Canadian animator Trevor Jimenez follows Oscars run with another milestone: ‘Soul’

Hamilton-born film animator Trevor Jimenez is shown in a handout photo.The heart-tugging existential themes in Pixar’s new film “Soul” resonated deeply with its Canadian story supervisor, Jimenez. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

The heart-tugging existential themes in Pixar’s new film “Soul” resonated deeply with its Canadian story supervisor, Trevor Jimenez.

The Hamilton-born animator joined the highly anticipated project just months after finishing his animated short film “Weekends,” which was nominated for an Academy Award last year.

He went through his Oscars awards journey while making “Soul,” and also had a daughter.

Juggling two big professional pursuits and parenthood while in the spotlight helped Jimenez find new meaning in the story of an unsatisfied jazz musician who’s so focused on fulfilling what he thinks is his purpose in life that he doesn’t appreciate the little things around him.

“There was a lot happening in my life,” the 37-year-old said in a recent interview from Berkeley, Calif., where he works as a director/story artist for Pixar.

“Appreciating the little moments is such a big part of my life now. It’s kind of weird to equate it back to this film I was working on, because that’s so much bigger in a lot of ways, but it’s true. I think it’s a good thing for people to see reflected in an animated film, for kids to see reflected in an animated film: that as much as pursuing our dreams is important, there’s so much more to life than that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer to the film’s question of what makes life meaningful, with many life dreams put on hold and people looking for other ways to feed their souls during isolation.

COVID also affected the film’s release. “Soul” was supposed to hit theatres but will instead debut on the Disney Plus streaming service on Friday amid a second wave of the virus.

“I feel like what it’s saying is so important now. I’m so excited for people to see it,” Jimenez said. “It’s disappointing that it’s not in theatres but I’m actually very happy that a lot of people are going to be able to watch it in the safety of their own homes during this time.”

Jamie Foxx voices the lead character, Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher in New York who thinks he isn’t worth anything unless he is in the spotlight. When he finally gets a chance to play piano with acclaimed musicians at the best jazz club in town, it’s in jeopardy due to an accident that propels him into The Great Before — a mystical place where new souls get their personalities before they go to Earth.

Tina Fey voices a precocious and uninspired soul Joe is ordered to help as he tries to find his own way back home.

Other cast members include Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother, and Angela Bassett as a jazz legend Joe longs to play with.

Oscar-winning animator Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”) directed and Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”) co-directed. The two also wrote the screenplay, with Mike Jones.

Disney says “Soul” “marks the first film at Pixar to feature a host of characters with black and brown skin.”

To accurately represent the cultural and jazz aspects, the filmmakers consulted musicians including Herbie Hancock, Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, and Daveed Diggs. The latter two also have roles in the film, with Thompson playing Joe’s former student Curley, and Diggs as neighbourhood cynic Paul.

Jimenez was promoted several times while making the film, going from a story artist to story lead and then story supervisor. He got to work closely with Docter, Powers and editor Kevin Nolting.

Other Canadians who worked on the film include animator Emilie Goulet of Montreal, and Sylvia Wong of Ottawa, who was the layout technical director.

Jimenez said the project allowed for a lot of imagination, especially in creating the look of the abstract afterlife worlds of The Great Before and The Great Beyond, where the mentors are geometric in nature and resemble Picasso paintings, and the new souls are cute fluorescent blue blobs.

“It was really hard to pull off even they though they look so simple, deceptively simple, but they’re probably the most work to animate,” Jimenez said of the mentors.

Between “Soul” and “Weekends,” the past three or four years have been the best of Jimenez’s life creatively, he added.

“They’re always going to be connected in some way, the two experiences. I really cherish both. They’re really different, but really both amazing.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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