“This whole place is a hypothetical”: The Afterlife and Digital Aesthetics in Pete Docter’s Soul (2020)
This essay was written in December 2021 as a research paper for an Film (Animation) Studies class at Concordia University taught by Jacqueline Ristola.
Since the late nineties, the domestic rise of the internet has only been exponential. What was first an academic experiment became in only a few decades one of the most common and influential technologies used to build the structures and systems of our society. Its cultural and artistic impact is gigantic, the arrival of the digital age profoundly changed the industrial and creative practices, as well as ways of consumption, of every single art form available to the public. Digital themes and imagery rapidly became present in every part of our lives in some way, including the end of said life. Indeed, some scholars, artists, and journalists have lately been talking about the idea of the “Digital Afterlife”. This term could be understood in two ways, one, more practical, which qualifies the way we are currently dealing with the digital footprint of the deceased, and one that is more speculative, closer to science-fiction. The latter presents to us the techno-spiritual idea of the digital afterlife as a virtual place (most often than not conceived by other humans) where your soul, conscience, or being can rest after passing away. This concept is very close to the science-fiction idea of “mind uploading”, where one would transfer his own consciousness into a robotic or computerized body in order to reach immortality. The digital afterlife is more about making a hypothetical real, creating a place where consciences whose bodies have died can “live death” rather than hoping for such space. The material interaction with the “real” world is then much more minimized than in the concept of mind uploading.
While ideas of mind uploading have been gestured towards and talked about since the 18th century, the digital afterlife is more of a recent concept and hasn’t been used by artists and filmmakers until recently. Greg Daniels’ Upload series, released on Amazon Prime Video in 2020, follows a man who has his conscience uploaded in an expensive digital space after dying unexpectedly. Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow trilogy of short films (2015–2021) also presents to us extensively visions of a digital afterlife. In the first opus, released in 2015, Emily Prime makes us travel to different time periods in the future, including the last moments of terrestrial human life with the arrival of a massive meteorite. There, she explains to us that while the desperate lower classes tried to escape the apocalypse using cheap time travel, resulting in many deadly accidents, the wealthy were able to upload their conscience in small computerized boxes, which were then thrown in space to float for eternity. That treatment isn’t necessarily better, as the beings stuck in those boxes are revealed to be constantly suffering and terrified. In an interview from April 2021 promoting the release of World of Tomorrow 3, journalist Germain Lussier asks Don Hertzfeldt: “I was watching Soul recently and the Jerry characters reminded me of your characters. I asked Pete Docter about it and he acknowledged there was probably some influence. Do you see your influence in and around pop culture and what do you think when/if you do?”1, to which Hertzfledt, flattered, responds that he didn’t catch up on it but did personally appreciate Docter. But I would argue that the link between World of Tomorrow and Soul doesn’t stop there.
Pete Docter made his first steps as an animator at Pixar Studios in 1990, before contributing to the writing of Toy Story (1995), and eventually directing Monsters, Inc. (2001), Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). In 2016, Docter started developing the idea of a film about determinism and the fabrication of human personalities for Pixar, and that film ultimately became Soul, released in 2020. The film ended getting multiple prestigious awards, such as two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. Soul tells us the story of Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher in New York City dreaming of a career as a jazz musician. After finally getting the opportunity to play with Dorothea Williams, a local saxophone player he admires, Joe accidentally falls down a manhole. He is then shown to be transported in some sort of parallel dimension, where he gets transformed into what the film qualifies as a “soul”, a small, simplified, blue, and luminescent version of his terrestrial body. That place he first arrives in seems to lead to what is called “The Great Beyond”, however he refuses to approach it and falls to “The Great Before”, which is where souls are made before being born. Thus, Soul presents to us an idea of two immaterial “human” spaces, the afterlife and the “before-life”, as well as the world of dreams, lost and found. These concepts have been part of many human cultures, religions, and spiritualities throughout human history, even though their representation is devoid of any religious symbol in this film. Contrary to Upload and World of Tomorrow, these immaterial spaces are not explicitly digital in Soul’s screenplay. However, I will argue throughout this essay that the artistic choices made to create the immaterial spaces of Soul are evidently digital, and are (maybe accidentally) referencing themes of the virtual and computerization. Studying Soul instead of Upload and World of Tomorrow is extremely revealing, as it accidentally refers to digital aesthetics while trying to present a completely human experience (the film barely has any electronic device in it), which might indicate a strong influence of the digital on our conception of everything immaterial. We will, throughout this paper, lead an analysis of the way the space and setting of the “two Greats” (Beyond and Before) are created, and how their conception directly references digital spaces. The study and analysis of space in animation has for a long time been ignored as Chris Pallant states in the introduction of Animated Landscapes, even though there is incredible value to it. As he puts it himself clearly: “Ultimately, our active cognitive negotiation and visual exploration of the animated landscape — whether literal or figurative — foregrounds it as an object of meaning within the realm of moving images. »2 Studying Soul, it’s digitality and dimensionality, not only tells us about the association of digital aesthetics with immaterial concepts, it also encourages us to engage differently with the 3D digital space.
