'It's an honour': Canadian artists bring Pixar's first Black lead character to life in 'Soul'

Elisabetta Bianchini
·6 min read

There is an expectation that Pixar films will be executed with the highest level of innovation, and there are many Canadians to credit for the creation of the elaborate world of Soul, to be released on Disney+ on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). Soul features the first Black lead character for the studio.

Trevor Jimenez, one of the story leads on Soul, who lived in the Hamilton and Toronto areas of Ontario, told Yahoo Canada it’s “exciting” that Pixar finally has a Black lead character in one of its major films, but also recognized that allowing a wide range of people to see themselves in movies of this calibre is “needed.”

“[I am] so proud to be a part of this film and work with some of the amazing people like Kemp [Powers] the co-director, we had an amazing cultural trust on the film too,” Jimenez said.

Emilie Goulet who is an animator on the film, originally from Montreal, Que., echoed Jimenez’s comments, saying this is a “necessary” step for Pixar to make.

“[It’s] an honour as well to celebrate this culture, that I am not a part of,” Goulet said. “To hear my colleagues tell their own stories, say how they would go through their own lives and talk about it, I've grown so much working on that film, in every way.”

"Soul" will debut exclusively on Disney+ on December 25, 2020. Disney/Pixar.
"Soul" will debut exclusively on Disney+ on December 25, 2020. Disney/Pixar.

From New York City to The Great Before

The story of Soul follows the lead character Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a band teacher in New York who dreams of being a professional jazz pianist.

After getting the opportunity of a lifetime to play with one of the greatest jazz musicians professionally, an unfortunate event results in Gardner ending up in The Great Before, a place where new souls are trained to get their personalities before going to Earth.

Jimenez played a significant role in the scene when Gardner drops into The Great Before. He originally storyboarded the critical moment in the film, “unofficially” directing it with a small team, which included fellow Canadian Kyle Macnaughton who worked on much of the visual art that inspired the look.

“We kind of knew we had this limbo scene where Joe is on the sidewalk, and he had to escape and end up in The Great Before, and I just thought he can't just get there, he can't just jump in,...he's got to go through something,” Jimenez explained. “It set a tone for this afterlife in this world, kind of like an ominous mysterious tone.”

“We just [wanted] to capture something kind of math like, and kind of cold and unforgiving, and trippy.”

The Great Before is where Gardner meets 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul with an attitude reminiscent of a moody pre-teen who has never been interested in the human experience on Earth, and initially helps Gardner try to get back to his human life in time for his big gig.

Goulet animated in The Great Before, particularly an emotional scene towards the end of the film, as the film explores the questions around what makes life meaningful and what makes people feel fulfilled.

“I think just the abstraction of this entire world was a challenge, but at the same time extremely satisfying and gratifying,” she said. “When you sit in the dailies, in the meetings that we have, and we show iterations of our work, at some point...it's like, ‘okay, this is it,’ everybody in the room is feeling [an emotional impact].”

Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) meets Terry (voice of Rachel House) and counselors in The Great Before. Disney/Pixar
Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) meets Terry (voice of Rachel House) and counselors in The Great Before. Disney/Pixar

Just like previous Pixar films like Inside Out, Soul tackles existential questions in a way that at times will bring a tear to your eye, while also giving you comedic moments that make you laugh out loud. Pixar completely hits it out of the park in terms of animation that is unbelievably realistic in the human world and also captivatingly abstract in places like The Great Before.

The film also showcases a unique visual technique for the counselors who, in The Great Before, help to wrangle all the new souls, pairing them with mentors to prepare them for Earth. They are 2-D animations done in a 3-D way.

Another Canadian Pixar talent, artist Deanna Marsigliese, worked with Jerome Ranft to initially create a version of the counselors with wire to see how they would “interact in 3-D space,” as Jimenez described.

These characters that are almost drawing-like are a surprise from a visual perspective, adding another dimension to the existing visuals of Soul. It is unique aspects like this that really push Pixar animation to another level in terms of visualization.

“What most of the animators ended up doing is, doing a drawing pass,” Goulet explained. “The first shots that were animated like this, none of us knew what it would look like, even in [CGI.]”

“So it was a lot of exploration and trial and error before finding the perfect look.”

Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) in the New York City subway. Disney/Pixar.
Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) in the New York City subway. Disney/Pixar.

‘Authentic’ New York experiences

Although The Great Before is a large part of the film, much of it still takes place in the animated version of New York City. With co-director Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) at the helm, who grew up in the city, he was particularly committed to showing Gardener in places that were culturally authentic, showcasing New York as a “melting pot” of people and influences, while working alongside Pete Docter.

The scenes that take place in New York were also an opportunity to explore places that feel particularly important to the lead character, from the jazz club to the tailor shop that Gardner’s mother owns (voiced by Phylicia Rashad).

There were also a number of consultants on the film who provided their feedback in Pixar’s efforts to ensure they are showcasing real experiences in their storytelling, including Daveed Digg (Hamilton) who also voices the character of Paul in Soul, a neighbourhood friend of Gardner he often sees at the local barbershop.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson also had a major contribution when it came to the music in the film, in addition to voicing the character of Curly, one of Gardner’s former students who became a professional jazz musician. Questlove made a playlist of songs that he believed would be playing in the background of various scenes, like the ‘90s hip-hop he thought would be playing in the barber shop.

The filmmakers also wanted to make sure the New York landscape was as authentic as possible, a busy city with visible “wear and tear.”

Goulet animated a part of the film that takes place in the New York subway, where she referenced her experience of being on the subway system Montreal.

“My anchor, the way to calm me down and to find reference, was to remember how I felt in the Montreal subway, even though it's completely different than the New York one,” she said.