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Before the ‘Great Before’: a chat with the story artists of Disney Pixar’s ‘Soul’

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As one of the conceptualisation teams of Disney Pixar’s latest heartwarmer ‘Soul’, story supervisor Kristen Lester and story artists Michael Yates and Aphton Corbin chat about the evolving narratives for animated films

The story of music teacher Joe Gardner tumbling into the ‘Great Before’ is one that could have gone in any direction. But Soul directors Peter Docter and Kemp Powers have audiences look inward as they accompany Joe on his journey as a blue blob of soul coach 22 about what life’s purpose can mean.

Early trademark Disney films featured a formula of a protagonist versus a villain, followed by a fairy tale ending. But Disney Pixar films such as Coco (2017), Onward (2020) and, of course, Soul — streaming now on Disney+ — have switched it up over the years. Is this existential take of storytelling a growing trend for animated films in general?

Ahead of Soul’s global release on Disney+, story supervisor Kristen Lester and story artists Michael Yates and Aphton Corbin tell MetroPlus about the changing appeal of storytelling. “I enjoy stories where the main characters are their worst enemy. To me that’s true to life, in that we are both the heroes and the villains in our own stories,” insists Corbin.

Lester adds, as story artists, the key is to always look for something different to do. “When you are making a story about the meaning of life, you don’t necessarily think a villain applies here. At Pixar, we come up with the idea first and see where that takes us. The existential crisis itself was enough for this film!”

Power of Kemp

Lester, Yates and Corbin reveal that working with co-director Kemp Powers offered a world of nuance in bringing black culture to the screen.

“Working with Kemp was a dream; he’s one of my favourite writers, given he’s so easy to talk to and relatable,” says Yates, “He brought so much to the film because he is so similar to Joe. We would talk a lot of music and particularly jazz, which I didn’t know much about. Throughout this film, I learned more through the research process and through having conversations with Kemp. I also learned a lot about the specifics of living in New York.”

A whole new world A still from the film; Aphton Corbin at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville Deborah Coleman / Pixar; special arrangement

A whole new world A still from the film; Aphton Corbin at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville Deborah Coleman / Pixar; special arrangement
 

Corbin adds, “Kemp, when he first came on, did this amazing presentation on jazz from his perspective and experiences. He was a music critic and wrote a lot, and it was great to see what jazz meant to him and I’m grateful he brought that to Soul.”

Lester smilingly looks back on having an immediate connection with Powers. “Having a black artiste come in and see a couple of pages of the script he wrote was so cool. It felt like it was all becoming real and made our movie take on a new breath and light. He was easy to collaborate with.”

Forming a connection

Story artists have a tough job in conceptualising the story in its bare-bone stages. It often entails a lot of back and forth, and stressful brainstorming, so that other departments have something tangible and real to work with moving forward. Naturally, this intimate and under-discussed process of storytelling sees story artists bonding with the characters and their arcs.

Lester looks back on Soul with pride, “We are one of the first departments to wrap off the film. Then the movie goes into a whole other life without you as it grows, changes and evolves. In fact, when I was already off the film, I remember watching a scene of Joe walking down the street before falling down the manhole — and it was animated, lit and John Baptiste had composed this amazing music. I was watching this scene and just [makes sobbing noises]. It was so emotional for me!”

Corbin adds, “The process of ‘story’ finishes early; it’s strange. It’s like your kids are growing up and you say to everyone else, ‘please take care of them!’ and you’re moving onto something. Then, it’s interesting, out of the corner of your eye, to see clips of the film come to life here and there and you think ‘oh, that’s how that scene looks like!’”

Yates concludes, with a laugh, “I agree! We do wonder, ‘Did we teach the kids how to do laundry? Are they going to be okay?’ But then we see the final scenes and say ‘Yes, they are going to be okay!’”

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