Before starting our analysis, it is important to point out what are the “digital aesthetics” we are talking about. Scholars of the digital have been analyzing said aesthetics since the nineties, revealing a wide variety of ways to approach them, and there is not one clear consensus towards an overall definition of what the digital aesthetic is. Paul Crowther, in Ontology and Aesthetics of Digital Art, decides to study “those visually orientated images and configurations that are computer generated or depend upon computer technology for their full visual realization”3, which is a broad definition that tends to go towards technological determinism. Phillip Andrew Prager, Maureen Thomas, and Marianne Selsjord, in Transposing, Transforming, and Transcending Tradition in Creative Digital Media, define digital aesthetics in their « Key terms and definitions » section as « The sensual properties of and responses to artwork; also critical reflection on art and culture. Tracing links between the practices of digital artists, particularly in 3D, and earlier visual arts, our chapter addresses the claim that there is no established aesthetics associated with computer-based interactive art. »4 this approach tends to dissociate the digital from the computer, claiming that there is no inherent or dominant aesthetic in interactive digital (or computerized) arts. Meredith Anne Hoy, in her Ph.D. dissertation From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics5, decides to study extensively pre-digital artworks, such as works by Paul Cézanne or Georges Seurat, finding the digital quality in them. She also decides to disassociate the digital from the computer, but this time by going against a linear, established narrative of digital art history. Our approach of digital aesthetics will be simpler but different from those we’ve listed. First, we will only consider computer-based images, we won’t look into pre-digital understandings of the digital, or make too much of a separation between the digital and the computer. But we won’t go down a technologically deterministic way either. Per example, hyper-realistic digital art, such as high-quality renderings of northern-american landscapes in the videogame Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar Studios, 2020), won’t really fit our definition of a digital aesthetic even though said realism is only made possible by computer-based technology. That is because the ultimate goal of Red Dead Redemption II’s landscape is to erase any kind of obviously digital element in favor of a simulated naturalistic one. If we were following a technologically deterministic logic, all digital images would be considered part of the “digital aesthetic”, including the hyper-realistic ones. Our understanding of the digital aesthetic in this essay is neither a deterministic one nor a “dissociative” one. Here, we will be studying the symbols, signs and poetic indexes commonly associated with digital art in media and our everyday imagery. That is glitches, color aberrations, no-clip animations, simple geometric volumes, the way the empty 3D space looks when you first open Blender, etcetera. Per example, one very common image we will be encountering throughout the film is the one of the “neon line”: a thin, luminescent line of light, recalling the light illuminating the underside of our keyboards, desktops, on and off buttons, and other electronic devices. The digital aesthetics we will study are also influenced by key early computational works, such as Steven Lisberger’s Tron in 1982. The “neon line” is one of the most important visual gimmicks present in Tron, which had a great impact on the collective imagery of science-fiction. To put it briefly, we are looking for self-references, where the digital nods to itself.
