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Designing the Illusory: Souls, Counselors, and The Great Before of ‘Soul’

Pete Docter and Pixar make simple, bold, and beautiful look easy in the gorgeous and fantastical ethereal realm of their upcoming animated feature, premiering December 25 on Disney+.

Pete Docter and Pixar’s highly anticipated new animated feature, Soul, is set in two completely different and uniquely designed worlds: middle-school band teacher and Jazz enthusiast Joe Gardner’s fast-paced New York City home, and the abstract, illusory realm of The Great Before. Much of the film takes place in this ethereal, cosmic world, a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities before descending to their “birth” as humans on Earth. And, in the hands of Pixar’s highly creative magicians, Soul aptly demonstrates how animated storytelling can so distinctively capture our imaginations; once again, Docter and his Pixar team have conceived, designed, and produced an emotionally satisfying and visually stunning film, a charming and gorgeous depiction of the very essence of how and where our souls originate.  

Bypassing theatres to debut December 25 on Disney+, Soul is directed by the two-time Oscar winner Docter, co-directed by writer/producer Kemp Powers, and produced by Dana Murray. Docter has directed some of Pixar’s greatest financial and critical successes, including Inside Out (2015), Up (2009) and Monsters, Inc. (2001). And, as if he’s not busy enough, since 2018, he’s taken on the role as Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer. So much for long lunches.

Check out this just released “Meet Joe Gardner” featurette:

According to executive producer Dan Scanlon, Docter’s signature imagination, and the studio’s artistic prowess, are fully represented in the world of Soul. “You can tell from Pete’s previous films like Up and Inside Out that he loves animation and loves pushing the boundaries of what it can do,” says Scanlon. “But with Soul, he and his team strived to go further than ever before. They wanted to show audiences a world they’d never seen before in the form of the You Seminar. For Pete and his team, showing something new was more about restraint than about adding all the bells and whistles. The world [of the Great Before] is very deceptively simple, big bold beautiful shapes, abstract buildings that look like none you’ve ever seen on Earth. It takes guts to try to communicate an idea with less, but if done right it can end up saying a lot more.”

The basic concept of the film evolved around a soul who doesn't want to go live that meets a soul who doesn't want to die. “If we were going to make a film about souls, our first problem was what does a soul look like?” Docter describes. “So, we did a lot of research, looking into the teachings, the many philosophies and traditions around the world, and what we found most was that people described the soul as vapor, nonphysical, formless, breath, air. All very interesting, but not very helpful because, heh, how do you draw air?”

If you’re going to put something into a film, you need to have something to shoot. “So, we found this stuff called Aerogel and it's the lightest solid material on Earth, and it's actually used by the aerospace industry, and it seemed to suggest the nonphysical stuff our research would talk about but in a way we could actually put on screen,” says Murray. “So, with this in mind, we started to explore what a soul might look like, which was not so easy. A lot of different artists at Pixar took a crack at this, and they came up with some very cool, interesting ideas, but we still felt like we needed more humanity, like clear facial features we could recognize, with expressions and attitudes.”

Early drawings, that suggested both the ephemeral, but also showed a face with eyes and expressions, were promising, but problematic. “We loved these [drawings], but we thought they looked too much like a ghost,” the producer continues. “So, we thought, ‘Wait a minute. If souls represent the full potential of who we are inside, maybe we could use color to show that.’  And so, then we also developed a whole new technique we'd never done before. We created these lines around the edges that could basically define all the articulation that might otherwise be too fuzzy to clearly see. After months and months, we finally found our soul characters.”

Then, director of photography Ian Megibben teamed up with production designer Steve Pilcher and a group of artists to figure out how produce the desired soul design. “More than ever, we had technical directors from different disciplines - effects, character department, sets and lighting - come together to figure out how to make these characters work,” says Megibben. “We looked at rainbows and prisms, rocks and minerals, and opalescent glass.”

The result is a prismatic character that is well-suited for the world it inhabits. “When light is intercepted by the form of the character,” Pilcher describes, “you’ll see warm light - reds, oranges, yellows - passing through. It’ll meet the cool side, the shadowed side, which is a deep ultramarine blue. When the colors meet in the middle they blend beautifully.”

