The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Soul.
Can you talk about the design of the film and how it’s another evolution for Pixar both in the extremes of realism and surrealism that it achieves? It’s a New York film, but there’s also the astral plane.
Pete Docter: One of the big joys for me in working in this business is to embrace stuff that is perfect for animation. It’s a bit of a subjective term but it was the thing that drove me to think about the concept for Inside/Out… how do we personify emotions as abstract as that? In this film, we learned pretty quickly that souls generally are thought of by various religious traditions as ethereal and non-physical and vaporous and invisible. So this was a real challenge. I also think that, particularly in the U.S., we are conditioned to think of animation as something for kids. There’s no reason for that; you don’t go to a museum and say “oh, oil paintings, that’s for kids.” It’s capable of anything and we’re so lucky to work at a place that allows us to push the boundaries of that box. This film was definitely doing that for us!
Jazz is the perfect metaphor for the central themes of our film
Kemp, the story about how you came to co-direct this film is pretty remarkable.
Kemp Powers: Yeah, I was brought on as a writer about two years into the process. And I think that in the process of making Pixar films, there are often several writers that come on throughout—it wasn’t unusual. I think the fact that I got made a co-director was unique. A lot of that came from where the film was at that point. I was definitely looped into to lots of other elements of the film that writers aren’t typically involved with, everything from casting to character design and set design to our culture trust, both internal and external. It was probably eight months to a year into the process as the script was really getting tight that Pete and Dana actually asked me to become co-director and of course I asked “what does that mean?” and I found out that I had kind of been doing that the whole time! There were a lot of things that we learned in the process of making this film. This was a slightly unusual creative process even within the realm of Pixar films.
You mentioned this phrase “culture trust.” Can you expand on that?
Dana Murray: We have an internal culture trust which is a group of some of the black employees at Pixar that we bring along during the entire creative process of the film. We’d have screenings where we put the reels together, the storyboards, dialogue and music and all that and then we have typical notes session with our brain trust. But then we also have a notes session afterwards just with our culture trust, to see if there are things that don’t feel right or how we can make scenes feel more culturally authentic. They also review characters and sets as well and they really contributed quite a bit to this film. It was great because it was such a diverse group even within the culture trust. We wanted to make sure there was a lot of gender diversity and age diversity, a range of where people grew up. That was kind of the fun of it because everyone has a different opinion of things! Trying to figure out which direction to go after those note sessions could sometimes be tricky but was also really rewarding.
The music is so integral to the story. To me it was such an incredible sonic experience—it became apparent how tightly the Jon Batiste work was intertwined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work in a way that’s not just score, but part of the story.
PD: Ren Klyce—who did our sound design—is amazing. It was through him we hooked up with Trent and Atticus. What we learned in working on their music with them is that sonically it’s not just played on speakers up front. It becomes part of the experience; you’re in this scene. The music becomes part of the sound design and the ambience of the world. So that was new, as well as the way they worked. We’re used to having our temp music up until the picture locks, and then you hand it off to the composer, and then they write to picture. In this instance, they were giving us cues as we were still re-writing and editing, so we would cut it in and do a lot of editing and mucking around and then return it to them to polish. They were much more involved in the process in a very organic way. And of course with Batiste, we needed to record him before the animation so we could match. That’s the way dialogue is done. You record the actors and then the animators listen and they’re looking for these ways to synchronize the sound with the picture that just completes this illusion that the sound is coming out of the character. By recording Batiste first, the animators could match every finger, every gesture and even push it further than real life. Music was a huge part of this movie. Maybe someone else wants to talk about the thematic elements of jazz.
KP: Jazz is honestly the perfect metaphor for the central themes of our film. Its’s improvisational, like life itself. You have to take whatever is thrown at you and turn it into something beautiful. Which was always a good argument to have whenever someone would ask “really, a kids movie about jazz?” and we always said no, we need it, it’s core to the central story we’re trying to tell. Fortunately, when we tested it out on kids, they really leaned in on the performative aspects of jazz. It’s alluring to children, seeing someone playing the saxophone and fingering or banging away on the piano keys. It actually really drew kids in.
Can you talk about developing the look of the film with your Cinematographer, crafting the lighting and camerawork, and also the contributions of the great Bradford Young?
PD: The way we work is that we have two DPs, traditionally. We had Matt Aspury, our DP of layout, and Ian Megibbon, who was lighting. Those guys came to us and said the ultimate New York films are those iconic ones from the 70s. So let’s try to approximate the same film stock, the same lens choice, so we had anamorphic lenses which you can kind of tell from the way it sort of blurs in the background. It was important and really fit into the overall design because we wanted the ethereal world to be clean and soft and fuzzy and this world is gritty and hard-edged. So there’s a really great opposition and contrast.
KP: Bradford is known, among many other things, for how well he lights black skin and black characters. We had a great variety of black complexions in the film so it behooved us to have him on board as a consultant, and Ian is a huge fan of Bradford. Bradford actually came in a few different times and didn’t just discuss lighting black skin but some other techniques of lighting that he uses that we hadn’t really used before. Like Bradford does this wonderful thing with single source lighting, where sometimes there will be light coming from a single source and it will cast a character in a shadow in a way that previously we wouldn’t have done in a Pixar-animated film. But he gave these great discussions about lighting and the subversive things that lighting can say about wealth versus poverty. He put this all into an incredible historical context. Our lighting team really took it to heart. It’s so funny because we hear people say that the film looks photorealistic, but it’s not. I think some of those lighting techniques are responsible for what appears to some people to be a photorealistic look.
What makes for a great voice actor? Is it just about the voice or is there something else?
DM: Our process is that first we design a character and spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they look like. Then as we get closer to needing to cast with the casting department, we ask them to provide a ton of voices but we don’t want to know who the actors are, so we can listen to these while we look at the character design. Sometimes you can tell, obviously, if it’s someone super recognizable. But for the most part you don’t know. You want the voice to fit with the design you have. I think what makes the best voice actors are the ones that can go in and not just deliver what’s in the script, but have fun and deliver lines that aren’t on-script, because those tend to be the funniest.