‘Soul’ VFX Team Break New Ground by Landing Their Astral Plane

Tim Gray
·2-min read

Effects supervisor Bill Watral enthuses about his team’s groundbreaking work on Disney/Pixar’s Oscar-nominated “Soul,” but is quick to clarify, “Every single department here had challenges of taking existing technology and applying it to new artistic uses. A lot of things that we did are different from what Pixar does usually.”

In the film’s Astral Plane, for example, “We had expanses of sandy-looking material that had a sparkly sheen, which the boat moves through. We started talking about different ways to approach that. From an artistic viewpoint, we landed on a bucket of wet sand, which floats through your hands like liquid but then freezes in place again. So the Astral look went from a solid-sand surface to a liquid-sand surface, to a full liquid and back again.”

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The Astral Plane is brief but took months of experimentation. Watral compares it to the shower sequence in 1960’s “Psycho,” which lasts less than a minute but took seven days to film. Watral says Alfred Hitchcock and his team took so long because they had new ways to deal with the camera and lighting. They didn’t build new cameras or lamps, but instead “they came up with novel ways of using what they already had. That’s the first thing we try to do in visual effects: Take what we have and figure how to use them in novel ways to achieve what we’re trying to get.

“We have solvers that will do sand, solvers that will do liquid, and ones that will do rock. We took pieces of each one and tore them apart and put them back together.

“In a sense, the entire film is visual effects. When we create a film, it’s basically what the visual-effects industry does to create sections of a live-action film.”

Their hard work will have a long-term payoff. “We learned a lot and what we learned will be instrumental in future productions.”

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