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December, 2020
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Burrow – The Beauty of Community and Asking For Help

SparkShorts

Posted by Simoa • December 22, 2020

2020’s pandemic gave Soul an added layer of significance, and the same is true for the short film paired with it, “Burrow.” Directed by story artist Madeline Sharafian, the short follows a young rabbit on the quest to build her perfect home. The only problem is that she wants to be alone and her neighbors are a bit too…neighborly.

Even the most adorable Pixar shorts can have lots of depth, as we saw in “Kitbull.” Nothing is as tragic or heart-wrenching in “Burrow” but it did give me lots to think about, particularly now. Rabbit sets about building her home, burrowing deeper underground and is thwarted in her efforts by the other animals. They don’t mean to be in the way but they are, and all she wants is to be alone.

“Burrow” is brimming with lots of storybook charm and is quite silly and playful. Lots of warm colors seep through and its color palette makes it perfect for fall.

No matter what we may be facing, we can get caught up in our pride, thinking we can – and should – get by on our own. We might feel ashamed or burdensome asking for help. “Burrow” makes it clear that we shouldn’t ever feel that way. The short also extols the power of community. As we’ve seen how selfishness reigns above ground, this little film is a timely reminder about the importance of serving our neighbors.

If you follow Sharafian on social media, you’ll recognize her rabbit. I did, and instantly knew she was behind “Burrow” the first time I watched it. Her credits include OnwardWe Bare Bears, and Domee Shi’s upcoming Turning Red. I was also lucky enough to learn about the making of the short and how it was inspired.

Like Soul, “Burrow” was already halfway completed by the time covid arrived in our world. Sharafian had the idea since 2014. A CalArts alum, she actually left the school in her third year and was “haunted by her fourth film” that she never got to make. Rabbit is based on her – it’s a childhood nickname owing to her two front teeth that got knocked out and then grew in very large. She’s always struggled with isolating herself and a perfectionist nature that refuses to ask for help. So while it may just seem like a cute short on the surface, it actually is personal. The visual style was greatly influenced by children’s books, such as those by Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry. Studio Ghibli was another inspiration. Sharafian always loved cutaways and that was a detail she incorporated in “Burrow.” The characters were also simple because of the highly detailed and stylized backgrounds.

Here’s an interview I did with Maddie all about the short.

UP: How confident do you feel about directing a full length feature film?

MS: I think part of the Sparkshorts program is for the studio to check your directing skills, but I was checking myself. ‘Is this something I’m going to be comfortable with? Will I be happy or will I just be nervous all the time?’ I think what I’ve found is that if I have a story that I really believe in, and that I think will be fun for people to make, those nerves went away. I was surprised by how comfortable I felt. I think it’s something I’ve proven to myself that I can do, and I would do it again, I think.

UP: Was this short influenced by covid and this chaotic year?

MS: It totally wasn’t! I had this idea so long ago and it’s weird watching it line up with what’s going on now, and I’m glad I didn’t have to make it during covid but I have learned some lessons while making it, like asking for help. I know now how to ask [for help]. Maybe if my housemate is away and I feel lonely – in the past, I would have sadly been by myself but now I know how to pick up a phone and tell someone I’m sad. It improved my quarantine life a little bit.

UP: Was your rabbit always going to be the star of a Sparkshort/your own directorial debut?

MS: I think so! It did take away my fear to be embarking on something with this character. I’ve loved her for my whole life, this rabbit that’s apart of me, my nickname; I use her to represent myself out there in the world. I’m shy in person so to me it felt like I was giving myself a safety blanket on my first scary adventure.

UP: Do you think this short has a connection to Soul at all?

MS: I haven’t seen Soul in a long time. I saw early story reels so I trust that Pete picked it as a good pairing. I’m such a huge Pete Docter fan that I’m waiting to watch Soul on December 25th!

UP: Can we expect a Rabbit series?

MS: Not at the moment…I will always continue to make my personal comics but as far as this goes, I think it’s a done story.

UP: How did you come up with the idea behind the short?

MS: Very much inspired by my own experience working here at Pixar. This is a really collaborative place, especially the story department. I was watching my teammates do these really healthy, awesome things and they’d ask for help. But I realized that if I was stuck, I wouldn’t show anyone. I would just work late. There’s only so many years that you can do that, healthily, and I reached a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to learn to ask for help and it was around the time that I started making this short. I was making the theme of this short and learning how to live it at the same time.

