‘Soul’ Story Head Pulls Back the Curtain on the Making of a Pixar Movie

©2020 Disney/Pixar.

One of Pixar’s most striking trademarks is the ability to turn abstract concepts into accessible plot points. The gold standard is Inside Out, a film as entertaining as profound, and an unexpected source of insight into the pre-adolescent mind.

Like Inside OutSoul comes from the mind of Pete Docter (and collaborators Kemp Powers and Mike Jones) and tackles tough ideas like death, self-determination and having a purpose. Boldly, the film doesn’t answer some of the questions it introduces. Then again, nobody in history has convincingly done so.

At the center of the film is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist turned disenchanted music teacher. Out of the blue he gets his big break, just to depart the land of the living moments later. Unwilling to miss his shot, Gardner breaks from the afterlife into the before-life and crosses paths with a soul reluctant to make its way to Earth. It all makes sense sooner rather than later.

As it often happens with Pixar movies, Canadians are deeply ingrained in Soul (see Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4). The film’s story head is Trevor Jiménez, an animation artist who just two years ago was nominated for an Oscar for the Toronto-set short Weekends. Jiménez has been linked to the company since we Finding Dory. We connected over Skype to talk shop. 

What does a story lead do and how does it apply to Soul?

I started as a story artist and was promoted first to story lead and then story supervisor. A story lead gets key scenes in the film. You’re also in the writers’ room contributing ideas. As a story supervisor, you’re managing a team of story artists, we have six to eight per team. I made sure they were healthy, happy and in tune with the director. I was also in editorial and we would watch sequences and fine tune.

Were you also involved with the animation?

I would go to dailies to check out what the animators are doing. If a continuity or story question pops up I would answer it. We (story leads and supervisors) are the first in line: Working with the writers and director, we put together a blueprint of the whole film in drawings. We try to make sure that the scenes are working emotionally. An editor would then cut the right kind of music to capture the tone and add voice recordings. Once that’s working, an animator can take that on.

How would you prime a scene emotionally?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint what makes a scene work. It’s always different. The context is important, the music is so huge in dictating the tone and feeling. A lot of it feels like happenstance. Sometimes you get a scene in script form and you know it’s going to be amazing.

It’s something you do instinctively.

Yeah, it’s hard to articulate. It’s like watching a film or listening to music you love. You respond to it. Sometimes, when you see a scene edited together, it surprises you. You never thought it would work, but it does because of the juxtaposition of music, acting and some kind of magic.

Is there a specific contribution to Soul that you feel particularly proud of?

I was able to contribute a lot to this film. If I had to highlight one, early on, I had the honor to be asked by Pete to direct a small part of the film, the one where the protagonist is falling through black and white space.

Which is insane-looking. I haven’t seen that before.

That was our hope. We made that independently. Pete wanted us to push visually what it could be. I storyboarded the scene originally and made it all the way to the end.

Soul takes place in these two very different planes. How hard was to make them mesh?

Hearing the production designer Steve Pilcher talk about it, he tried to make them contrast as much as possible: The afterlife being soft and ethereal and New York, gritty and textured. There’s a Pixar touch that —when you get to the CG— harmonizes everything, but the stark difference between the two places remains. The story begs for that and it all fits within the concept.

Soul premieres on Disney Plus on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You

Pixar’s less heralded but most remarkable skill is its ability to introduce ideas and concepts one would be hard-pressed to consider appropriate for a family movie: Mental health comes from managing our emotions, not denying them (Inside Out); the value of criticism lies in the discovery of new talent (Ratatouille); overprotection can stunt a child’s growth (Finding Nemo).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Coco -it’s visually stunning and it’s undeniably fun- but the message (“families are important and want the best for us”) is pedestrian at best and debatable under certain circumstances. Not that the value of family was ever a novel idea, but the Fast and Furious saga has driven the notion into the ground.

Coco is set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the one time of the year those who have passed can come for a visit. At the Rivera household, the fiesta is celebrated without music. A few generations ago, the paterfamilias left his wife and baby daughter to pursued a career in music and never returned. It was decided then the family would make a living making shoes and no tunes will ever be played at home, or surrounding areas. Continue reading “REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You”

REVIEW: Cars 3 Goes Back to Basics

Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramírez burning rubber.

Less hyped but more profitable than other Pixar productions, Cars is the most kid-friendly saga out of the Disney subsidiary. Each film is awfully similar at playing with toy cars, a joy a franchise like Transformers completely misses.

Cars 3 is a nice rebound from the overstuffed and Mater-heavy Cars 2 (Mater is best in spaced out, small doses). A good portion of the film takes place away from the big city, precisely one of the charms of the first film. As a good Pixar film, it carries a positive, timely message (being different is not an obstacle to achieve your goals), although is less high-concept than, say, Inside Out.

We reencounter Lightning McQueen (voiced with increasing ease by Owen Wilson) as his career is taking a tumble. Newer, faster cars are joining the track and McQueen is having trouble keeping up, let alone winning. The next-gen champ, the slick, patronizing Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is too passive-aggressive to be a proper villain. McQueen is basically his own worst enemy.

Following a fierce accident, Lightning reevaluates his career and comes to the conclusion he needs to change strategy. Backed by a new owner, McQueen ends up in hands of Cruz Ramírez (Cristela Alonso), a trainer whose unusual methods don’t sit well with Lightning.

Cars 3 unfolds smoothly. It provides a hearty dose of comedy and nostalgia, while at surface level. Cruz Ramírez is probably the best character the series has introduced outside Lightning and Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson. Tentatively, Cars 3 ventures outside race circuits and folksy little towns and into a makeshift monster-trucks arena. It’s the kind of risks the franchise could take more often.

Cars 3 offers a rare twist ending for a Pixar movie, one I failed to see coming. I guess old cars can learn new tricks. Three prairie dogs.

Cars 3 opens this Friday the 16th, everywhere.