A few weeks back, The Illuminerdi was fortunate enough to be able to attend a press event for Disney and Pixar’s upcoming animated feature Soul. Led by visionary director Pete Docter (Inside Out), writer Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), and producer Dana Murray, we were given an extraordinary inside look at the behind the scenes process of this ambitious project.

Designing a Soul

First off, what does a “soul” look like? And how does one conjure up an image that is aesthetically pleasing and able to emote and move and act in a way that is believable and accessible to a wide audience?

Yeah, so, we found this stuff called Aerogel and it’s the lightest solid material on Earth, and it’s actually used by the aerospace industry, and it seemed to suggest the nonphysical stuff our research would talk about but in a way we could actually put on screen.

Dana Murray, Producer Soul
soul concept art
SOUL – Concept Art by Jason Deamer . © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Pete also explained how the team then utilized a new technique that would outline the edges of the soul figure to allow for more clear articulation of gestures and movements, a process that had to be done by hand. It ultimately really worked and elevated the character design to another level.

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The Counselors

In Soul, you will meet a group of characters in The Great Beyond (the film’s soul realm) called The Counselors. They are ethereal beings that are essentially in charge of managing the souls’ journey in The Great Beyond. They were described to us as the universe simplifying itself for humans to be able to comprehend, getting their forms mostly right.

How Pixar Constructed Soul's World - The Illuminerdi
SOUL – Concept Art by Maria Yi. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Pixar team was extremely proud of the end result, of essentially animating a 3D model of simple wire figurines, that are still able to be as animated as the other characters despite their abstract design. They would film these models against a blank wall to mimic their expressions and movement. A truly innovative process, not previously seen before in animation.

How Pixar Constructed Soul's World - The Illuminerdi
SOUL – Concept Art by Rachel Xin. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Greatness of The Great Beyond

The Great Beyond is one of the most beautiful environments ever seen in a Pixar feature. The way the plane of vision is filled with various structures, amorphic shapes, and character models gives it the vastness and breathtaking quality one would aspect in an afterlife setting. It invokes a sense of peace and higher purpose.

How Pixar Constructed Soul's World - The Illuminerdi
SOUL – Concept Art by Steve Pilcher. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

It is not just an ethereal plane of existence, there are many places audiences will get to visit while Joe is in The Great Beyond. Places that focus on the achievements of individuals and one place that explores the idea of when humans are tapped into their great passions, or as one would call it being in the “zone.”

I asked Pete, Kemp, and Dana about what their zones would be. For Pete and Kemp it was the obvious: writing or animating and the feeling as if everything else around you is non-existent, all that exists is the passion that lay before them. For Dana, it was her time playing volleyball in college. I think all athletes can attest to the existence of being in the zone mid game, and the adrenaline that comes with it.

Disney and Pixar’s Soul is going to be an imaginative joyride for all ages, that will pose some reflective questions for its viewers. Who are you? What do you love doing most in this world? At what times do you feel the most alive? Do you feel you are at your happiest? The world building and effectiveness of the spiritual qualities of Soul and the beauty of these designs will be key components in the audiences’ emotional journeys.