According to Pilcher, key to the look of the world was a particular kind of softness. “Almost everything has a degree of blur on it,” he says. “Everything is very soft and ethereal and somewhat transparent. It is predominantly a very pastel palette, somewhat desaturated. We wanted to make sure the souls fit perfectly without getting lost, so they are a little brighter.

“There’s something that looks like grass, but it’s not really grass,” Pilcher continues. “It’s soft and almost featherlike - translucent in the way it moves. We bleached the color in the Hall of Everything - where souls go to interact with possible interests. Everything there is recognizable, but there’s no color in it unless you interact with it.”

According to Docter, the idea for the film’s unique world is 23 years in the making. “It started with my son - he’s 23 now - but the instant he was born, he already had a personality,” says the director. “Where did that come from? I thought your personality developed through your interaction with the world. And yet, it was pretty clear that we’re all born with a unique, specific sense of who we are.” “In our story, everyone is born with a soul,” Docter adds. “And those souls don’t just show up unprepared, they’re trained and given personality and interests.”

In the film, new souls are fresh-faced, violet-eyed, and curious; they’re blank slates on a mission to discover their identity. From the Personality Pavilions to the Hall of Everything, new souls take on the traits that will define them on Earth. Finding their spark is the final step for all new souls before earning their Earth Pass and beginning life as a human. For some new souls, however, finding that spark is easier said than done.

“New souls are freshly born of the Universe, so these souls are the smallest,” says Pilcher. “They’re designed to look baby-like with less distinguishable features than mentor souls as they have not experienced life on Earth in a body. They have a simple lightbulb-like shape and no permanent arms or legs.” Pilcher goes on to explain that this simple concept is quite deceiving. “All souls are somewhat semi-opaque and soft focused to suggest an ethereal, soft, vaporous, transcendent, spiritual quality to their forms,” he says. “Although they are simple in design, they are quite sophisticated in surface, lighting and FX.”

22, voiced by Tina Fey, is a precocious soul who has spent hundreds of years at The You Seminar, where new souls must meet several requirements before going to Earth. Like every soul before her, 22 has been through the Personality Pavilions, which explains her endearing sarcasm, quick wit, and occasional moodiness. 22’s problem, however, is that she’s met every requirement to go to Earth… except one. Regardless of how many times she visits the Hall of Everything, no matter how many esteemed luminaries have mentored her, she can’t find the spark she needs to fulfill her requirements and make her way to Earth. Since she’s not interested in life on Earth, that’s fine by her. One of the film’s key arcs is whether Joe can convince her otherwise.

22’s design began with a similar look to the rest of the new souls in The Great Before. Says shading art director Bryn Imagire, “We looked at refraction, prisms - those kinds of ideas - to apply to the soul characters. There’s a gradation across their whole bodies that suggests the idea of light going through a translucent object and dispersing in it.”

All new souls, including 22, look similar since their personalities are in process. To differentiate the main character, artists gave 22 half-lidded, unimpressed eyes and two buckteeth. Character supervisor Junyi Ling notes it was also important fort 22 to clearly emote, which was a challenge given her volumetric character. “Where normally we would have surface shading, which makes things feel more tactile, the volumes that make up the new souls are thin, so facial features are harder to read,” says Ling. “Artists and technicians worked together to transfer geometric information from the surface into the volume, which is unusual, so we’re able to read mouth and lips, even though they’re transparent.”

Animation supervisor Jude Brownbill, explaining how animators found fun and unique ways to showcase the character’s personality, says, “New souls don’t have arms and legs, but we imagined that 22 has been there for so long that after so many years and so many mentors, she’s learned how to turn on legs or arms when she wants. She can have little mitten hands, or if she wants to point, she can create digits. But she’s also lazy and insecure, so when she doesn’t want those extra limbs, she brings them back and hides them.”

