Discussing representation and inclusion with the creators of Pixar’s Soul
Representation and inclusion are the doors I look to be wide open when choosing which movies I support. Pixar’s Soul has entered the chat! Of course I can enjoy a movie when all of the Media Bias boxes are not checked… but the care, consideration, and CREATIVITY allowed to a film that too the time to do the work from the page to the screen will almost always gets some support from me. So with that being said, one of the films I look forward to most this year is Pixar Animation Studios’ new film SOUL.
In Pixar’s Soul, Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz, but whose life has not gone quite the way he expected. When he gets lost in his music, he goes into “the zone,“ an immersive state that causes the rest of the world to literally melt away. In the movie he gets the chance of a lifetime to play the piano and a jazz quartet headed by the great Dorthea Williams (voiced by the incomparable Angela Bassett). A single unexpected step sends him to the cosmic realms where he finds the “You Seminar“ – a fantastical place where Joe is forced to think again about what it truly means to have soul. He finds himself in The Great Before- a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth. His true passion is playing jazz, and he’s good. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (player by Tina Fey), to show her what’s great about living. But when he finds himself faced with helping her find her passion, he discovers what it truly means to have soul.
Who is Joe Gardner?
Writer and Co-Director Kemp Powers infused a lot of his own experiences into the character of Joe Gardner. They are roughly the same age, from the same place, and have many of the same formative experiences, but as much as he modeled Joe after himself he felt that it was extremely to represent many black male experiences and transcend his own experience. It was important to the creators to invite people in who did not just rubberstamp the work they were doing but to go with them on the full journey to create these characters in the world of Pixar’s Soul as authentic and truthful as possible. “…for the process of making Soul, it’s really important that we invited a lot of other black voices into the fold in the creation of not just Joe, but all the of the characters in the film”, Mr. Powers said. In order to create the most accurate representation and I corporate the most diverse ensamble of voices they could the team turned to many sources. First they worked with a group of African-American Pixar employees that became their internal culture trust and they helped guide us along the way to make the film culturally authentic and truthful.
Putting the band together
Jazz was really the perfect representation of what the filmmakers were trying to say in the film. In the video conversation below, Dr. Cole calls it “Black improvisational music”. So if the main character plays jazz, then the main character needed to be black. This is one of the most international diverse casts ever seen in a Pixar film including the talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, and Angela Bassett.
They also drew inspiration and consultation from many artists and black craftspeople along the way including: Bradford Young, Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jon Batiste, Questlove, and Daveed Diggs. The latter two being performers in the film who also served as consultants.
Finding the soul in Pixar’s Soul
After all the success of his first film (“Inside Out” in 2015) director Pete Docter thought he had everything, but he found himself incomplete and wondering, “Is this what I am born to do?”. After the birth of his first child he realized as his child looked up at him he could see “him” in there. How did that happen? Where did it come from? He explained, “Well, it is because each of us was born with a soul. Our soul is really the center of who we are. It’s the essence of us. It’s our make up of what passions and inspirations we have. We wanted our main character in the film to have his passions born into him as well.”
The music of Pixar’s Soul
Because music takes such a central role in the film, Pixar partnered with the talented team of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“the social network”), from Nine Inch Nails to compose the beautiful score and Globally renowned musician Jon Batiste (who is the pianist on the Colbert Report) to contribute the jazz music from New York City and compose an original score that will drift between the real and soul worlds.
Recently the Essence Festival of Culture hosted a virtual conversation with the team behind Pixar’s Soul. Dr. Johnnetta Cole was joined by director Pete Docter, producer Dana Murray, and co-director and screenwriter Kemp Powers to discuss the process of developing the world and characters that bring us the story of Soul. Watch the interview as well as an exclusive clip from Pixar’s Soul and a performance by Jon Batiste in the clip below:
Pixar Animation Studios will take you on a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions. Disney & Pixar’s Soul arrives in theaters on November 20, 2020.
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