Everyone at Pixar loves 2D animation, so there were lots of enthusiastic animators who wanted to work on this film. And there will be lots of enthusiastic viewers when the film premieres with Soul on Disney+! Be sure to watch it alone or with your friends and family on Christmas day. It’ll be that much sweeter.

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Soul – Something To Look Forward To

Pete Docter, Soul

Posted by Joanna • December 21, 2020

We can all agree that this year has been an exceptionally weird one. Usually, the run-up to the year end’s festivities is cause for excitement, and while I – like countless others – will be happy to see the back of 2020, I can’t say that I’m exactly ‘looking forward’ to what 2021 might bring. Christmas, New Year and beyond are all clouded in uncertainty.

One thing about Christmas that is certain is we’ll be able to watch Soul, and Burrow (the short that was supposed to precede it in theatres).

Pixar have done a really profound thing by releasing Soul on Disney+ on Christmas Day. Not only are its themes – chasing dreams and celebrating life – a wonderful reminder of what lies ahead for all of us, but it’s given us something to look forward to. December 25th may be full of doubt and worry for a lot of people this year, but the release of Soul is something we can count on to bring people together.

We were lucky enough to attend a digital press conference for Soul earlier this year, and it was inspiring to be in the (virtual) company of such talented filmmakers, producers, and actors. Pete Docter revealing a lovely sketch of the interviewer right before the conference ended may have been the highlight. He’d been secretly working on it throughout the conference.

Soul is something to look forward to this festive season. We’ll leave you with some facts we learnt during the press conference that will hopefully help make the thought of Christmas a little easier for some of you.

 

1. The counsellors in The Great Before are based on simple, twisted wires

The Great Before is where all souls are formed and shaped before they’re ready to move on to Earth. Pete Docter remarked “We figured if the souls just ran amok, no one would ever get born. It would just be bedlam up there. So they need a little bit of steering.”

That’s where the counsellors come in! They almost take on the role of kindergarten teachers. They’re totally unique looking – very different from the design of the individual souls, and very different from humans too. The Great Before could be described as quite ‘minimalistic’ and abstract, and the counsellors fit right in with that aesthetic. They’re based off of wire models shaped slightly to resemble a human face, but just wait until you see how they’re animated! It’s mesmerising. They’re apparently one of the most tricky character designs that Pixar has faced yet. Also – they’re pretty much all called Jerry.

©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

 

2. The settings in The Great Before had some unusual inspirations

Because the world of souls is suitably very abstract and philosophical, it was difficult to settle on a ‘look’ for The Great Before. The filmmakers tried taking inspiration from Ancient Greece, but that ended up being too “culturally specific” – The Great Before needed to be more universal. So they turned to – World’s Fair photos from the 1940s! Of course. It does kind of make sense though: it’s abstract, timeless, and borrows from all sorts of different cultures.

1939 New York World’s Fair – Image by © CORBIS

 

3. How Pixar made sure their first movie featuring a black protagonist was authentic

Soul wasn’t always going to be about a jazz musician. They wanted a passionate lead who was figuring out what to do with his life and how to pursue his dreams. Joe was a scientist, an artist, and an actor before they settled on jazz. And once they knew he was going to play jazz – music that originated from black communities in New Orleans – they realised he had to be black.

Kemp Powers and a whole team of other consultants were brought on board to make sure the film was as authentic as possible. And this was absolutely the right move – Soul oozes authenticity. Black employees at Pixar were also brought together to create a trust and were involved in the making of the film at every step.

Kemp Powers recalled that when Pixar first asked him for his involvement, he pointed out:

“You know that I’m gonna be pushing for, like, a lot of black stuff. Because I can’t help myself … our culture is amazing. And, a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, will tell you that, in order to appeal to a wide audience, you want to get away from that. And I feel the opposite. I feel, like, there is universality by going for the hyper-specificity.”

© 2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

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New Pixar movies and Disney+ Originals!

Disney+, Domee Shi

Posted by Simoa • December 12, 2020

Disney Investor Day on December 10th was an overwhelming day filled with all sorts of exciting announcements. New Pixar films were unveiled, along with a new series exclusive to Disney+. Now that we’ve had time to digest all the fantastic news, here’s what’s upcoming.

