He recalled that when he was making “Up,” he worried about how the design of the Asian-American scout Russell might be perceived. Docter said his fellow Pixar director Peter Sohn, a Korean-American artist, advised him, “‘Korean eyes are shaped differently than Caucasian eyes. Look at me and draw what you see: The truth isn’t racist.’”
Powers agreed that there was an important difference between “leaning into and taking pride in those features and making fun of those features.” Pixar, he said, was mindful of the sorry images from animation history. When it came to designing appealing but stylized characters, the artists “took care not to make them insulting. At the same time, we didn’t want them to be white characters who happen to be brown-skinned. We had to give them distinct looks, so they’re not just boring, monotone characters.”
To create those looks, Pixar artists and technicians needed to capture the textures of Black hair and the way light plays on various tones of Black skin. Murray said they brought in the cinematographer Bradford Young, whose work includes “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” to consult as well.
Finding the voice that fits an animated character is as challenging as finding the best performer for a live-action role. “You have a voice in your head that you can write to,” Jones explained. “We needed Joe to have ambition, to want to play music at the highest level, but we also needed Joe to be excited to teach what he loves — jazz — to his students, all of which Jamie provided.”
Although Foxx has voiced animated characters before, he still had to adjust his performance. “When I got in the recording booth, I was delivering the lines with all kinds of facial expressions and gestures,” Foxx said. “They were like, “Uh, Jamie, let’s try that again and remember … we can’t see you.”
During the film, Joe argues — and bonds — with a recalcitrant soul known as 22, who refuses to enter a human body. As 22, Tina Fey found the purely vocal performance liberating. though she too has done other voice-overs before: “I could let go of any worry about how I looked. Even as a comedy person, you’re always thinking a little bit about finding your light and standing up straight. It’s so freeing to not have to do that.” (The relationship between Joe and 22 grows increasing complicated, but neither actor wanted to say anything that might spoil the plot twists.)
Reflecting on the creation of “Soul,” Powers said, “When someone told me I was Pixar’s first Black director, I said that can’t be right. Pete said — and my hope is — this is an indicator of changes that are going to be pretty rapid.” There are more animators of color and women in the business than there were 15 or 20 years ago, he noted. “It’s sad it’s taken this long, but I’m glad it’s coming finally.”