Former BYU students with Pixar discuss the innovations behind ‘Soul’


One was part of the team that decided what the lead character should look like.

Another took time to learn new software and figure out a different approach to simulating the movement of hair and cloth.

Two others created all of the hair for background characters in a large city, which was no small task.

“We had to populate all of New York,” said Ben Porter, one of the animators. “And we did all different hairstyles for them.”

These are some of the innovations on display in Pixar’s recent film, “Soul.”

What Utahns will be interested to know is that several alumni of Brigham Young University’s animation program were among hundreds of artists and animators involved in making the movie.

Educated in a university program that taught them how to collaborate, four Pixar animators with BYU ties talked about the challenges they faced in making “Soul” and why the film resonated with audiences. In the end, it was rewarding experience and a movie they were grateful to be a part of, especially because of the timely message.

The animators

Jonathan Page grew up in Orem. He was in high school when “Toy Story” came out and knew that’s what he wanted to do. But after serving a Latter-day Saint mission in Russia, he thought he needed a more serious career and turned to mechanical engineering. While teaching the Russian language at the Provo Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Page met another student who was in BYU’s animation program who helped him find his “spark,” and he switched to animation. Page graduated from BYU in 2008 and primarily worked on the counselors and soul world as a character model and articulation artist.

Jonathan Page, a BYU graduate, is an animator at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.
Deborah Coleman, Pixar

Jonathan Hoffman, an alum of Timpanogos High, always wanted to do something creative. He considered becoming a writer, actor or illustrator. After his mission in Cincinnati, Ohio, a conversation with Brent Adams, a co-creator of the BYU animation program who is now retired, convinced Hoffman to pursue animation. He started an internship at Pixar in 2008, graduated from BYU and gained full-time employment. Hoffman said he was the first character shader for “Soul” and was part of the team that figured out what the lead character, Joe Gardner, would look like.

Jonathan Hoffman, a BYU graduate, is an animator at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.
Deborah Coleman, Pixar

From a young age, Ben Porter was sure he would be a movie director, even when his high school counselors suggested he have a plan B for his career. On the plane ride home from his mission in Hungary, Porter had a change of heart about directing movies. He floundered through college until his wife insisted he “needed to get any degree.” He found his “spark” in an introduction to animation class at BYU.

“I fell in love with it. I was like, ‘I cannot believe how fun this is,’” Porter said. “A thing that I imagined would be so tedious and boring … was absolutely not tedious, it was incredible. I knew at that moment that this was what I had been looking for.”

Ben Porter, a BYU graduate, is an animator at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.
Deborah Coleman, Pixar

Porter graduated in 2007 and was offered a position at Pixar. As a character grooming artist, he added the hair, fur and feathers on many of the characters. He specifically constructed and shaded the hair for musician Dorothea and her jazz band, making sure the color was right and the hair moved naturally. He and a fellow BYU alum, Ethan Dean, were assigned to create all the hair for background characters in the New York scenes.

As a young girl, Meredith Moulton, dreamed of one day becoming an animator. She used to watch all the behind-the-scenes footage on the DVDs of Disney and Pixar movies to see the animators explain the process. They inspired her.

Meredith Moulton, a BYU graduate, is an animator at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.
Pixar

Moulton graduated from BYU in 2013 and got her first animation job at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver, British Columbia. When her husband got a new job in California, a former Sony colleague at Pixar suggested she apply. She did and was hired.

As a simulation artist for “Soul,” she worked on the movement of hair and cloth in the film, learning new software and other skills in the process. Moulton also appeared in an episode of “Inside Pixar,” simulating the hair of a main character “Soul.”

“It’s very cool to be in one of those features now,” she wrote in an email to the Deseret News.

Innovations

In “Soul,” there were technical innovations and storytelling innovations.

“Soul” is the first Pixar film to use hair fiber curves to generate the cloth to get a textural feel to the fabric. The new approach involved rendering millions of hairs to create the look of cloth.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner gets the chance of a lifetime to play the piano in a jazz quartet headed by the great Dorothea Williams. Jamie Foxx is the voice of Joe Gardner and Angela Bassett is the voice of Dorothea.
Pixar

Hoffman helped develop this system and used it on Joe Gardner’s sweater. He also did the shading for Joe’s skin and many of his clothes, including the musician’s pants and hat.