Dug Days (2021)

This series about our favorite talking dog arrives in the fall. Featuring the ‘dangers of suburbia,’ like fireworks, puppies, and squirrels.

The other Disney+ series include Pixar Popcorn, a second season of Inside Pixar, and a new Cars spinoff, with a road trip across the country starring Lightning McQueen and Mater.

Turning Red (2022)

Investor Day

The red panda is out of the bag! Domee Shi’s feature directorial debut follows the adventures of 13 year old Mei, a girl navigating adolescence with all of its confusion and awkwardness. Mei is a regular teenager, but with a twist: she turns into a red panda whenever she gets too excited! The fact that Domee came up with this idea is only to be expected. “Bao” was such a surprise, adorable and poignant all at once. I can’t even imagine what Turning Red has in store. I love Mei already, in both human and animal form. She looks a bit like I did when I was her age.

Lightyear (2022)

A Buzz Lightyear origin movie?! It will debut in theaters. I’m not sure how I feel about this one, considering it seems like it would work more as a series, but you can watch the trailer below. Chris Evans will voice the space ranger.

Win or Lose (2023)

Pixar’s first animated series will premiere on Disney+ in February of 2023. The stories will focus on a middle school softball team and each episode will explore the view of a different character.

It feels great to have all this new Pixar content to look forward to, and with Soul just a few weeks away. Hopefully theaters will reopen so we can enjoy these great films on the big screen. Let us know what you think!

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Soul Could Be The Best Thing To Come Out Of 2020

Review, Soul

Posted by Joanna • December 8, 2020

Pixar movies have this magical quality to them. They somehow manage to present themselves in our lives at just the right time – it’s amazing how current and relevant they reliably are despite being in production for years beforehand. Soul is no exception. In fact, it might be the most ‘timely’ Pixar movie yet. (Ironic, given the fact that it’s been delayed multiple times due to COVID-19).

This is an important point to make, though: the one way that Soul is not ‘timely’ is that it’s the first Pixar movie to feature a Black protagonist at the centre of its story. This didn’t come at the ‘perfect time’. This was long overdue.

In every other regard, though, Soul has arrived exactly on time. It’s a top tier Pixar movie for a multitude of reasons, but most powerfully because of how hard it hits in the year 2020.

 

First off – the look and sound of Soul is…full of soul, unsurprisingly.

At this point, you’d think we would have stopped being surprised by how beautiful Pixar movies continue to be. But you will absolutely gasp at so many scenes in Soul, at how much of a marvel they are. And not in a “wow I can’t believe how real this looks” way – there are parts of Soul that have unreal beauty. This movie shows you places that you would never see outside of your wildest imagination – ‘The Great Before’, and astral planes – but it also shows you places that are immediately familiar and recognisable. The streets of New York City feel so authentic – they’re realised with such a sense of joy and vibrancy. And the diversity of character designs is such a delight.

©2020 Disney/Pixar

©2020 Disney/Pixar

©2020 Disney/Pixar

This mastery of recreating the real world and creating new worlds from scratch was vital in bringing Soul’s story to life. Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz pianist, is suddenly plunged into the afterlife on the very day his dream career seemed to finally be coming together. Feeling that his life was only just starting, he needs to fight his way back to Earth and avoid having to move on into ‘The Great Beyond’.

As with Pixar’s 2017 film Coco, music plays a huge role in the plot and themes of Soul, so it’s appropriate that it’s been treated and represented so passionately. Coco’s guitar playing sequences are breath-taking – the way the animation captured the intricate fingering is incredible. Soul achieved this impressive feat again and more. Joe’s piano-playing sequences feel so raw and wonderfully observed. Dorothea Williams playing the saxophone is mesmerising.

The soundtrack is also fittingly soulful – a magical mix of Jon Batiste’s jazz and Reznor and Ross’ otherworldly modern tracks.

©2020 Disney/Pixar

 

Soul – the best thing to come out of the year 2020?

