When visual effects supervisor Michael Fong and effects supervisor Bill Watral boarded Soul, they were each a bit intimidated, immediately recognizing the film as one of frighteningly novel ambitions. Meditating on the origins of the human personality, Pixar’s latest would require them to bring to life characters and worlds unlike any they’d created before.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Soul centers on Joe (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated middle-school band teacher who seeks to return to Earth, to realize his dreams of performing as a jazz musician, after a sudden accident separates him from his body. Thrust into a celestial realm known as The Great Before, the character finds that he’ll only be able to get back to New York City if he agrees to mentor a stubborn, fledgling soul named 22 (Tina Fey).
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Presenting more formless, abstract characters than Fong and Watral were used to, the animated feature needed to set up a striking visual juxtaposition between a very real world, and one emerging from Docter’s imagination, while embracing “the idea of jazz” as a visual motif.
Fortunately, much of the work on Soul was completed pre-pandemic, meaning that the film could be turned around in time for a Christmas Day release on Disney+. However, as the Pixar team transitioned to remote work, Fong and Watral had their work cut out for them, with 600 effects shots, in various states of development, still to complete.
While doing so was no small feat, their efforts paid off. On February 9, Soul became the rare animated film to break into the Oscars’ shortlist for Visual Effects, claiming a slot alongside blockbuster, live-action features like Tenet and Birds of Prey. More recently, the film also earned five nominations at the Visual Effects Society Awards, and on April 6, it will contend in categories like Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature.
In conversation with Deadline, Fong and Watral reflect on their journey with Soul, detailing the aspects of the film that scared them the most, and the way in which they embraced their inner “adrenaline junkie” to help bring the film to fruition.
DEADLINE: Why was Soul a film you were excited to work on?
BILL WATRAL: I’d worked on Pete’s films before, but not in this capacity, so I knew there were exciting things in store. Seeing the initial set of story reels go by, too, it was pretty clear that this was going to be something different and really special.
I’m a music lover. I’m a guitar player, and played trumpet when I was young. I’m a huge jazz fan, as well, so the jazz themes really identified with me. So, it was a culmination of all that, and then not to toot his horn too much, but I knew Fong was heading up the VFX, and I hadn’t gotten to work with him in this capacity before, either. That was super exciting to me because I know he puts great teams together, and I knew it would be a fun production to work on.
MICHAEL FONG: I’m actually not a music person quite as much, but I’m interested in movies that tell stories that are really meaningful to the people who make it, and I know that Pete, as a director, focuses on stories that mean a lot to him. He only wants to make movies that mean something, and try to get something big across, and I know that Soul was a really big project for him. He was trying to describe what was going on in his own life, making sure that he was thinking about the small things in life, and that means a lot to me because I know that it will, in some ways, reflect with the audience.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Docter and co-director Kemp Powers, in your first conversations about the project?
FONG: When I had early conversations with Pete and Kemp, they were actually pretty far out there. They were describing worlds that we couldn’t fully understand, and to be honest, I don’t think Pete and Kemp fully understood them either, in the beginning. They wanted a world that was before the beginning, The Great Before. Before you happen to drop into your body on Earth, what could it be possibly like?
[Pete] really wanted to push the looks to be different. He wanted something that was not the typical Pixar house look. He wanted something that was not quite well understood, and not quite in the same realm as, say, Inside Out. He really wanted to push something to be different, and it actually was a little scary in the beginning because we weren’t sure quite what he was talking about. He talked a lot about impressionism. He talked about, “What if you were like 50 vibrating strings? Could you make characters out of that?” And it was like, “What?” [Laughs]
WATRAL: When we first started talking about what the looks were going to be, it scared me a lot because Pixar has that house look. We can be this giant machine that functions really well, on all of the cylinders that we’re used to firing on, and when we try to break out of that a little bit, it can be exceptionally challenging, from a kind of fusion between creativity and technology. So, that part scared me a little bit, how we were going to get through it, and then when I started seeing the art that had been laid out, it was such a wide gamut of looks that I actually think I might’ve gotten even a little more scared.
So, that was my initial impression. Then, as we started making pictures, I think a lot of that fear went away and turned into excitement for what this thing could possibly look like, and how far out Pete and Kemp were willing to go with it.
FONG: I’ve got to say, though, when we say we’re scared, it’s like a good scared. It’s like, “We know this is going to be really different. They’re going to be pushing us, and we know something really great is going to come out of it at the end.”
WATRAL: I would dovetail into that to say, I feel like there’s, in a weird way, a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, in all of us who work in production. That’s what we feed off of, is that, “Oh my god, this is going to be hard.”
DEADLINE: What about the worlds and characters you’d help bring to life for Soul scared you the most?
FONG: We had soul characters, and we knew from the beginning that they would have to be volumetric because they were supposed to be ethereal. The whole world was supposed to be very ethereal. There was a contrast that our production designer was trying to create, which was, the human [world] will be very tactile. But the soul will be very soft and nondescript.
