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It’s Like a Magic Trick: Pete Docter and Dana Murray on Pixar's Soul

Pixar likes to take on new challenges, and "Soul" has a lot of them. It's their first film with a more realistic, less stylized look, their first one set in New York City, the first set primarily in the Black community. And Pixar never hesitates to take on difficult, even existential questions, but this one has possibly the most difficult and the most existential: Why are we here? What makes life worth living? In an interview, co-writer/director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray talked about why the simplest-looking characters were the most complicated to animate and what personality qualities they might have been assigned in "Soul's" Hall of You.

Pete, I heard that one of my favorite illustrators, Ronald Searle, was part of the inspiration for the look of the film. How did his work influence you?

PETE DOCTER: Pixar has always been fighting against the idea of a house style, but we do kind of have kind of have one. And so, Dana and I talked about why it be great to buck that somehow, so that the characters in this movie couldn't just be airlifted into "Toy Story" or "Finding Nemo" or one of the other films. We wanted to find our own design sense, and I think we succeeded. There are probably people that still will say, "Oh, it's very Pixar." But if you look at Carl from "Up," he's two heads tall; he's this big block. And Joe has, I think seven and a half or so, much closer to real human proportions. What we really pulled from Searle are those wonderfully stretched proportions, thin, spindly arms and legs, and kind of stockier bodies and he just fit really well with the look we were after. Jazz also played a huge influence in the design of New York City. It comes with its own visual sense, like those great album covers from the '60s. So, we tried to pull that into the movie as well.

Pixar has had dogs and fish and monsters, of course, but a cat like the one in "Soul" is a real challenge for an animator.

PD: I think the animators had a lot of fun with the cat. A lot of times people accuse our films of being too adult or whatever. The cat was a real connection to kids. Dana, remember that was one of the last things we put in, the gag in the elevator, where the magnifying glass makes a little light that the cat jumps after?

DANA MURRAYYeah, we thought we could get a lot of humor with the cat. I love the design of the cat, chubby and round, and he's playful.

PDI think the biggest challenge animation-wise were the counselors that are just a single line. You would think easy, right? If I could draw that I'd be done like that. Turns out it was one of the more difficult characters we've ever done. They were meant to be the universe dumbing itself down so that we could understand them. Without some guidance to help them prepare, these souls would just be all over the place and nothing would ever happen. Nobody would be born. So, they were kind of the camp counselors. And we were inspired by Alexander Calder and Matisse, Picasso, modernist sculpture. And they seemed really fun. Turns out they were very difficult. 

DMIt's funny, we were handing off the character to the animators like, "You're welcome; it's just a line." It literally was the hardest and last character the riggers and animators were able to do because it was so incredibly difficult to get right as they turn and move. 

One of the most interesting concepts in the movie is the way that your personality is embedded in you before you're born. Tell me a little bit about that idea, and what personality traits do you think you were handed before you were born?

PDThe way I sold this originally was, I just want to talk about Where do we come from? And I don't mean the man and the woman get together kind of thing. It was more like, Why are we born with a personality? It's certainly true of my kids. Why is one kid more calm or cheerful or, flexible than the other? I don't know. But this was our answer. I think I was given a certain amount of patience and tenacity. Otherwise, I wouldn't be in animation, to begin with. Because I mean, this film was four years, and that was fast for us.

DMMy mom said I was go-with-the-flow until I was late to something. I guess as a kid I would freak out if I was going to miss the bus and she was like, "It's fine!" 

PDThat trait is so valuable in a producer.

What made you decide to make your main character a jazz musician?

PDAt the very beginning it was a very personal story of trying to figure this out for myself: What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? We wanted to take people on this sort of artist's journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting. We played around for a little while with an actor or a scientist but as soon as we thought about a jazz musician that felt very selfless, somebody who loves the music. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous; you do it because you love it and you have a passion for it. And it’s fascinating to watch. When you see somebody play jazz, it’s like a magic trick. It's just amazing. So as soon as we hit on that one of our consultants called jazz "Black improvisational music" and we realized we have to make this character Black. He has to be from the culture that brought us this great American art form. So of course we knew we needed a lot of help with that so Dana put together multiple, multiple groups of consultants as well as Kemp Powers and we’re lucky to have him along for the ride.

Was it important to have a musician provide the voice for the character of Joe?

PDWe had a lot of scenes where Joe talks about the power of music and the importance of music, and my hair stood on end when I heard Jamie Foxx talk about it because I know he feels that. He believes so fully; it was just so truthful and authentic. There was so much that we got from Jamie beyond just individual reads but just his sense of life and energy and it was fantastic, it was a dream come true to work with him. 

DM: One of the best recording sessions I remember there was on Stage B on the Disney lot. There was a grand piano and it was all covered up. Jamie snuck back there and uncovered it and serenaded us on every break. That was the best.

I know you brought in a lot of Black voices to help you create the world and the characters.

DMWe knew from the beginning we needed tons of help. I think that was the coolest part of the experience. We started with getting Kemp Powers as co-writer, and co-director. From the very beginning he said, "I represent one Black person. You put 12 Black people in a room, they're all going to have different opinions." So, I think what was really hard, but also gratifying about the process was just hearing people's own personal stories, which you know, age and gender and where they grew up, and all those things played a part to people's opinions that they would bring forth. And so the hardest part was figuring out which direction to go after you gather all that information. 

PDWe listened on everything, like fashion, you know, the kind of dress that Dorothea would wear. Major scenes in the film, the barbershop wasn't even in the script before Kemp came on as co-writer and co-director. When he brought that up, I was like, "Really?" Barber is important? What?" We clearly didn't know what we didn't know. And the whole thing was such a gift in the end. And I feel like we were sort of led into the culture a little bit and have a sense of some of the great joys that the culture has brought, like music, jazz music, soul music, so many other contributions to the world. The list is endless.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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