Pixar's Soul Story Development

Pixar’s Soul is coming to Disney+ on Christmas Day, and as with any movie from the acclaimed animation studio, it’s been a long road to get there. With production lasting several years and a creative workflow that allows for constant changes to be made in order to deliver the best story possible, there were several different iterations of the movie that evolved throughout development. In fact, director Pete Docter said the movie actually started off as a heist movie.

/Film was lucky enough to chat with director Docter and co-director/writer Kemp Powers about their work on Soul, and we wanted to know about some of the major changes that the movie went through in order to give us the story you’ll see when the movie hits Disney+ later this month.

Soul Concept Art

The Creation of The Great Before

First off, when it comes to the creation of The Great Before, or the You Seminar, the movie almost took cues from ancient Greece. Pete Docter explained:

“Early on, it was kind of Greek-inspired. We were thinking that you get your personality and your wisdom of life, at least in western civilization, from the Greeks. But these are souls that were born around the world in China, Japan, Russia, so they can’t all come from Greece. We wanted it to be more abstract and non-representational, so you see those strange forms in the film, and it was actually really difficult to come up with those.”

At one point, The Great Before was also designed to have its own ecology, and it wasn’t just a place populated by new souls and counselors. In another interview, story supervisor Kristen Lester explained to us, “There were otherworldly kinds of creatures who lived in this place. There was a giant – I don’t even know how to describe it – it looked like a cross between a giant anteater and a dinosaur that lived there and wandered around the outskirts of the You Seminar, just living like an animal did.”

Pixar's Soul Story Development

There may not be giant anteater dinosaurs in The Great Before, but there are lost souls that exist in another plane in that work in two different ways. It’s an area called The Zone where people who have become too obsessed with something in their lives aimlessly wander and become these shadowy, deformed monsters. But it’s also the place where people find themselves “in the zone” when they’re really feeling passion for something they love.

During development, there was one more element about The Zone that played a key role in the story. Kemp Powers recalled:

“There are elements of The Zone that have become background fodder that were much more significant at one point. Some of the mounds are what we call dream bubbles, and that used to be a bigger part of the story. The manifestation of people’s dreams was very visible as you worked your way through the landscape.”

soul early buzz

How Soul’s Story Evolved

But what about the story? Pixar’s motto is, “Story is king,” and everything must be done in service of telling the best story, even if it means completely overhauling large chunks of the film’s premise. That happens a lot throughout the development of Pixar movies, and Soul is no exception. Docter revealed what the earliest inception of Soul was and why it didn’t pan out:

“The movie actually started as a heist film, and it was entirely in the soul world. It was about this soul who wanted to get back to his life, and he was trying to steal a pass to do it. We quickly recognized that if we’re really talking about what makes life worth living, and we don’t actually go show real life, then there’s going to be a lot of talking about it but not a lot of proving it to the audience.”

Docter went on to talk about a few other ideas they circulated during production:

“There was one version where 22, the soul who doesn’t want to go to Earth, was the main character. There was a version, I think in the first script, where Joe wasn’t a musician, he was an actor. He was going to be in Death of a Salesman. Ironic, huh! One thing about that was being an actor felt a little bit selfish, like he just wants to be famous, and it was a little hard to get behind. That evolved into him becoming a jazz musician.”

Powers brought up another version with a much different approach where Joe didn’t even know who he was. Powers said:

“In The Great Before, Joe is like, “Who am I, and where am I?” He’s like Alice already down the rabbit hole. And then he would see glimpses of his life and gradually figure out who he was.”

Powers explained how helpful Pixar’s process is in allowing them to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to telling the right story. The filmmaker said:

“We learn things in this process by trying all of it. So there have been so many iterations and versions of the story that, hopefully, even if we completely throw it out,, we don’t really throw it out because we learn things from that version that inform the version that we finally land on.”

You can see how it all turned out when Pixar’s Soul arrives on Disney+ starting on December 25, 2020.

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