So, we knew we were probably going to be diving a lot into volumetrics, and having a lot of volumes is expensive in our world, computer graphics-wise. Volumes are difficult to render; they take a long time to render; they’re difficult to light. If you don’t do it right, they look like smoke or fog—they don’t look quite right. There were just a lot of different aspects to making the characters appealing, and also hitting the idea that was in Pete’s head, which is sometimes hard to get out. We had to run a lot of different ideas by him to pull out what the soul characters looked like, and the same goes for the counselors.
When the counselors were first drawn in storyboards, they were actually normal-looking, bipedal characters, but the counselors in the movie are these crazy wire forms. And we had no idea that was coming until one day, our art department unveils these physical sculptures they had made out of wire. You could tell that Pete was enamored of them immediately, and the rest of us are scratching our heads like, “Oh my god, this is nothing like the storyboards. We have no idea how to do this.”
But it also meant that it was actually going to be something really different for us, and that meant that we were going to explore really cool areas. I think those kinds of things where we didn’t know where we were going in the beginning, and then were finding our way, it was a lot of work. But also, it could be a lot of fun.
DEADLINE: Could you clarify, for the layperson, the meaning of the term “volumetric”?
FONG: I think when a lot of people think about characters, or objects, or props, they’re thinking about hard surfaces. They’re thinking about this surface that you can touch, or at least that light reflects off, and then bounces into your eye, and you can see it. But then there’s a whole bunch of things out there in the world, and in our Soul world, which are volumetric, meaning that there is basically a medium. Like, in the case of fog, [there are] water particles dispersed through the air, and light is traveling through this medium and bouncing around, eventually making its way to your eye. But it’s gone through a really long path through the medium, before it gets to your eye, and that path actually dictates how it’s going to look. So, sometimes, fog is more dense. Sometimes, the fog is less dense.
That’s kind of what I’m talking about with volumetrics. In essence, we’re describing a volume, and in that volume is a density, some kind of medium. That density, in our case, is non-uniform, and we’re trying to figure out how to make it look like you can kind of see through it, but not fully. It has some amount of surface shape, so that you can make out emotions, and tell when characters are smiling. But at the same time, it feels ethereal; it kind of feels gassy.
DEADLINE: I know the effects departments also worked on scenes involving musical performance. Tell us about that process.
WATRAL: We had these amazing performances by both Jon Batiste and the guys from Nine Inch Nails, and most of the stuff that we were looking to transform into animation was on the jazz side. The performances were things that animation had to bring to life, in a way that musicians that are watching it believe it, and identify with our main character, Joe, as a musician sitting there in front of the piano, playing it.
The performance had to be believable, so I believe animation, when they did their work, took copious video reference of Jon playing, and used that as reference for their positioning. Then, we also had breakdowns of the music done as MIDI data, so that the animation rig of the piano could show animators where the fingers should be placed, based on the music being played on that frame. So, it would show the keys, and if they wanted to, it could suppress the keys, like a player piano, as well.
They used both of those things as guides to do their performances. Then in effects, we had a lot of visuals that were also timed to those performances, as Joe is coming in and out of ‘The Zone,’ and we did something similar, where we would look at that performance and that MIDI data, and decide what the important moments were to hit, using the data as a starting point, and then breaking off from there, once we felt like we were hitting real moments within the performances.
DEADLINE: What other creative challenges did Soul present?
FONG: I was thinking of something tangential to the music. Pete came to our technical teams and sort of challenged us. He said, “You ought to be thinking about how jazz is a major theme in this movie. I’d love for us to be able to tie a lot of our elements together with jazz.”
In some ways, coming from a computer science background, you’re thinking, “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about.” But it was really great when our teams came together, and the examples I think of are our [simulation] team and our sets team. Our sim team started really embracing the idea of jazz. Jazz is all about improvisation and dynamic elements, and they started thinking about whether or not they should be doing simulation of the garments in the human world the way that we’ve always been doing them.
We’d always been trying to get clean lines in our simulations before because we wanted to make sure that the silhouettes read cleanly and didn’t distract you. But our simulations team put that idea on its head and said, “Hey, look. Jazz is all about dynamic elements being formed. What if we actually tried to promote wrinkles all the time? Wrinkles will form; wrinkles will go away. We’re not going to try to get these clean silhouettes anymore.” So, what they did was start oversizing the garments. They started tailoring them a little bit too large, tailoring so that there would be tension lines, and what this did was, when you look at the human characters, their clothing actually feels alive.
I guess Pete really felt that reflected the idea of jazz. He loved the idea that they were trying to embrace the idea of jazz in their medium, in clothing, and I think the same goes for sets, where they were working with their assets, and they kept trying to think of, “Well, how does jazz apply to architecture?” They realized that they wanted punctuations here and there, and a rhythm to the stylization they were doing. So, if you look at the human world, and the soul world too, you can see it’s actually really pushed, and really, really stylized. There are very rarely 90-degree corners in any of the buildings, and they’re really trying to punctuate this idea that there is dynamic energy, and a little bit of improv going on.
So, those are two things [where] I thought they rose to the challenge that Pete gave them, and really hit it out of the park, with regards to embracing the idea of jazz for a computer graphics medium.