'22 Vs. Earth' Director Kevin Nolting Shares The Challenges Of Making A 'Soul' Prequel [Interview]

What happened before Soul? Before Joe Gardner ended up in the Great Before? Even before Joe (Jamie Foxx) and 22 (Tina Fey) crossed paths, 22 had been around the block a couple times, unable to find her "spark" that would give her a pass to Earth. And by "around the block a few times," we mean several millennia old — which makes 22 the perfect subject for a Pixar short film that allows longtime Pixar editor Kevin Nolting to make his directorial debut.

After working on the edit for Soul, Nolting received a chance to direct his first animated short for Pixar with 22 vs. Earth. But it wasn't a task that Nolting found particularly daunting, having been deeply involved in the development of Soul.

"The process itself, and the people involved, I'm pretty familiar with going in. So I had that advantage," Nolting told /Film in an interview over Zoom.

And he was very familiar with 22, whom he had seen from development to final character over the course of editing Soul. That was why he was happy to direct the short film about 22 and her time before meeting Joe.

"I see this short as, if we were telling 22's story, this would be the mid-point," Nolting said. "She's had this experience of losing her friends, she's lonely, and now she's going to do something about it."

Read our interview with Nolting on 22 vs. Earth, which debuts on Disney+ on April 30, 2021.

How did you conceive of the idea for this short?

I can't say that I pitch[ed] the idea. What happened was toward the end of Soul we started talking about — on all our features, we start talking about the potential of doing this short attached to the feature, it used to be attached on the DVD. I was busy editing Soul when the initial pitches were happening in Story. And then a couple months later, as the ideas got of whittled down, I came on board.

You make your directorial debut with 22 vs Earth, can you talk about how the process differed from your past experiences as editor on other Pixar projects?

So fortunately for me, as an editor at Pixar I'm deeply involved from beginning to end. From development, we rewrite the movie and storyboards [by] Edit...we rewrite the movie by Edit. And then I work closely with the camera department, I go into animation dailies, so I've had this great education watching Pete Docter direct animators for 15 years and I'm involved through the final mix. So the process itself, and the people involved, I'm pretty familiar with going in. So I had that advantage. Plus I was working on Soul at the time we started this, we overlapped through into production. So I had that advantage to it. I'm very familiar with the material.

What is it about 22 that makes her so appealing as a character that you'd want to explore her more in her own short?

In Soul, we follow Joe who...from a young age, he knows what he wants to do, he thinks he knows what his purpose is, he's got a path. And then there's the rest of us, and I relate to 22 in that it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. And I was always actually sort of self conscious about the fact that I had friends who, you know, seem to have this purpose in life, this drive from an early age and I was always like, "What am I doing?" So I think there's a lot of people in the world like that who can relate to 22, which is a different voice than we played in the movie.

So what was it like to expand upon the world of The Great Before? Were you given freedom to go into further detail about it like with the various reasons for living?

I looked at it as, it was going to be a prequel in the sense that as we're making Soul, we're discussing all the time: we know who Joe is, but what made 22 what she is? We would joke about it, we would come up with different ideas. Just so that we had the background when we're making the movie. So as a natural extension, if we're going to do a movie about 22, to pick one specific [thing] about her background. So I see this short as, if we were telling 22's story, this would be the mid-point. She's had this experience of losing her friends, she's lonely, and now she's going to do something about it. She makes this decision to actually do something about it.

So who thought of the Apocalypse Now gag?

The original [writer]. Josh Cooley wrote the script and originally he put KAOS. And growing up I loved this TV show Get Smart, and the villain organization in that was KAOS, and I thought people would associate it with that. And we were sitting around with the Story people, with different ideas, and eventually Apocalypse came up. And Apocalypse Now has got to be one of my favorite movies, so it was sort of a no-brainer for me.

Are there any other characters from Soul that you'd like to explore more in their own shorts?

Yeah, we talked about Terry [the obsessive accountant who tallies all the souls headed to the Great Beyond], we even had one idea that we pursued for the short, which was the cat lady and the soul cat. Which I would have loved to have done too.

You talked about how this kind of short would have ended up on the DVD release, but it's making its debut on Disney+. Do you see Disney+ as a potential platform for shorts like this where you and other Pixar animators can showcase your abilities and craft?

Oh yeah, I think it's just great. So many more people get to see our things now. You know we have the SparkShorts project at Pixar doing exactly that. So yeah, I just love it that Disney+ is there now.

Do you have any intentions or plans to direct more now that you've dipped your toe in the water?

I'd certainly like to, though I'm an editor at heart. And certainly if the circumstances allowed and I came up with the right idea and I can do it, I would do it. But I'm happy either way. I like directing little live-acton shorts on the side just informally with friends, and that's very satisfying too.

Were there any particular challenges or sequences in the short that were very memorable for you?

It's very subtle. The first scene was very... it was a good lesson for us, it was very complex. We were trying to set the character up, we had these layers of relationships like 22 with the counselor, 22 with the young souls. We were trying to do too much. And so, that's where we got some really helpful notes from Pete Docter, to just simplify things and clarify.

In your opinion, what is the answer the guardian gives to the question about the "meaning of life"?

[Laughs] That's left blank for a reason. You know, my opinion about that changes by the minute. And I just hope that it gets people to think about it rather than trying to give them an answer to that.