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Q&A: Alumni shed light on production of Oscar-nominated ‘Soul’

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

By Allyson Weissman

April 18, 2021 6:29 p.m.

Pixar’s “Soul” encompassed the beauty of life with the help of Jeremy Slome and Searit Huluf.

The alumni were the associate postproduction supervisor and cultural consultant, respectively, on “Soul,” a film following Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) – a struggling New York jazz musician – on his journey back to Earth after a tragic accident sent his soul to the cosmic Great Beyond. Currently, the film is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Score and Best Sound at the 2021 Oscars.

As a postproduction supervisor, Slome was involved in the final sound mix and design as well as distribution, bringing the message and story of “Soul” to life. However, “Soul” is no ordinary Pixar film as the film’s protagonist, Joe, is Pixar’s first Black lead. To effectively characterize this monumental achievement, Huluf – the cultural consultant on “Soul” – helped Pixar accurately represent Black culture through animation and other cinematic elements.

Slome spoke with Daily Bruin’s Allyson Weissman on how “Soul” was able to appeal to and resonate with audiences of all ages from a postproduction perspective while Huluf discussed the cultural significance of the film and how the making of the film fostered necessary conversations.

[Related: Q&A: Alum talks choices and challenges in ‘Toy Story 4’ production process]

Daily Bruin: “Soul” had a big message that could be complex for young audiences. How did you help simplify the ideas in the film and make them relatable to all ages?

Jeremy Slome: I would say that certainly starts with story and with the filmmakers at the top who really took their time to not only explore what themes and characters they wanted to tell but also wanted the film to feel universal in every which way. An example is the Soul World, … which had to feel universal and feel like anyone could exist in there. That was everything from the art design – not leaning in one certain design aesthetic – to the casting where the Soul World is filled with international voices and original sounds and soundscapes. It really comes down to just purposefully thinking about universality in every stage of the film, from the screenwriting and story.

DB: How did you show the contrasts between New York City, the Great Before and the Great Beyond through visuals, audio and music?

JS: New York is full of very hard sounds and angles, and even the cloth was sort of created to have more texture and wrinkles but also a little fun and angular. Then, of course, the Soul World was extremely soft. There was a spectrum of color used and that also played out the sound of the score. For the score, we had one composer, Jon Batiste, who … wrote original jazz songs and covered some jazz songs.

We kept it very authentic and realistic by filming every one of those recording sessions with cameras all over the band, so we could have the animators replicate every stroke of the piano. … Then you take that in contrast with the Soul World, which was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with a lot of help from our sound designer Ren Klyce, who really approached it more ethereally and softer, and it almost feels like it’s happening within me as opposed to hearing it – it’s very surrounding.

DB: Delving more into the jazz aesthetic, how did jazz music help characterize Black culture throughout the film?

Searit Huluf: Jazz music started with African American people, and when Pete Docter and the crew were first developing this film, they wanted to have an African American character, and they knew that jazz was the music that they wanted to also portray in it. It delved into another layer of not just learning about the African American history but also learning about music history.

It was really empowering because through these conversations we got to have actual African American jazz musicians and composers work on the film. We got to visit (the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture) in D.C., and we got a private tour and learned about not only about the music history with African Americans but also the films, sports and art and (all-encompassing) art forms for the Black community. That really helped us really dive deeper into the African American experience for the film.

[Related: Q&A: Producer Peilin Chou discusses cultural authenticity, symbolism in ‘Over the Moon’]

DB: Because “Soul” is Pixar’s first film to feature a Black lead, how did you tackle the challenge of accurately representing Black culture through the animation, design and other elements that contributed to the world-building of “Soul”?

SH: It was mainly just starting the conversations and having it be a safe space because … we wanted to make sure that we were following the right steps in doing that. A lot of it was just open conversations and making it an inviting space to make sure people feel comfortable speaking out mainly because there weren’t a lot of African Americans within the studio itself. There weren’t that many African Americans in this film as well – like actual crew – so for us to come in and kind of help and guide the story was our main goal of making people feel comfortable to reach out when they are confused or feel like they’re not sure what they’re doing and just be a soundboard through the ideas.

DB: The overall message of “Soul” is appreciating the little things in life. How do you think the elements of Black culture incorporated in the film tie in with the overall message?

SH: Being more humble, being more open-minded is what comes to me first. I think Pixar having the first Black character was such an open-minded experience. It was also very scary too for a lot of people because they know about the cultural history and things that come with having an African American lead. I think for me being humble, especially staying present is such an important thing right now, especially with all the things happening with Stop Asian Hate and the Black Lives Matter movement. It kind of makes me want to stay more involved in my community because I think those are the little nuances that even the main character Joe in “Soul” was not really looking at or paying attention to.


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