Michael Yates talks Storyboarding on Soul!
Disney Pixar’s award-winning animation Soul is the cat’s meow, and is now available for home viewing! The feature follows Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher and jazz pianist, as he experiences a near-death experience and gets stuck in the “Great Beyond.” In the afterlife, Joe realizes all the things he took for granted, and discovers the meaning of life.
What I especially love about Blu-rays, besides owning it forever, is when you learn about interesting moments from the bonus features. I especially appreciate the behind-the-scenes segments from filmmakers and crew. The attention to detail and dedication put into these projects impresses me.
I recently attended a Q&A and drawing session with Michael Yates. He is one of the talented storytellers at Pixar, and worked as a storyboard artist on Soul. He even treated us to a fun drawing tutorial of Joe!
As a middle school student, Michael Yates realized he wanted to pursue a career in animation. He attended Ringling College of Design, and learned the entire animation process. Prior to Pixar, Mike built his animation skills by interning at Disney Studios. It was there that he realized how much he loved developing animated characters and scenes into their stories. Yates also developed his skills working on Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters at Dreamworks Animation, and co-directed the award-winning short legend of the Flying Tomato.
We asked Michael what a storyboard artist does? He says the story team is a group of artists who create a story using storyboards to depict the characters’ actions and settings. The storyboards are edited together into sequences that provide the film’s earliest visualization. This process assists the team in deciding what works best for the overall story. Michael shares that Pixar’s signature approach is to begin their films with a combination of words and images. To complete Soul, there were a whopping 73,611 drawings created by Pixar artists!
Artists create thousands of drawings to develop Pixar movies, and many don’t make it into the film you see. Many great ideas end up on the cutting room floor, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t serve a purpose. Each drawing helps inform the developing script, and helps to flesh out the character of Joe in the creative team’s minds.
Michael expanded on this area, “Over the course of the journey to make the film, we would spend many hours watching images we had drawn so we could get a sense of the story as it was coming together.”
“We would watch the film from end to end, and most of the time it doesn’t work out – but that’s okay because we learn from it. In the case of Joe, each sequence is a chance to discover a truth about Joe to make him a character we love and root for. It’s tough, but usually a good thing when scenes get cut – especially when those scenes don’t move the movie forward in the way that they should.”
Michael is particularly proud of one scene that he shared with us. The opening scene of Joe’s classroom had a few versions, yet the scene that made it in is based off of Yate’s life experience. Michael recalls embracing his time in middle school band class where he played saxophone. But after a year of playing, he realized that jazz band wasn’t his calling. He clearly recalls the interactions of the students and the instruments and that memory inspired the scene that made it into the complete film.
Artists sometimes struggle with characters and look inward for inspiration. Michael shared that Joe was the most challenging. He tried to pull from personal experiences, “Joe, being the main character, goes through a lot of variations. For inspiration I looked at people in my life. For instance, a cousin who is a really good musician and could pick up any instrument and learn it in a week. I tried to pull stuff different teachers I had over the years, and certain people from church. Ultimately, what really helped is when Jamie Foxx got on board. What Foxx brought to the character cemented how he should act and made things flow a lot easier.”
Soul was a project that Michael knew he wanted to be a part of, “I remember having a quick coffee with Pete Docter, and saying I got to work on this one, then a couple of weeks later I was on it.”
Working on Soul was fun, but it was also a lot of pressure on Yates. He didn’t want to mess it up. Thankfully he collaborated with a culture trust made of other African American employees at Pixar. The team would come together to talk about different aspects of the characters in relation to the design. They discussed how much detail was needed to be specific to the character, and whether they were playing it too safe. Yate shares a moment the team worked together on an important character in the film, “I remember one evening after a screening, we were struggling with Terry, Joe’s mom. We took the time to talk about all of our moms. Different pieces of everyone’s mom, we can kind of see in her character now. Which is a really rewarding thing overall.”
SOUL is now available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital!
Learn how to draw Joe from Soul with Michael Yates