“Figuring out that first character was important to figure out the look of the film because everything kind of came after that,” Hoffman said.

Moulton described the lifelike detail in a character’s clothing.

“The clothing in ‘Soul’ was almost its own character,” Moulton wrote. “The style and technology developed for this film allowed it to be a lot more detailed than previous Pixar films. We were able to render cloth down to the individual weave of the fabric which added a lot of visual fidelity.”

Artists and animators focused on capturing authentic textures of Black hair and skin tone of characters. An internal “cultural brain trust” consisting of some of the studios Black employees was assembled to offer insights and ensure that nothing was offensive.

In Pixar Animation Studios’ film “Soul,” Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz. A single unexpected step sends him to the cosmic realms.
Pixar

Porter said the feedback was invaluable.

“Those are things that I never thought about and wouldn’t have even known,” he said. “It was exciting to get those kinds of specific insights and it felt like a whole new world.”

As part of the story, the animators created the “Great Before,” a place where unborn souls reside before coming to Earth. They wanted to make the human world feel tactile and physical while generating an ethereal feel in the soul world, Hoffman said.

Page worked on the model and rigging of characters in this part of the film.

“That was unlike anything else that we were used to doing,” Page said. “We had to rethink most of the controls that we provided for animation and develop the system from the ground up.”

Hoffman applauded Disney and Pixar for having the courage to make a film that asks deep questions and discusses “scary spiritual ideas,” exploring the meaning of life in a commercial setting.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher finds himself in The Great Before — a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.
Pixar

“It’s cool that Pixar is willing to have that dialogue with the world about what do you think the meaning of your life is?” Hoffman said. “I don’t see a lot of studios doing that, so I feel privileged to have worked on something as daring as this.”

Most meaningful for Moulton was taking part in a film that produced Pixar’s first Black lead character.

“As a mixed Black person, having the chance to work on Pixar’s first movie that was centered around Black people was a very cool experience,” Mouton wrote. “I didn’t see a lot of media, especially animation, featuring people that looked like me growing up, so it’s especially cool for me to have the opportunity to help create more diverse animated content.”

The message

“Soul” received a 96% on the Tomatometer and an 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and shows earnings of $57.4 million worldwide on Box Office Mojo.

Why did this film resonate with audiences?

Porter was struck by the different interpretations some people took away.

“It was generally an idea of we should appreciate the life that we have, but some people saw it differently, like, ‘Oh, I need to be doing something better with my life,’” he said before adding his own thought. “There are still things to be happy about.”

Hoffman said the film appealed to viewers for its timeliness.

“Coming in the moment that it did, being delayed and not being able to come out in theaters, the message and just the celebration of the everyday life is especially poignant in this moment,” Hoffman said. “It’s strangely fortuitous, I think, this film about reflection and about appreciating the little things could come at a time when those things are the most important.”

BYU’s contribution

Kelly Loosli, who was the head of BYU’s animation program for the last 19 years and now serves as the director of the Center for Animation, follows the work of his former students and gave the film rave reviews.

He thought subtleties of Joe Gardner’s body language and facial performance were “spectacular.” He said the film took him places he had never been before, and was especially impressed by the barber shop scene. He commented on the attention to detail of the skin and hair. Loosli was also captivated by the Soul world, parts of which reminded him of Pablo Picasso drawings.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher in New York City, makes one small misstep and ends up in The Great Before, a place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.
Pixar

“What was interesting was seeing them try to animate, design and build more abstract environments and abstract characters, that was the stuff that was really interesting,” he said.

The four former BYU students are grateful for their BYU education, which prepared them well for Pixar.

“BYU fosters a great sense of collaboration, and they expose you to a lot of different disciplines within the industry, which not only helped me hone in on what I wanted to specialize in, but also has been very helpful in doing my job,” Moulton wrote.

Porter agreed.

“The BYU animation program taught us how to learn,” he said.

“We’re in an industry that is constantly changing, as fast as we are making movies. The education we got in the animation program was kind of a Mr. Miyagi-type thing where we weren’t really understanding what you were learning until later, then you realize, ‘Oh, I learned all of these other things through that process.’ Things like how to learn a new software package to accomplish something that is a new way of doing it that we wouldn’t have ever done before. But we’re able to learn it on the schedule for our film. I see that all over the place.”



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