Pixar’s animators have a history of achieving impressive feats, making characters and textures feel more authentic in increasingly complex ways. (That flowing hair! Those landscapes!) But how would they portray jazz?
With “Soul” (streaming on Disney+), the challenge was to translate the music’s emotional and improvisational qualities through a technical process with little room for improvisation. While plenty of animation over the years has gotten the spirit of jazz, “Soul” sits right next to the piano keys to show, in detail, a musician creating. And Pixar knew many eyes, especially those belonging to jazz musicians, would be examining its 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 get gigs, but when he sits at the piano, he is transported, his stress fades and his passion emerges with each note.
The Pixar filmmakers, known for attention to detail — in “Cars,” the motor sounds of each vehicle came from the same model’s actual engine — knew that capturing the fundamentals of jazz performance would not be possible without the collaboration of jazz artists.
“We wanted to make sure that if this guy is going to be a jazz musician, he should know the clubs and the back story,” the film’s director, Pete Docter, said in a video interview. He and his team visited clubs in New York to get a better understanding. “We would just go up and talk to musicians and ask them, where did you study?” he said. “How did you get here? What other jobs do you have? And tried to really flesh out the world of those characters.”
They also consulted with a number of marquee musicians, including Herbie Hancock, the jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Questlove (who also did voice work).
Pixar also brought on the keyboardist Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He created the original compositions that Joe performs onscreen. Batiste recorded the music with a band in a New York studio, and Docter captured those sessions with multiple cameras. “We set up, like, 80 GoPros everywhere,” Docter said. They then studied the video to get a more accurate picture of how to animate the scene.
Docter said that the animators exaggerated certain movements in Joe’s playing for visual effect, but “in terms of posture and hitting the right notes, that was crucial for us to make sure that it really felt authentic.”
Along with video, they were able to digitally save the notes that were being played. That digital stream could be reverse-programmed into the animation in a way that worked almost like a player piano signaling to the animators which key was being played with each note. So when you see Joe at the piano, he’s playing exactly the notes you’re hearing.
At the recording sessions, Docter said, his approach to directing Batiste was similar to the way he directs actors: He avoided giving specific line readings or input on the music, and instead tried to paint a picture so Batiste could understand the mood of the scene.
“I might just say, ‘You know that sense when you’re playing and the world just disappears and you wake up and three hours have gone by? That’s what we’re looking for,’” Docter said. Batiste would make adjustments to his composition during the session to match the film’s needs. “It was a joy to watch him work,” Docter said. “It was like having a private concert.”
Batiste said that he felt a connection with Docter in creating these scenes — “Pete is a healer and a philosopher,” he said by email — and that he was glad to see the care with which Black music was being treated.
Docter grew up playing music. Two sisters are professional musicians and his parents are music educators. So that made it easier to sync up with the film’s musical passions. And on his team, he said, those who were animating a specific instrument often either had experience playing 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 character’s design and movement; and Batiste’s compositions and performance. Those close-up shots of Joe’s hands in motion reflect the pianist’s spirited style of play — so much so that Batiste was taken aback when he saw those moments onscreen.
“My hands are central to my life,” he said. “I was in tears when I saw my essence come to life in Joe. To have this as a part of my creative legacy is an honor.”