How Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Animates Jazz
Pixar’s animators have done an impressive job in the past, making characters and textures feel more authentic in increasingly complex ways. (That flowing hair! These landscapes!) But how would they represent jazz?
With “Soul” (streaming on Disney +) the challenge was to translate the emotional and improvisational qualities of the music through a technical process with little room for improvisation. While many animations have awakened the spirit of jazz over the years, “Soul” sits right next to the piano keys to show in detail how a musician creates. And Pixar knew that many eyes, especially those of jazz musicians, would examine his work.
The film follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a school band teacher by day, a talented but unsuccessful jazz pianist by night (and always). He struggles to perform, but when he’s at the piano he’s transported, his stress subsides and his passion emerges with every note.
The Pixar filmmakers, known for their attention to detail – in “Cars”, the engine noise of each vehicle came from the actual engine of the same model – knew that without the collaboration of jazz artists it would not be possible to capture the fundamentals of jazz performance .
“We wanted to make sure that when this guy becomes a jazz musician, he knows the clubs and the backstory,” said the film’s director Pete Docter in a video interview. He and his team went to clubs in New York to gain a better understanding. “We just went upstairs and talked to musicians and asked them where did you study?” he said. “How did you get here? What other jobs did you do? And tried to really refine the world of these characters.”
They also consulted with a number of marquee musicians, including Herbie Hancock, jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and Questlove (who also did vocal work).
Pixar also brought in keyboardist Jon Batiste, band leader and music director of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”. He created the original compositions that Joe performs on the screen. Batiste recorded the music with a band in a New York studio, and Docter captured those sessions with multiple cameras. “We have 80 GoPros set up everywhere,” said Docter. They then studied the video to get a more detailed picture of how the scene could be animated.
Docter said the animators exaggerated certain movements in Joe’s game for visual effects, but “in terms of posture and striking the right notes, this was crucial for us to make sure it really felt authentic.”
Together with the video, they were able to digitally save the notes they played. This digital stream could be programmed backwards into the animation in a way that acted almost like a player piano, signaling to the animators which key was being played with each note. When you see Joe at the piano, he’s playing the exact notes you hear.
At the recording sessions, Docter said, his approach to directing Batiste was similar to directing actors: he avoided doing certain line readings or inputs to the music and instead tried to paint a picture so that Batiste set the mood of the Scene could understand.
“I could just say, ‘You know the point when you play and the world just disappears and you wake up and three hours have passed? This is what we’re looking for, ”said Docter. Batiste made adjustments to his composition during the session to suit the needs of the film. “It was a pleasure to watch him work,” said Docter. “It was like a private concert.”
Batiste said that he had a connection with Docter in creating these scenes – “Pete is a healer and a philosopher,” he said via email – and that he was glad to see the care with which black music was treated .
Docter grew up with music. Two sisters are professional musicians and his parents are music educators. That made it easier to sync with the film’s musical passions. And on his team, he said, those who animated a particular instrument often had either experience with that instrument or a strong appreciation for it.
Joe in all his complexity is brought to life in three ways: through Foxx’s vocal performance; the design and movement of the character; and Batiste’s compositions and performances. These close-ups of Joe’s moving hands reflect the pianist’s spirited playing style – so much so that Batiste was surprised when he saw these moments on screen.
“My hands are central to my life,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw my essence come to life in Joe. To have this as part of my creative heritage is an honor. “