The first moment we see the “parallel dimension” in Soul (the place leading to either the Great Beyond or Great Before isn’t named in the film) happens right after Joe falls through the manhole. The background goes from the bright and colorful New York City to an infinite blackness. We only see a slight reflection of his body onto the “ground”, and although the character is clearly lit, we can’t see where the light comes from. We get to appreciate Joe’s soul from close, and even if our analysis in our essay is dedicated to space, there are some digital elements worth pointing out in the character design itself. One of these is the glasses that Joe wears, which have the look of a 2D digital drawing folded in a 3D space, or the look of a cel-shaded model, with its thinness, white outlines, and the transparency of their material. We can see the glasses in different ways but one thing is sure, they feel dimensionally different from the round, soft, sometimes fuzzy texture of the soul’s bodies. That referencing of 2D dimensionality in a 3D digital space happens regularly through the movie, and even if we could say there is a philosophical quality to it (as it brings dimensional complexity in our understanding of the image, and slightly breaks conventional human perception), we can most certainly say that this kind of “barebones” 2D model is directly evocative of the modeling software itself and its wireframes. The body of the character also has an interesting slight chromatic aberration on the character’s sides, where we can distinguish a separation between CMYK colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black), which is the color profile most often used for printing. This might not be a directly digital reference, as the color profile of digital images tends to be in RGB (Red, Green and Blue), but the reference is still very much material. Many colors could have been chosen for this chromatic aberration as the action is supposed to take place in a non-human, non-computer space, but the aberration effect is here following the very material, very technological rules of the CMYK.
The camera then turns around to reveal the source of the lighting: The Great Beyond. The “ground” on which Joe is standing is shown to be a ramp going straight into a gigantic hole of white light. The impression of a hole is rendered by a myriad of white points slowly converging into the Great Beyond. The hole itself barely emits any light rays (creating a very small gradient from white to black near the light source), most of the space around The Great Beyond is shown through either black emptiness or white spots. This composition is clearly inspired by cosmic imagery: the white dots are stars, the white hole is a sun, although the way the stars are converging is reminiscent of a black hole. But I would argue that we can find some strong inspiration from digital aesthetics in this shot. This kind of pointillism with the use of the white dots is reminiscent of digital noise, a staple of digital imagery, but we could also see it as a reference to the computational binary: black is one, white is zero.
Joe then talks with other souls to understand what has happened to him and starts to run away when he sees them disappear into The Great Beyond. The visual and sound effects chosen to represent the souls vanishing into the light are incredibly interesting and happen to be the source of inspiration for this essay. The souls transform into small balls of white light with a slight chromatic aberration (we understand that all those “stars” in the background are souls), and when going into the Great Beyond, they explode into flashes of CMYK colors. We are back again to the CMYK color profile, which is very much technological. The souls also emit an electrical buzzing and crackling sound when vanishing into the lights, which is particularly striking. It is hard to see this sound design choice as a representation of anything human and spiritual, and much easier to see it as a poetic index for the digital and its electronic source. It is even more surprising when you consider that the film’s afterlife isn’t supposed to be digital or electronic at all, yet the souls disappear into the Great Beyond like you would unplug a working electronic device.
When running away from the Great Beyond, Joe tries to jump from the ramp he was standing on and grapples onto a pink, half-transparent wireframed fabric, reminiscent of the classic science-fiction force-field. He manages to tear a hole into the fabric and falls into the darkness. This falling scene serves as a title sequence for the film, and it is filled with digital aesthetics. Through his fall, Joe plunges, and goes through, some kind of “layer” of an imaginative substance whose physics are evocative of water. The surface “splashes” when Joe goes through it, his fall is slowed down and has to do a quick swimming move downwards to “fall” out of the layer. Even if it slightly behaves like water, the use of digital imagery in that three-second animation transforms it into something completely different. First, the surface of the water very much looks like a waveform, being a 2D outline with tall spikes and crevices (which only get taller when Joe plunges through them). This kind of waveform is most commonly found in softwares for audiovisual creation (editing, compositing, mixing, such and such), which are evidently digital. When going through the water-like layer, Joe’s appearance changes to a cel-shaded (or something that looks like cel-shading) black and white. His white silhouette is being duplicated as he falls, leaving traces of his movement behind him. I cannot help but see this as a self-reference to animation. Those poses and silhouettes staying behind Joe as he falls are evocative of keyframes, the “main poses” of a character animation. And the way those keyframes remain on display behind the character is reminiscent of “onion skinning”, a tool used in most animation softwares to see by transparency the frames that were drawn before (and maybe after) the one the animator is working on, without moving the timeline to said frames. And finally, we can find simple volumes and geometrical forms floating in the layer of water, which very much look like the basic, preset volumes in 3D modeling softwares. That makes three distinct and clear references to audiovisual creation softwares, which are evidently digital, in under three seconds.
Joe keeps falling through different digital shapes, lines and squares. Some lines react to Joe falling through them by moving like waveforms once again. Then, Joe finally arrives at the Great Before.
