‘Soul’: How Pixar Designed a Tactile New York and an Ethereal Great Before for Its First Black-Led Feature

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Bill Desowitz
·5 min read
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Animation
Animation

Like “Inside Out,” we get two worlds in one with Pixar’s “Soul.” Yet they’re a lot more imaginative and complex in Pete Docter’s celestial follow-up, which contrasts a lived-in New York City with the more ethereal vibe of The Great Before, the pre-birth training center where aspiring jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) finds himself after eluding death in The Great Beyond.

For the iconic New York City, production designer Steve Pilcher and the art department created a tactile world that’s “solid, physical and reflective with lots of color…with a history of wear and tear. Buildings and railings and pavement are weathered or bleached,” he said. “Nothing’s really perfect in this world. It’s very organic and interesting. There is texture and tons of variety, color variation, weather conditions, wet surfaces, and dry surfaces — all that beauty that we take for granted becomes evident, particularly once you’ve been in The Great Before where everything is based on almost perfect symmetry.”

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For The Great Before, they invented a pastel world that was soft, blurry, and formless. Yet it fed off the complementary soul characters. “You’ve got to think contextually,” added Pilcher. “If the souls are catching the spectral light like a prism, you want to make sure the environments have to support them visually by still being beautiful.”

While New York appears photo-real on the surface, it’s caricatured somewhat with a certain amount of distortion. And there are no straight lines. This provided a relaxed look. The interplay of shapes was almost like jazz. “To remove CG perfection, it was impractical to caricature every single object,” Pilcher said. “But you can distort slightly a window frame and other surfaces in collaboration with the sets team.”

But if you go too far, it can look humorous and wacky. They needed to find a sweet spot. Another important element was attention to tactile detail. “Why is there gum on the sidewalk, cracks from the weathering of long winters, rain, slush, salt, sand?,” said Pilcher. “What is the surface of the road compared to the sidewalk? What is the surface of this brick building? What is the surface of a painted jazz wall with seven coats of paint that’s chipped away? The idea isn’t to be photoreal — the idea is to make it feel real.”

For the pivotal barbershop scene (conceived by co-director and screenwiter Kemp Powers), in which Joe and lost soul 22 (Tina Fey) discover more about each other and what makes life worth living, Pilcher and the team wanted to convey the importance of tradition. There are iconic ’70s photos along the walls to complement the timeliness of the shop with its warm mixture of wood, glass, concrete, and tile. “Traditions are very important, particularly in a barbershop,” he said. “You have clientele coming back for years, probably since they were kids. There’s relationships that go on since those early days. You have to respect the past as well as the present and move on to the future. It’s a space where you can just chill.”

By contrast, the subway is dark and gritty, where broken tiles are pieced together with duct tape and there’s a greenish tinge to the light. “We looked at the yellow, bumpy platform edge line [of a New York subway], and I saw rats running around down the tracks,” Pilcher added. “The soot and grease and dirt coming off the subway train on to those tracks [stood out] with the tiled walls with their reflectivity. All these different surfaces had a history and you want to capture all that.”

Not surprisingly, it was a lot harder to create the abstract quality of The Great Before. Fortunately, they had a happy accident early on where everything blurred out, and Docter proclaimed that’s the defining effect they should pursue. After many iterations, Pilcher devised the look of predawn and likened the world to a baby’s crib. The grass, hills, and landscape were made of particles and contained different shades of blur bathed in blue and magenta.

The golden Pavilions, meanwhile. where the souls go to discover their personalities, proved the most challenging. “How do you convey aloofness in a building?,” Pilcher said. “We conveyed it by showing a structure that flares up a bit, slightly elevated. We started drawing buildings at first but it didn’t work. It was too earthly and too developed. You need to imply that there is an entrance and exit.” They did a couple hundred line drawings to convey emotion; from there they interpreted it in 3D. And they used a real-time program called Motif for review. This allowed Docter and the team to go inside the volume and play with shapes quickly without having to wait for a render.

For The Hall of Everything, where the souls discover their spark, they came up with the idea of a warehouse containing every earthly object. But the twist was that the vast environment was monochromatic. “Only when characters interact with objects is color introduced,” added Pilcher. Otherwise, the objects are translucent. And when you move away, they return to black-and-white. But it had to be readable so an artist developed a new way to do line work, placing lines to accent shape and geometry.

Overall, The Great Before conveyed charm and innocence to Pilcher. The idea was to take something very basic and then dig deeply into its surface properties, how it interacts with light, and how it’s rendered. This kind of abstract animation was new to Pixar. “A soul can be old or new,” he said, “but they all come from some ethereal place of origin and you want to tap into that with that simplistic design.”

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