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Interview: Story Lead Trevor Jimenez and Animator Emilie Goulet on the Making of Pixar’s ‘Soul’

December 21, 2020Ben MK

What happens when we die? And is there such a thing as a soul? These are some of the questions at the heart of Pixar's twenty-third feature, the aptly titled Soul, a film that follows mild-mannered music teacher and jazz enthusiast Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he finds himself on the cusp of a life-changing moment in his career. But when a crucial misstep sees him struggling to get back to that life, Joe must pair up with the reluctant 22 (Tina Fey), as the two embark on an adventure that will change the way both of them see the world.

I caught up with Soul's Story Lead, Trevor Jimenez, and animator Emilie Goulet to chat about the making of the movie and why the film's message proves even more important in the time of our current pandemic.

First of all, how have you both been adapting to living and working in the strange new normal we're all in?

Jimenez: I think there's definitely a panic onset at the beginning. No one knew what was happening or how long we would be away from the studio. And now it just feels like this is the way it is for however long. So I think most people are pretty used to it now, but at first it was very strange, obviously. For me, personally, as a story artist, it was very easy to take my computer home. I had a setup there, so it wasn't too much of a hiccup for me.

Goulet: For me, it's similar, except that in animation there's a lot of collaboration with other animators. As much as we animate on our own at our desk, the feedback from our peers is very important. So trying to find ways to do that virtually — I feel like we were pretty good at it, but I miss the humans.

What was the collaborative process like with filmmakers Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones?

Jimenez: It was incredible. I think Pete just creates a very collaborative, open environment, which was amazing for artists. You really get to bring your best to the table. And then the ideas that he starts with are so ambitious — talking about the afterlife and existentialism. There's a lot to sink your teeth into, so for me it was amazing. And then Kemp coming on, and Mike [being] the original writer on it — they're also both so collaborative and open and have so many great ideas. [It was] just really an amazing project to be a part of.

Goulet: For me it was the first time working with Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, as it was his first film at Pixar. And what was amazing was just honoring the culture that we celebrate in Soul. Also, similar to what Trevor said, [Pete had] so many creative ideas and [was] so detailed and specific in the choices and the intent of the film.

How did you each bring your own experiences working on past Pixar movies like Coco, Finding Dory, Onward and Toy Story 4 to bear on this film?

Jimenez: I think that with each director I've worked with, I've learned different things. They all have different styles of working. Pete works so differently from other directors like Andrew [Stanton] and Lee [Unkrich], but there are different, amazing things that you learn [from] each of those people. But I think just the experience of working on different stories and embracing their creative process is what I learned.

Goulet: For me, it's trying to find how I can relate my own story, my own experience to each movie. The challenge is when you tell a story that has nothing to do with your own actual experience or history. But that's when the real work starts and that's how I grew a lot through working on all those movies.

Were there any other movies, books or artists that you drew inspiration from?

Jimenez: I think it's endless. You're always watching movies [or] listening to music. And whether it applies to the film you're working on or not, most artists I know also love consuming art and getting inspired. So for me, it's a never-ending list. It's different every week.

I think the music in the film was hugely inspirational — the Atticus [Ross] and Trent [Reznor] music and Jon Batiste music was huge. Also, early on I saw this art installation exhibit called The Happy Show by Stefan Sagmeister, and it talked about happiness and depression. There's something about the feeling of being in that exhibit that made me think of pre-life and how it's represented in the film.

Goulet: I animated in a sequence that takes place in the New York City subway. And [I drew upon] my own experience spending time in the Montreal subway. Even though the New York subway's pretty different, there were a lot of emotions I could feel animating this moment that I could remember feeling back in Montreal.

Was that your most memorable scene to work on? If not, what was the most fun or memorable scene for you?

Jimenez: There were so many. I was on the film for two and a half years and worked on a lot of moments that I really love. If I had to pick one, probably the fall sequence at the beginning of the film — it's the part where Joe's falling through this black and white, trippy abstract space. It's forty seconds long, but I really enjoyed working on that and learned a lot working on it.

Goulet: I worked on two sequences in the movie — the subway sequence and a moment towards the climax. I can't talk about it without revealing spoilers, but I know that when I first saw [the scene] in storyboards I was like, "Ok, I gotta animated this. I know what's going on, I've lived through this. I gotta do this." And it was interesting because it was as if all the other animators who worked on those sequences had the same kind of mental energy of wanting to do something special and specific for the sequence.

Of course, like so many Pixar films, this one really packs an emotional punch. And the message of the movie — to live life to its fullest — feels so much more poignant given what everyone in the world has been living through. What do you want viewers to take away from this film?

Jimenez: I think you put it really well. This was before the pandemic hit, but the message in this film is that it's important to pursue your passions but to not forget about the small, everyday moments that mean so much, that we take for granted so often. And I think the situation we're all in just amplifies that notion. I hope that people are able to connect with what's around them, even though we're so limited and kind of stuck at home, and that it brings some joy to people during the holidays.

Goulet: I couldn't agree more. Stay in the present and appreciate what life has to offer. It's very difficult right now, but I think we can still find moments of happiness.

Pixar's Soul premieres December 25th exclusively on Disney+.

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