Pixar’s Unique Process Helped “Soul” Writers Engage Daily

Cinephiles think they understand the life of a screenwriter. Thanks to “Sunset Boulevard”, “In a Lonely Place”, “Barton Fink”, “The Player”, “The Muse”, “Seven Psychopaths”, “Adaptation”, “Trumbo”, “Mank” and others, the picture is clear: the writers are cynical and friendless people, hunched over a lonely keyboard, plagued by self-doubt and interference in the studio.

Of course, Pixar is the exception to all the rules. The three writers of “Soul” – Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers – speak enthusiastically about the studio’s unique daily brainstorming process, which is interactive, intense and non-stop.

Not all writers can handle this, but when it works, the result is gangbusters. “Soul” has won numerous accolades and is expected to get more when the Oscar nominations are announced on March 15.
Docter says it takes four or five years to create an animated film; Pixar doesn’t wait for a draft script before starting work. “We do a lot of rewriting and discovery along the way,” he explains.

“Above all, it’s the story that takes so long. Finding out is a fluid, dynamic and messy process. We have a system where we can basically make a mockup of the movie, show it to people, and then
react and change things. By the time the movie comes out, in essence we’ve already done the movie seven or eight times. It allows you to experiment and try things.

Jones and Kemp had offices nearby. As Jones says, “We would write in sequences and send it to Pete in pieces. He and Kemp alternated writing segments, then traded them for notes and punch-ups. After Docter weighed in, the writers handed the footage over to the writers, who also took notes and then drew their version of it.

Among those involved were producer Dana Murray, editor Kevin Nolting, production managers and some designers. Kemp says, “We wanted to test it out and get buy-in from everyone, especially Pete, before we started writing it.”

The three writers often wrote sequences out of order, as different things go into production at different times. Sometimes a sequence was locked, limiting what could be changed.

Jones laughs, “The live equivalent is being on a set, writing pages while filming the movie, with every department coming to you and asking, ‘Did you change that? And filming continues – and that for three or four years.

Kemp adds, “There was a lot of ‘Oh, that’s not in the movie anymore. Sorry!’ “

In an early version, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) was a Caucasian actor instead of a musician. There was also a 22-centric (Tina Fey) version but Jones said, “We realized something was missing.”

Kemp adds, “Pixar has a solid buddy formula, but the decision has been made that every character, including 22, must be of service to Joe. It was a pivotal moment in the development of the film.

Docter has worked at Pixar since 1990 and became Creative Director in June 2018. Jones joined the team as a lead story and creative artist in March 2017. Kemp signed for 12 weeks, to flesh out the characters in “Soul “, and that turned into a two-year job.

Although the process was intense, the three miss the daily interaction.

“It’s a very common thing to make animated films,” says Docter. “So it’s a weird feeling to be apart.”

“I also miss the atrium,” Kemp says. “You never know who you’re going to run into.”

Jones explains, “This atrium was designed by Steve Jobs and we always say he intended to create accidental meetings. It forces you to travel, receive mail, or get food. And we miss it right now.

Kemp adds, “Plus Pixar has the best cafeteria. “