How Pixar’s Soul captures the essence of the afterlife

The Ancient Egyptians believed that in the afterlife, the hearts of the dead were placed on scales and weighed against a feather of truth to assess their purity. Those that failed the test were consumed by Ammit, the ‘devourer of the dead’ – a goddess who was part lion, part hippo and part crocodile (no relation to the author).
In the Shinto religion of Japan, it’s claimed that souls go to an underground realm, where they must cross a river separating the lands of the living from the world of the dead. Several religions share a belief in reincarnation – that we are continually reborn into a new body determined by how much karma we’ve banked.


In making Soul, a new animated movie coming out this month, Pixar’s animators had to find common ground between dozens of different belief systems to create a one size fits all version of what happens to us after we die, but also before we’re born.
The film, which lands on the streaming service Disney+on Christmas Day, follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, as Pixar’s first black lead), a wannabe jazz star turned high school music teacher in New York City, who finally gets his big break, only to fall down a manhole cover and find himself first in ‘The Great Beyond,’ and then – via an accounting error – in ‘The Great Before,’ where souls are prepared before they’re dispatched to Earth.
“We wanted it to be very non-specific in terms of culture,” says Pete Docter, who co-directed the film alongside Kemp Powers. “If you look at it and go, ‘That’s Greek, or Italian, or Chinese’ that would be wrong because souls, we are saying in the film, come to Earth kind of as a blank slate. Your culture is something that you learn and grow into.” To help, the filmmakers brought in religious experts, personality experts, and even shamans, says producer Dana Murray.
In Pixar’s imagination, The Great Beyond becomes a black hole surrounded by a billion spots of light, with a conveyor belt slowly moving towards its yawning maw. It is simple, universal, and frankly a little terrifying. The Great Before, meanwhile, is stripped back and sparse – grassy meadows with the odd structure scattered around, inspired by the pavilions of the Worlds Fairs from the 1930s to the 1960s.


It is populated by three types of characters: unborn souls, who are there to pick up the personality traits and sparks of talent that will carry them through their lives on Earth; counselors, teacher-types who are there to supervise and cajole; and mentors, souls who have lived their lives and are now ready to pass on their experience to a new generation.
Each required a unique take on character design. For the souls and mentors, the animators started by talking to religious groups, says animation supervisor Jude Brownbill, and asking questions like: what is the soul? What could it possibly be made of? What could it look like? Eventually, they settled on a design for the souls based around aerogels, experimental substances being used in the aerospace industry that are halfway between a liquid and solid, and which have a translucent, almost ghostlike quality.
But, Brownbill says, the animators knew that the characters needed to be able to talk and have facial expressions with meaningful emotions. “We needed a bit more definition,” she says. “So we created technology to pick out the edges of the characters’ limbs and face lines so that we could really express what we needed to express with them.” Custom software automatically picked out the fingers and faces of characters so that animators could focus on making the small tweaks – dimple placement, finger movements, the curve of a smile – that made the characters feel more human.
The counselor characters are also an exercise in minimalism – each is formed from a single two dimensional line which folds and contorts into different shapes like a constantly evolving piece of modern art. “It looks like the easiest thing in the world, everyone can draw a line” says Bobby Podesta, animation supervisor on Soul and a long-time Pixar employee (during the interview, he proudly displayed a US copy of WIRED from the mid-1990s, in which he was featured in a piece about the first Toy Story). “But to draw a line that turns into a character that can be almost anything, that seems both 2D and 3D and that has this ethereal nature is really difficult.” Again, the animators turned to research – they looked at minimalist Swedish design, and took to building wire frame models to get particular shapes right.


Over the years, Pixar has excelled at creating compelling universes with their own distinct look and feel and internal logic – the freeze-on-sight rules that govern Toy Story, the importance of being remembered in Coco. Soul is no exception. The film – which has similar themes to Coco and Inside Out – takes place across three very different worlds, following Joe’s efforts to be reunited with his body so that he can live out his musical dreams.
Here, it’s the differences between the worlds, and the depth of work that has gone into creating each one that give the film its power. “New York is busy and dense and saturated and loud,” says Podesta. “Just the contrast with that gives you what The Great Before needs to be to stand out: open and ethereal and calm and expansive. Building one world starts to inform all the other worlds you’re going to build.”
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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