Groundbreaking Tech Behind Pixar’s “Soul”

Lucasfilm raised the bar for sound quality.


January 25, 2021

From the unique visual style to the transformative story, “Soul” is quite the captivating film. The latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios follows band teacher Joe Gardner through much self discovery and personal growth. He finds himself navigating through unexpected circumstances in his hometown of NYC and not-so-familiar The Great Before — where new souls get their personalities before heading to Earth. 

To perfectly capture the right look and feel, many new tools were developed for the artists and technologists working on the film. And it shows! Read on to discover the breathtaking innovations:  

Designing Souls

Creating the look of the soul characters was a big challenge — balancing a soft, ethereal aesthetic with enough definition to make shapes and expressions readable. Everyone collaborated to bring a new visual style to life, from the art department to the character modelers and shaders to the technical directors and developers in the effects, lighting, and software groups.

The final product is a stylized appearance that sets them apart. They have a softness and dynamically changing linework. The team built a system to achieve this responsive effect — adding gradients, silhouette lines, and more that adjust as the souls move. The results are characters unlike any other!



Creating Crowds

“Soul” features many massive crowd scenes, but the team didn’t have time or disk space to compute the detailed data needed for the hundreds of characters and objects that make up these sequences. So, they developed two new technologies to speed up the process and make the creatives’ vision possible. 



Hypertextural Garments

“Soul” required a highly detailed “hypertextural” art direction. Extreme close-ups of the main characters playing instruments also meant extreme close-ups of their garments. To achieve an intricate and realistic look, the team developed a render-time deformation pipeline for geometric thread detail. 

They layered the fibers in a UV space to mimic the texture (creating knit, twill, herringbone, etc.), cut them out, stitched them together, and placed them on the character. They’re essentially digital clothing makers.


Garment Refitting

A new technique was created to reuse garments for different characters. You get an analysis of the full body mesh for all characters (i.e. their measurements), put it on the body, shrink and expand the garment to make it fit, add space between the body and garment, and make some tweaks. So it’s basically a virtual tailor. 

They even used this technology to repurpose jeans from “Toy Story 4”! 



Character Movement

Defining a character’s movement is labor intensive. Artists handcraft how and where the points on a character move, one pose at a time — with rounds of cleanup and repetitive manual edits.

The team created tools that have significantly sped up the generation and reuse of poses and edits. This has freed up their time to focus more on style and art direction adjustments.


To see all these innovations at work, check out “Soul” on Disney+.