Look at the history of animation studio Pixar and you’ll see a long list of noteworthy firsts, from Hollywood’s first feature-length computer-animated film (1995’s Toy Story) to the first animated feature to open the Cannes Film Festival (2009’s Up). The award-winning studio’s next film, Soul, continues that trend by breaking new ground with its first African-American lead character and African-American director, Kemp Powers.
Soul is the story of an aspiring jazz musician named Joe (Jamie Foxx), who finally gets his big break, only to have a terrible accident before he takes the stage. It follows Joe’s journey through the afterlife — and the plane that exists before life — as he attempts to find his way back to his body and the city he loves. Along the way, he finds himself tasked with convincing a skeptical, untethered soul that living a mortal life is worth all the trouble.
The history of jazz is inextricably tied to that of African-Americans, and it became clear to Soul‘s producers early on that the film needed to honor that connection with not only a Black lead character, but also with a creative team more representative of the people and culture at the heart of the film.
“It was very important to all of us, and we took it as a huge responsibility,” Soul producer Dana Murray told Digital Trends. “From day one, we knew Joe was going to be Black. And we wanted to fill the room with people who could help participate in making sure these characters were authentic.”
In order to do so, Pixar brought in Star Trek: Discovery and One Night in Miami screenwriter Powers to work on the story with co-director Pete Docter, as well as a group of consultants from both within the company and throughout the entertainment world. Among them are musicians Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jon Batiste, and Questlove, as well as actor and singer (and original Hamilton cast member) Daveed Diggs.
The group of consultants, along with Powers and the rest of the film’s creative team, collaborated on everything from the film’s impressive musical themes to the look and feel of Joe’s daily life in his New York City neighborhood.
“At Pixar, it’s always a collaborative process,” explained Powers. “No matter which film, it’s born of the director’s vision, but it takes hundreds of people to bring that vision to life. There are wonderful conversations that are always happening.”
For Powers, though, Joe’s story hit particularly close to home. The character’s life is based in many ways on Powers’ own life experience, and it was his contributions and personal investment in Joe’s story that eventually led to Powers shifting from co-writer to co-director on the film with two-time Oscar winner Docter.
“[Joe and I] have a lot in common,” said Powers. “We’re from the same city, and we’re the same age. Even the idea of pursuing these artistic dreams on nights and weekends is something I can relate to on a personal level. But then, of course, there’s a great responsibility, too. You want to really represent the cultures that you’re showing authentically.”
And as Powers points out, part of that authenticity comes from recognizing that one person’s experiences aren’t universal — and that a multitude of different voices and visions make up every culture and community. And that’s where the studio’s decision to assemble its group of consultants came in.
“It was important from the beginning that we established that I do not speak for every Black person in America,” said Powers. “If you get 20 Black people in the room, as we learned, you’ll get 20 different opinions on every single topic. So there’s a little bit of a tightrope to walk, but that’s the wonderful discovery about this process: One person shouldn’t ever have to be burdened with speaking for an entire group.”
“There were Pixar employees helping us, and then we had our external consultants and the cast to help us, too,” recalled Murray. “[Jon] Batiste was an amazing, huge part of it. And it really was a lot of voices contributing.”
Making sure the diversity of voices and perspectives within Black culture were well-represented in the story and characters of Soul was only part of the project, though. The creative team also had to ensure that the sights and sounds of New York City and the people who live there were faithfully brought to the screen.
To do so, the team recruited cinematographer Bradford Young as yet another consultant. An Academy Award nominee for his work on the sci-fi drama Arrival, Young is well-known for his work on filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s projects, which typically feature a diverse cast of actors. Pixar’s lighting director of photography Ian Megibben worked with Young to give the human characters in Soul a spectrum of skin tones more accurate to the wide-ranging palette of the human world we live in.
“It really was a collaborative process,” said Powers of making Soul. “I think there were some lessons learned on this film that can now be applied to subsequent films on any number of different subjects in any number of specific groups.”
And in Soul, all of that collaboration comes together in something akin to perfect harmony as the film follows Joe from neighborhood jazz clubs to planes of existence that defy description, on a journey filled with music, love, life, and loss in the city that never sleeps.
Pixar’s Soul premieres December 25 on the Disney+ streaming service.
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