PIXAR – Interview with ’22 Vs Earth’ director Kevin Nolting

Pixar director Kevin Nolting joined the world famous Animation Studios in June 2000 as the second editor on ‘Finding Nemo.’ He continued his work on other classic titles like ‘Cars,’ ‘WALL•E’, and ‘UP’ before becoming the lead editor on Academy Award-winning features ‘Inside Out’ & ‘Soul’ .

Nolting makes his directorial debut on ’22 vs. Earth,’ which debuts on Disney+ on April 30, 2021. This new short is a prequel to the Oscar winning movie ‘Soul’, that welcomes Tina Fey back to The Great Before as the voice of quick-witted and sarcastic soul 22. In the short, 22 defies the rules of The Great Before and refuses to go to Earth, enlisting a gang of five other new souls in her attempt at rebellion. However, as her cohorts’ activities lead to unexpected results, 22’s subversive plot may actually lead to a surprising revelation about the meaning of life.

We caught up with the Kevin to talk about the challenges of directing his first Pixar short.

There are many people wanting to know what happened to 22 after she went to Earth in ‘Soul’ but you decided to go back in time instead of forward. Why did you choose to do this? 
We actually had versions of the movie where you saw where she ended up and for whatever reasons those scenes didn’t make it into the movie. But one of the things as we were making the movie, we really explored the character of Joe in depth and 22 we just sort of picked up where we pick her up and we play her through the movie and we had a lot of conversations about what made 22 22, you know and for three years we were talking about that but we didn’t have to pursue it for the movie. I was more interested in what made her who she is as opposed to who she ended up. I like leaving the story open ended – in fact, if you look at the last shot of ‘Soul’ where we see her heading toward Earth, there were versions where you could actually see which country she was heading for and Pete had us put clouds in or put the Earth out of focus so you couldn’t even guess

You’ve edited some incredible films for Pixar and this is your directorial debut. Why did you pick this and how was it for you as a director vs an editor? 
Why I did it was actually I was just in the right place at the right time – traditionally these shorts go to the head of story on the film. They used to be on the DVD and now they’ve kept that tradition going on online. A lot of that was because the editor was still working on the movie when these shorts were being made but in this case they already had a story – I just happened to be in the room when they were discussing this and I got to direct it

That’s a good room to be in
Yeah it’s the joy of being an editor. You’re always in the room. 

And what was it like to direct? 
I used to do these little 48 hour film projects where you get a genre and a line of dialogue and you get the parameters on a Friday night and you deliver it on a Sunday. Especially compared to working on a 4 year animated project it’s cathartic to go in and make quick decisions – so I did have that experience. And this, with regards to Pixar, it was sort of a perfect situation because I’m working on ‘Soul’ so I know the story but I also know all the people working on the movie so in one sense I couldn’t have an easier experience. Somebody else wrote it so I wasn’t making my big passion project. It was a lot of fun actually

What do you like most about 22 as a character? 
I relate most to her cynicism and her doubting everything and questioning everything. Yeah. We were talking about this – Joe is sort of a guy who he knows what he wants to do from a young age and I am more like 22. It took me a long time of stumbling around before I found what I want to do so I related to that

How challenging is it to present very difficult topics such as the meaning of life in animation? 
It’s hard. Firstly with the features we have we spend 3 years working on the story before we even go into the production so at least you have that runway of a lot of trial and error and a lot of conversations. With the short I think keeping it light and fun and not taking yourself too seriously is the way to go. 

How was it working with Tina Fey? 
It was great – it was awkward because… we had recorded her a number of times when I was there during ‘Soul’ so it wasn’t entirely new to me and I knew how nice and smart she is – she’s a total pro. The challenge for the short was that we were all working from home. It was just a few weeks after we all started working from home. We weren’t used to Zoom at that time but fortunately her husband has a home recording studio with a nice mic. She was dealing with her daughter who was at home, making sure she got to classes and it was a very relaxed environment. Very relaxed. She’s great – a pro, so much fun

Obviously these things take time to make but it’s an incredibly fortuitous time for this to come out after ‘Soul’ smashed it at the Oscars. Should we expect to see more of 22 and this world in future? 
I hope so! Obviously you know Pixar are very tight lipped about what we’re doing so there are no immediate plans to expand this. What we try to do is… when we do a short based on a Feature… while we have all the assets available and we have all the people who worked on the movie and the production schedule at Pixar is pretty tight – trying to fit when you can get all the people you need to make a movie – this all just worked out that as departments wrapped on the feature we would grab people. 