We leave here the black and white to arrive in blue and pink hues. We are presented with a space full of perfectly round hills, almost spherical, covered with blue grass and purple trees, under a sky fading from pink to indigo. At the top of some of the hills, you can find white buildings with surreal architecture: they are made of spirals, loops, and other curves. Even though this seems less self-referential in its digitality than the place leading to the Great Beyond, there are still multiple details pertaining to digital aesthetics in it, the most important one being the administrator characters managing the space. This will be our final character design analysis in this essay. The “Jerries” and characters present in the Great Beyond, which we referred to briefly when quoting the Don Hertzfeldt interview, are very different from the other characters in the film, and their design is in total opposition to the usual Pixar style of character design. They are 2D beings (as their appearance is a flat body) with the ability to move, fold, and distort themselves in a 3D space. They’re made of luminescent lines and simple geometrical (more often than not circular) shapes, their movement is perfectly smooth, and they also have the ability to change and transform into geometrical shapes. Similar to the glasses, the most digital aspect to their design is the fact that they are in two dimensions, and that they are mostly composed of “neon lines”. The Jerries are not the only characters with such an unconventional character design, one particular administrator, Terry, has similar traits. His size is much smaller and his color is different from the Jerries as to make him stand out, for he is the closest thing to an antagonist in the movie. Terry is an accountant and uses floating, 2D “calculators” to count the lives going into the Great Beyond. The design of those calculators is referencing two things. First, the abacus, a calculating tool that has taken many different shapes through different cultures since antiquity. The most commonly known version of an abacus, which seems to be the most recent one in history, has beads sliding on a wire or a bar, wooden or metallic. In Soul, the beads become two-dimensional dots, and the bars become lined sliders you can move the dots through. These sliders are of course reminiscent of the many sliders you would find in many different digital contexts: to change the volume of the sound or screen brightness of your device, to change the size of your digital brush, to move through an editing timeline, to modify the height of your original character in a videogame, etcetera. Those sliders are contained within two-dimensional rectangular frames with rounded edges and neon outlines. Here, this could recall two digital things: the concept of a window on a desktop, rectangular, modifiable in size, which you can move across the screen at will, or simply the shape of a smartphone, that you can take out of your pocket and use as a tool (for calculation, per example). Terry, when counting the lives going into the Great Beyond, says to Jerry “There’s a soul missing. The count’s off.”. The association of self-referential digital aesthetics with the idea of lives (and deaths) being treated as data and something to be counted is particularly striking. Data management has become an essential part of everything digital, even after death, so the association of the window, or the smartphone, with the concept of an omniscient accountant only makes sense. Terry, if anything, is the embodiment of the different technologies of data management in the digital space.
When realizing that someone is trying to escape from the Great Beyond, Terry goes into the “backstage” of the afterlife and walks to some kind of gigantic hangar containing folders listing all those that passed away. The design of the backstage is particularly interesting. We go from the bright and colorful outdoor setting to gray, metallic indoors, where all the furniture has the same color, the only thing to distinguish the different objects being the tracing of, once again, neon lines. On the walls, the lines form a large grid, following its edges and curvature. This grid is evocative of the wireframe, which we’ve briefly brought up previously. A wireframe, simply put, is the skeletal structure of a volume in a 3D modeling software. Any 3D object is composed of a myriad of flat polygons, the shape of said polygons is determined by the number of vertices, and the way those vertices are attached to each other with edges. The association of vertices and edges on a 3D model, which creates multiple polygonal planes, is the wireframe. The grids on the walls of the backstage seem like its structure, hence the comparison to a wireframe. This similarity is accentuated by the monochromatic, empty look of the backstage, which we can find in every new project in a 3D modeling software.
Then, and this will be our final analysis of a scene even if we haven’t covered the first third of the film, Joe meets 22. 22 is a soul that was never born and refuses to be brought to life on earth. She sees in Joe, desperately wanting to return back to life, an opportunity to escape ever having to become alive. After meeting 22, Joe is being thrown into some kind of personal “hall of fame” showing different key moments from his life: different artifacts are placed evenly in an infinite 3D space, and Joe gets to walk around them. The objects are arranged in a way reminding museography, which fits with the main real-life inspiration for the artistic direction of the Great Before: The World Fair (as explained in a RadioTimes article6). But even if this disposition is inspired by fairs and museums, it is also somewhat reminiscent of a multimedia digital library. The most striking example of this is when they come across Joe’s band when he was a teenager, the King of Queens. The memory is displayed with a floating photography of the band, and said photography is emitting their music. The association of a photo still, acting as an album cover, playing the music corresponding to it recalls the common display and interface of music playback or streaming softwares and apps. From the iPod Nano to Spotify, this kind of design has become the only one imaginable to play music on a digital interface.
