Pixar unleashed two major films in 2020, both of which are hot contenders for animated feature awards. Screen talks to Pete Docter and fellow filmmakers about the creation of Onward and Soul.
Pandemic notwithstanding, 2020 was a busy year for Pixar and its chief creative officer Pete Docter. For only the third time in its three‑and-a-half-decade existence, the Disney-owned company released two features in the same calendar year, one being completed under lockdown conditions. And Docter himself had to juggle his executive duties with his work as director and co-writer of Soul and executive producer of Onward.
The two films, both leading contenders in this year’s film awards, show slightly different sides of Pixar’s pioneering animation style (a style that has earned five of the last 10 best animated feature Oscars). Soul, says Docter, deals with “some big questions, but we tried not to take them too seriously”. Onward is, on the face of it, lighter and arguably less typical of the studio: “I’m proud that it looks different and doesn’t feel ‘Pixar’ to people,” says Docter, “because we’re always trying to expand what that box means.”
What both films seem to reflect is Docter’s belief that, when it comes to storytelling, “We love us — we want to see our lives on the screen in some way, but hopefully in a way that we’re not expecting.”
Onward was inspired by director and co-writer Dan Scanlon’s relationship with his brother and a snippet of tape recording they were sent of their father, who had died when Scanlon was a baby. That seed grew into the story of teenage elf brothers, one shy, the other boisterous, living in a suburban fantasy world where mythical creatures have come to lead mundane lives. When the brothers — voiced by Marvel movie castmates Tom Holland and Chris Pratt — receive a gift left by their late father, it kicks off a rediscovery of magic and a quest for familial reconnection.
Scanlon — a longtime Pixar storyboard artist who made his directing debut with 2013 prequel Monsters University — saw nailing the story’s emotional climax, in which one brother finally recognises the value of the other, as the project’s big challenge.
“The movie was a love letter to my brother and family,” Scanlon says, “so what kept me up at night was earning that ending, trying to get everything to emotionally work towards the ending and still tell a fun, adventurous story.”
“It was years of writing and rewriting and trying to get the depth we needed from the main character,” confirms producer Kori Rae, another longstanding Pixar filmmaker. The latitude to do that kind of work is “one of the privileges we create at the studio”, adds Rae. “Everybody knows how important that is and they allow us that time.”
The film’s technical and visual conundrums included a road-trip sequence that, according to Scanlon, was something new for Pixar animators; a full-on dragon battle setting up the story’s dramatic conclusion and the ‘dad pants’ — the lower half of their father’s body that is all the brothers manage to conjure with their limited magical skills.
“Trying to get emotion into the dad pants was challenging,” says Rae. “It was a matter of figuring out that less was more. Most of what we wanted was achieved using more subtle animation.”
Scanlon, who also serves as a Pixar creative vice president, acknowledges that while Onward placed an emphasis on the kind of emotional inspiration that is a company trademark, its sword-and-sorcery fantasy milieu was something of a departure, and required some visual experimentation.
“Stylistically I wanted to do something really ‘cartoony’, because I wanted something that would be fun for the animators,” the Pixar vet explains. “Our initial designs were a little too cartoony, so we had to find that sweet spot of being naturalistic enough but still cartoony.
“Sometimes, when movies are very realistic, you start to wonder why they’re animated at all. Just because you can do everything, people do everything. But the human eye wants variety, minimal stuff now and then, and simple, bold things.”
Soul — originally planned for a summer 2021 release but brought forward a year and completed seven weeks after last spring’s pandemic lockdown began — has a different tone and a very different style, and in some ways it too represents a departure for Pixar.
Partly inspired by Docter’s early experience as a parent, the story centres on Joe, a New York music teacher whose once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a professional jazz musician is jeopardised by an accident that takes him to ‘The Great Before’, an ethereal realm where new souls find their personalities before being embodied on Earth. Desperate to return to his body for his big gig, Joe becomes a mentor to a quirky soul who has resisted becoming human.
The decision during development to make jazz a key element of the story had major implications. For one, it led to Soul becoming Pixar’s first film with a black protagonist (voiced by Jamie Foxx), which itself led to a concerted push to ensure the project’s cultural authenticity. And for another, it helped give the film its dramatic purpose.
“Jazz affected the storyline because in jazz you’re not just playing the notes, you’re turning it into something personal and rich and of value,” explains Docter, previously director and co-writer of Pixar Oscar winners Inside Out and Up, as well as Monsters Inc. “That’s so thematic to what we were trying to say in the film that we felt there were a lot of lessons to be learned from this musical form.”
Joe’s character was largely shaped by Kemp Powers, first brought in by Pixar to write the Soul script with Docter and Mike Jones, but then made co-director and involved in every aspect of the project — from animation and editing to marketing and merchandising.
“I filled Joe up with my life,” says Powers, whose credits include the stage and film versions of Amazon Studios’ awards contender One Night In Miami. “Joe was designed to be a 45-year-old black man from New York City who was into jazz, but they didn’t know what that meant. I did, because I am that.” Even the character’s subway route, notes Powers, “was based on my commute when I lived in Queens”.
Soul’s other setting — the pastel-shaded ‘Great Before’ with its counsellors modelled on modernist sculptures and voiced by international talents including Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade — posed the project’s biggest animation tests.
“We thought it was going to be easy for the animators,” says the film’s producer Dana Murray, with reference to the counsellor characters, “but getting personality into a line to animate is actually pretty excruciating.” Eventually, says Murray, “One of our artists took a wire hanger and started sculpting these characters and we were just blown away by the movement you could get from them.”
With Onward and Soul now out in the world, Docter — who became Pixar’s chief creative officer in 2018 after John Lasseter’s exit from his dual Disney/Pixar role — says the studio’s future direction will balance what audiences know and want from Pixar with nods to the unexpected. The way to do that, says Docter, “is to balance the old voices that we have with some new voices. We’re really excited to have a lot of new directors and producers that are stepping up into the next couple of films.”
Recently unveiled Pixar projects include Lightyear, which Docter sees as a ‘side-quel’ to the Toy Story features; Italian coming-of-age story Luca, a debut feature for director Enrico Casarosa; and Turning Red, inspired by Pixar artist and first-time feature director Domee Shi’s Chinese-Canadian teenhood.
The latter two, says Docter, will go through the same culture trust process as Soul, “to make sure we’re not misrepresenting anything. We’ve always researched all our films, but the culture aspect of it has become more and more important.”
Pixar is also working on Win Or Lose, its first longer-form series for the fast-growing Disney+ streaming service, which gave Soul its exclusive premiere in many territories after the pandemic scuppered plans for its theatrical release.
The growing importance of streaming may have financial repercussions for Pixar, Docter concedes, but so far “hasn’t changed our focus on great storytelling and strong characters”. And making shows for Disney+ will not change Pixar’s target of releasing one feature every eight months. “In fact,” says Docter, “in an era when a lot of companies are cutting back, we’re adding people because we’ve been asked to do more thanks to Disney+.”
The entry into the feature animation business of streamers such as Netflix and Apple will not change Pixar’s creative philosophy either. “It’s good to have a lot going on because it means there’s a demand for it,” says Docter. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and inspiration.”
The fresh competition, adds Pixar’s creative chief, “means everyone has to step up and deliver more interesting stuff that surprises and delights people, which of course is good for audiences and for the quality of the films”.