Helping these untrained souls prepare for a new life on Earth, coaching them through a process called “The You Seminar,” is a group of characters known as The Counselors. There are five, all known as Jerry, voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Zenobia Shroff. Marked by their cheery, optimistic and (mostly) all-knowing dispositions, the Counselors run The You Seminar very much like camp counselors, shepherding dozens of new human souls, awarding them unique personalities, and helping them find their “spark” and graduate to a placement on Earth. Each Jerry is a unique expression of the universe itself - employing patience, good cheer, and passive-aggressive tendencies in different measures. But all maintain boundless enthusiasm for their metaphysical charges. “They’re like kindergarten teachers filled with immeasurable patience to herd these souls through the chaos of The You Seminar,” says screenwriter Mike Jones.

Designing the counselors did not come easily. Animation supervisor Bobby Podesta notes that the Counselors’ own description raised the bar. “They describe themselves as the universe dumbing itself down for humans to be able to comprehend,” Podesta says. “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 emerged that felt most recognizable as a character yet was malleable enough into almost anything. That character was made up of, believe it or not, a line - a living line.”

Story artist Aphton Corbin adds that the idea was born in the story room during a brainstorm. “They were both two- dimensional and three-dimensional,” she says. “I did these drawing turnarounds - what if their faces looked different from different angles?” Pixar artists Deanna Marsigliese and Jerome Ranft developed 3D versions of the imagery in wire, highlighting what the characters might look like from different angles and in varying forms. “Just as the art department explored the possibilities of what the counselors could be, the animators did the same,” Podesta remarks. “Our animators drew on their backgrounds as artists to craft a visually stunning performance.”

To help animators execute the designs, character supervisor Michael Comet’s team created additional animation controls. “We developed some new technology that creates a new type of curve and allows them to turn on and off each individual control point,” he explains. “They can get these very smooth shapes, add a hand or a thumb or all of the fingers; they have controls that allow them to sharpen or add an angle.”

Podesta adds, “The art was challenging the technology, and the technology was inspiring the art.  Art and technical worked with the animator to achieve something truly mind-blowing but also something, as the counselors would say, our feeble human minds could comprehend. So, with the counselors, we're able to animate characters unlike anything we've ever seen in film before.” 

The first time executive producer Dan Scanlon saw them onscreen, he notes, “Myself and other people in the theater audibly gasped. I’d never seen that type of 2D animation done in 3D that way before and seeing something you’ve never seen before is why I go to movies.” 

Mentors are called on in The Great Before to help new souls find their spark. The Counselors have been matching mentors with new souls for generations. “They’ve worked with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Aristotle, Copernicus, Marie Antoinette - there are others, too,” notes story lead Trevor Jimenez. “They can take them to the Hall of You, where a mentor shows his or her life to inspire the new souls.”

Typically, in all their wisdom and life experience, mentors can usher the new souls safely and happily to Earth. But 22 isn’t as cooperative, of course, despite assistance from a host of mentors. When Joe Gardner finds himself in The Great Before, he is mistaken for a mentor and ultimately matched with 22.

“We generally singled out a couple of distinguishable features like hair shape or something they wore on earth to separate the mentors from new souls,” says Pilcher, who adds that a mentor’s life experience also affords them their Earthly eye color, arms and legs.

Additionally, lost souls wander in The Astral Plane while their Earthly selves struggle to break free of obsession. “Some people get caught up in something that isn’t necessarily bad - cooking, video games, art,” says Docter. “But if you do it to the exclusion of everything else in life, you might become a lost soul.”

According to Pilcher, the look of the lost souls represents a restrictive self-imposed psychological prison. “They are enveloped in the dark-blue sand-like stardust that makes up The Astral Plane,” he says. “The soul becomes encased in a shell-like form - larger and somewhat sluggish, preventing its true free purpose of expression.”

Character supervisor Junyi Ling says they worked with the sets and lighting teams to develop a sand shader for the lost souls. “The material is somewhat translucent and glittery with an otherworldliness to it,” she notes. “It’s sub-surface scattering - they almost have a spark to it. We wanted the sparkle to be visually consistent.”

Counselors, mentors, new souls, and lost souls, led by Joe Gardner and 22, are coming to Disney+ December 25. Soul is a true cosmic adventure you don't want to miss.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.