personal experience.

With the barbershop scene fully realized, it was left to the animation teams to make it come to life. The design and visualization were naturalistic, based on researching barbershops with guidance from Powers. “When we were making it, we were thinking about tradition, which is very important in a barbershop,” said production designer Steve Pilcher. “You have clientele coming back for years, probably since they were kids. There’s relationships that go on since those early days and you have to mirror that and respect that. The space allows group interaction and it’s a space where you can just chill.”

He stylized the barbershop to capture years of wear on the ceiling, chairs, tiled floors, and brick walls. “There was a lack of symmetry and no straight lines,” said sets supervisor Han Cho. “A lot of it was based on jazz itself. You start out with certain notes, and the jazz artists improvise between those two notes. So working with our model lead, Mike Altman, this became our overarching style.”

For directors of cinematography Ian Megibben (lighting) and Matt Aspbury (camera), the barbershop scene’s naturalistic look aligned with the rest of the New York vibe. (This also was the first Docter film shot in the widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio.) They used long lenses for tremendous depth of field, and relied on a combination of natural and artificial light.

Soul Barbershop

“Even though there’s a lot of overhead lights in the set, we wanted to feel like it was bathed with this kind of golden light from outside,” Megibben said. “The scene is about the community that Joe lives in and so, even though it’s an interior scene, cranking out the beauty from outside tied into the greater world [with blown-out light flooding the place through the big, open window].”

The layout alternated between a long master shot with more personal moments of Dez interacting with 22 as Joe, as well as one-off vignettes of hair falling down at the barber’s feet. “We basically shot it in such a way that we introduce everyone in there, but once we get to the part where we didn’t want to have characters in the background, we wanted it to be between them and deliberately staged it with 22 sitting in that chair away from the window,” Aspbury said.

For the hair animation, Pixar had to capture the beauty and variety of Black hairstyles in real-time and with swift iteration. “More iterations means more complexity while utilizing fewer resources,” said Alex Marino, the film’s character shading and groom lead “As an example, one background character in the barbershop has a very detailed cornrow hairstyle. Normally, this level of specificity in style would be reserved for a more prominent character, but in this case our groom artist was able to deliver that level of complexity in only a couple of days.”

For Powers, the barbershop scene served as a catalyst for the movie’s second half. “Not only is 22 learning in that moment, but the inspiration that Joe takes from her gets applied later on.” The presence of Dez offers a deeper cultural message: “He’s satisfied with the life that he didn’t plan for, and that was important for people to know not to be negative about pursuing their dreams,” he said. “But people who win and succeed and are rich are not the only people whose lives have merit. And people who don’t get their dreams are often able to find true happiness.”

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