Who coordinates that then? Is there someone on high going ‘While you’re there, all make this short” or is it more organic? 
It was more organic but it became clear that projecting out on the production schedule of Pixar regarding when animators etc would be available it became clear that we coincidentally had this window just as the feature was wrapping. I mean for me I would have preferred to wait a little longer because I was still editing on the feature

Since you’re a first time director, what did you find to be your main connection with this short? 
As I said before, 22 through the making of ‘Soul’ I just connected with her anyway so that was great. But I was surprised that the kids who are notoriously difficult to work with – they say  on your first movie don’t direct kids or animals but in this case the kids were so much fun. And building that contrast between them and 22’s cynicism is what I really enjoyed. Also I have a grandson who is 3 years old and I’ve been experiencing that innocence and mimicking us so it was sort of a perfect situation for me 

Would you agree that 22 sent the Apocalypse to Earth? Or is that a little bit too literal? (Semi-spoilers but not really) 
Did she send the apocalypse to Earth? (Laughs) Oh I never thought of that. For me it’s more about here’s somebody who’s willing to beat their head against the wall because something’s not working but she doesn’t give up in a sense because that’s what we do 

I was quite surprised by a moment in the short film when one of the souls is biting the two dimensional string of one of the Jerry’s and who’s purpose in life pings on their chest – I was expecting to hear that they were going to be a rebel of some kind and instead he says ‘I’m going to be a dog!’ I thought that felt like a big change from the other film? Do animal souls come from there too? 
Yeah we were hoping to gloss over that. Then one of the Jerries says ‘I wouldn’t want to be that kid’s parents’ so really it’s just a kid who’s hard to handle, not necessarily turned into a dog. We had that discussion and I was hoping to sort of dodge it (laughs) 

Music and sound are key aspects of ‘Soul’. Can you tell us what it was like to work on sound for the short? 
We worked with Ren Klyce before – he’s an amazing sound designer. And in this case because the world was so new and strange he came on much earlier. Usually sound design and music come on in post production after we’ve finished the movie but Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste and Ren Klyce all started a couple of years into the process and Ren even had a cutting room at Pixar where he was giving us atmospheres as we were cutting scenes and storyboards. And the same thing – Jon Batiste prerecorded the opening cue so we could animate to it. Trent and Atticus – that’s how they like to work with David Fincher too – they sent us 9 sort of atmospheric tracks we could start working to, not meant to be synced to any picture but just to give us something to start working with. It was great. I’ve never worked that way before

Fans of Pixar like to connect the movies. Have you heard the theory that when 22 is born at the end of ‘Soul’ she becomes Riley from Inside Out? What do you think? 
(laughs) Well that one I never thought of. I guess it’s nice that they have this theory but I don’t have any myself. (Thinks for a moment and then answers carefully) You never know (laughs) 

What were your inspirations for the new souls names? Peanut, Macaroni, etc. 
We went through different phases – Josh originally wrote a completely different thing that it turned out we couldn’t use but in the end we went for childish names. We just started throwing out things – the two that I wanted there were Zimi which is from a Bob Dylan song and oh – Moonbeam was a reference to Governor Gerry Brown of California. He used to be called Governor Moonbeam

A couple of times now you’ve mentioned cynicism as being one of your favourite things. You’ve worked on a lot of other Pixar films too and that whole adult side seems initially something you wouldn’t associate with a kid’s film but it’s something that almost everyone picks up on. So what’s your favourite most cynical, adult part of working with Pixar? 
I think in general what I love about working with Pixar, directors like Pete don’t bring together people who think alike. They see the value in bringing together different points of view. That’s what I’ve loved about working on Pete’s movies – the ability to be yourself and throw your ideas out there and have them become part of this whole bigger thing. I mean, 22 so far is probably my favourite as far as that goes. I really enjoyed working on that on ‘Soul’

Stephen Spielberg said you can have great material and make it terrible in the edit and you can have bad footage and you can edit it into a great movie. From your experience, what is the most important part during the film to edit process to be able to perfectly portray what you want
In Pixar we have so much time for trial and error – we get to try things. Unlike in live action when you shoot the material and then you just have to make it work whereas we have this 3 year run up to rewrite and edit. I have that advantage where we actually get to see the script projected before we commit to it. That’s the key for me. 

Congratulations for the Academy Award last Sunday by the way! (‘Soul’ won best Animated Feature) 

Words – AJ O’Neill

’22 vs. Earth’ debuts on Disney+ on April 30, 2021.