Soul gives us an imaginative insight into what happens when we die, but it is a film about life. It’s strangely ironic that a film that so confidently celebrates life has had to face so many delays due to the year 2020. The pandemic has forced people to ‘put their lives on hold’ until we can get back to actually living and ‘fulfilling our purposes’ again. But this is why I feel Soul couldn’t have come about at a better time. When I say that Soul is a movie about life, I mean life in its simplest essence. It’s not about life’s complexity, or its milestones or hurdles. Soul celebrates just…living. Watching the sky. Going for walks. Feeling the wind on your face. In a year where so much has been stripped away from us, it’s so wonderful that Soul has reminded us to find joy in the little things.

©2020 Disney/Pixar

Soul comes to Disney+ on December 25th. Whether you’re with family or friends, physically or virtually, or even on your own – I hope Soul brings a smile to your face this Christmas. It’s a bold reminder of how much we have to look forward to, and how much we can appreciate in the present.

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The language of the soul

Soul, Soul press day

Posted by Simoa • December 1, 2020

Music transcends all sorts of barriers: language, distance, and culture. Music connects us through all of those things as well. When Soul‘s filmmakers were creating the character of Joe Gardner, they had to think of a profession that would elicit sympathy from the audience. They settled on a musician. They also knew that this musician would have to be Black, as jazz was invented, shaped, and pioneered by Black artists. Musicians are passionate artists, just like painters, writers, and sculptors. Soul is going to ask some big questions about the meaning of life and a life lived passionately is one lived well.

There’s a scene in the film that perfectly captures a moment of inspiration – being in “the zone.” It’s during Joe’s audition with the Dorothea Williams quartet. He becomes so immersed in the piece he’s playing that everything and everyone melts away. It’s just him and the song, swathed in vivid colors. It called to mind the paint strokes of the “Colors of the Wind” sequence in Pocahontas. Only an artist could be the protagonist of a story like this. Animation is not the only medium to tell this kind of story – see It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – but it is the only medium that can portray moments like the one in Soul in such an innovative way. Being “swept away” can actually be literal in an animated film.

Inspiration also came from a video that featured jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In it, he related a story about playing with the Miles Davis, and how he messed up a note. Hancock was mortified, but Davis was able to use that note. In Pete Docter’s words:

“Not only a great story, but really a perfect metaphor for what we were talking about in the film. Don’t judge. Take what you’re given. Turn it into something of value. We realized that jazz was really the perfect representation of what we were trying to say in the film.”

Jon Batiste was brought on to compose the film’s jazz score. Batiste has an enthusiasm that’s truly infectious. He described Soul as having a lot of light force energy. He needed to create music that would mimic the film’s ethereal essence. Some of his pieces have an optimistic and melancholy sound. His own personality and energy definitely inspired the film’s sound. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were also brought onboard to compose the music for the Great Before, leading to a surprisingly cohesive meld of that world and New York’s jazzy scene.

Batiste explains:

“…it really complements what Trent and Atticus came up with, and the times in the film when our music comes together, when the worlds kinda collide, it’s amazing how it worked out. And it really changed the rest of the music that I was composing for the film because I got a chance to see into their process, and that also leaked into the kind of spiritual tone that I’m talkin’ about, this ethos that we created.”

Batiste also described that pivotal scene when Joe as a teenager falls in love with jazz the first time. Like the audition scene, the vivid purple lights are dancing and illuminating his face. He likened it to a Kenny Kirkland or Branford Marsalis record from the 70s or 80s. These are musicians I’ve never heard of, but Batiste was able to incorporate his favorites into the music.

Like Miguel playing the guitar in Coco, one of the challenges for animators was accurate piano playing for Joe. Reference videos of Batiste was one source (even if his hands were often flying around the keys!). The animators were responsible for inspecting the hand movements and finger articulation. That was their visual cue which then had to be animated by frame. Time consuming of course, but ultimately worth it. A million details will go unnoticed by the audience, which is the goal, but for any musicians watching, it should look just right.

Music has always been an integral part of Pixar’s films. Of course Michael Giacchino’s Up score is one of the most iconic, along with Wall-E‘s. In our post covid world, we can’t go to concerts. But Soul is bringing the music to us. I would like to share more of Jon Batiste’s words about Pixar’s lovely Christmas gift.

“I’m so happy that the word is getting out about the film and people are finally gonna see it. And people need light in this time, and I’m all about bringing the light, and that’s one of the great pleasures of working with Pixar. They’ve created these films that delve into all of the cultures of the world and create it in a way that’s accessible to all people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your experience. The stories transcend all of that.”

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