Joe and 22 then exit the hall of fame, to stroll around the Great Before. They come across a big ball of young, pre-born souls attached to each other, rolling on the grass. The souls eventually end up hitting a building, which directly falls on them. Joe gasps, but 22 reassures him that the souls are safe and nothing can happen to them. We then see these young souls simply leave the fallen building by walking through its walls as if it had no solidity to it. This can be linked to the numerous issues related to the collision of volumes in a three-dimensional digital space, as the “solidity” of the virtual objects has to be simulated, otherwise, these objects can move, or “clip”, through each other. The way the souls escape the fallen building is similar to the way a character would “no-clip” through objects, floors and walls in a bugged videogame.
Finally, before wrapping up our analysis, we cannot talk about digitality in Soul without mentioning the soundtrack of the film composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Without diving into too much detail, the music of the scenes happening in the afterlife and before-life in the film is electronic, using entirely digital sounds and compositions, taking inspiration from multiple genres ranging from synthwave to ambient. This is the nail in the coffin, as all of the visual examples we’ve brought up throughout this essay were strongly supported by digital music, without even a note of an acoustic instrument.
Throughout our analysis of the spectator’s first encounters with Soul’s immaterial spaces, we’ve brought up many different examples of a strong presence of digital aesthetics in the film’s afterlife and before-life. As we’ve mentioned before, this could be equally fascinating or worrying, as it might indicate that the everyday presence of the digital in our life influences the way we consider any conception of an abstract, immaterial space. But this might not be so worrying, and only a logical consequence of the digital, as Boris Groys explains in Invisibility of the Digital: Religion, Ritual, Immortality: “Digital data must be visualized, must become an image to be seen. The act of visualization of invisible digital data is thus analogous to the appearances of the invisible inside the topography of the visible world (biblically speaking: signs and wonders) to which religious rituals refer. In this respect, the digital image is functioning as a Byzantine icon, as a visible representation of invisible God. In this case: as a visible representation of invisible digital data.” … “Thus, it seems that digitalization substitutes spirit with software and metaphysics with technique.”7 While I will not argue that the digital has replaced in any way the spiritual or the religious, I do believe that the way we think the immaterial is being increasingly influenced by digital aesthetics, and said immaterial can be linked to spiritual concepts, such as the afterlife. Soul is also not the only movie to make this association. Pete Docter’s previous film, Inside Out, also treated thoughts, dreams and memories as data you could with a control board. Similarly, Masaaki Yuasa’s animated film Mind Game (2003) follows a comic book writer dying and then getting a chance at coming back to life. He spends some time in the afterlife, where he gets to see his death being played again and again with a wireframed model of himself, surrounded by screens that God uses to communicate with him. But such a case study will be for another essay, where we would be taking from multiple other works.
1. Lussier, Germain. “Don Hertzfeldt Talks the Present and Future of World of Tomorrow, His Incredible Sci-Fi Animated Series” Gizmodo, 3 April 2021. https://gizmodo.com/don-hertzfeldt-talks-the-present-and-future-of-world-of-1846389650
2. Pallant, Chris. Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function. Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2015. p.9
3. Crowther, Paul. “Ontology and Aesthetics of Digital Art”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 66, no. 2, Spring 2008. p.62
4. Prager, Phillip Andrew; Thomas, Maureen and Selsjord, Marianne. “Transposing, Transforming, and Transcending Tradition in Creative Digital Media” in Handbook of Research on Digital Media and Creative Technologies, edited by Dew Harrisson, University of Wolverhampton, 2015, p. 193.
5. Hoy, Meredith Anne. From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics. 2010, University of California Berkeley, PhD dissertation.
6. Cremona, Patrick. “Soul producers reveal real life inspiration for the Great Before and Great Beyond: ‘It took a long time’” RadioTimes, 25 December 2020. https://www.radiotimes.com/movies/soul-great-before-great-beyond-inspiration-exclusive/
7. Groys, Boris. “Invisibility of the Digital: Religion, Ritual, Immortality” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 55/56, Spring-Autumn 2009, p. 339.