Animators of Disney Pixar’s ‘Soul’ on the film’s intimidating rendering challenges

Animators Bobby Podesta, Jude Brownbill and MontaQue Ruffin chat about the challenges of rendering the world and characters we see in ‘Soul’

When the hat-toting soul of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) accidentally tumbles into the ‘Great Before’, his surrounding worlds shift dramatically, not just in look but energy too. The human world’s continuous bustle of traffic and construction transitions into a swishing swell of illuminated blues and purples. The differences between these two worlds are remarkable.

Although Soul, which released on Christmas on Disney+ Hotstar Premium, is spearheaded by co-directors Peter Docter and Kemp Powers, it is the work of Bobby Podesta, Jude Brownbill and MontaQue Ruffin, some of the film’s animators, that sells the story home.

Charming counsellors

  • The counsellors have been a favourite of the Pixar film’s team. Screenwriter Mike Jones has likened them to “kindergarten teachers filled with immeasurable patience”. Meanwhile, executive producer Dan Scanlon explains, “The team also went to great lengths to create characters that defied logic, yet were overflowing with charm and personality. The first time I saw a screening of the film that featured the wiry three-dimensional You Seminar characters (The Jerrys) in motion, myself and other people in the theater audibly gasped. I had never seen that type of 2D animation done in 3D before, and seeing something you have never seen before is why I go to movies.”

Brownbill, who along with Podesta, was the film’s animation supervisor, recalls the most intimidating animation project within the film — creating the otherworldly-looking counselling characters found in the ‘Great Before’ where Joe is sent to coach 22 (Tina Fey) in finding her true purpose. Though these characters are single scribbles, there were some difficulties in crafting their anatomies, and Brownbill, whose work we have seen in Brave and Inside Out, says the team was not entirely sure just how long working on the counsellors would take. She explains, “Usually, we have characters with arms and legs – or sometimes we do! [laughs] These characters don’t have that typical skeletal structure. We would have given them that, but they would come away and turn into, for example, a bus, or come out from the ground. That flexibility is a scary proposition.”

It is not just the counsellors’ physical formation but also the vitality they give off as sentient beings which mattered. “We also wanted these characters to have an energy as if they were drawing it from the ground. And inside this line, there is a membrane that appears or disappears when a limb crosses it. So there was a lot of complicated stuff that couldn’t be done just by hand. It had to be made into a rig that not just one animator could use,” Brownbill adds.

‘No guarantees’

Soul was not an easy project. However, Podesta believes in “boiling down the clarity of intent” with such projects. “Most of the time, we are not sure if something is going to work out; because, what we are trying to do is make something new that also surprises. When you are on that bleeding edge, there are no guarantees. We turn to each other, trust that we have done our research and be honest about what is working and what is not. This is art and we are making art that people haven’t seen before.”

A still from Disney and Pixar’s ‘Soul’ with Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner | Photo Credit: Disney-Pixar

Ruffin came into Soul eager to play in not just one world but two. He commends the sense of unity at Pixar in times of uncertainty as this fuels better storytelling.

“It doesn’t matter what subject we are talking about — whether it is a monster, a toy, a Latino, or an African-American. We are open and honest,” he explains, adding, “If we are not familiar, we will admit it and rely on one another. For Soul specifically, it was incredible and empowering; Joe is African-American. Peter [Docter] also has a universal story to tell, and he was so inviting as we had a ‘culture trust’ for the film. He was always willing to hear what I, or anyone, had to say. Pixar created a space for us to share our experiences which impacted the film.”

Soul’ is streaming on Disney+ Hostar Premium.

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