Art Director Daniel Lopez Muñoz on Finding Pixar’s “Soul”

Once again Pixar tackles the subjects of the meaning of life, fearlessness in the face of change, synchronicity, and inspiration in their new film Soul. It’s the first time, however, that they have centered the story on a Black man, that of middle school band teacher and jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Daniel Lopez Muñoz has worked in such diverse roles for Pixar as a character designer for Up and Coco, color script artist for Finding Dory, production designer for The Good Dinosaur, and visual development artist for Monsters University. On Soul, he is credited as the character art director. The Credits spoke to Muñoz about how he influences the look and style of the lead character in Pixar’s most ambitious film to date.

On IMDB you are listed as character art director for Soul. Titles can mean different things at Pixar. What did your job entail? 

It does tend to differ from production to production. To give you a little bit of history on my participation on Soul, the film had a core team, and I came on through the request of Pete Docter to try to find Joe Gardner, the main character of the film. There are a number of artists that came in early on in the process to try to get different perspectives for the look of the character.

Can you point to several aspects of Joe’s character that you had a hand in? 

Early on, we tried different approaches. At one time he was a shorter, stockier guy. We spent a lot of time looking at jazz artists from the mid-twentieth century, to try to grasp some inspiration of a personality from famous jazz musicians like Monk, for example. We tried that, but what succeeded was when we turned to something more familiar. There was something about Pete Docter’s persona that attracted me to a taller, loose, lanky body. I thought Pete must have gone through life trying to fit into places because he’s so tall, but also seeing so much. Joe is a guy who is thinking of what’s on the horizon, what’s beyond the life that he has currently because he wants to reach further. So we thought it would be cool if he towered over people, and had his heads in the clouds most of the time when thinking about what his life could be. But also it would be fun for a character like 22 to inhabit this body that has to maneuver through a crowded city like New York. We didn’t want him to be a handsome man, we wanted him to feel more like an everyday Joe, hence the name. He had to have some imperfections that would make overcoming them that much more interesting. We imagined him having been the awkward kid, trying to play with the cool kids. We gave him a long back and a belly. He’s middle-aged. He’s almost past his prime, and he’s trying to make it in the jazz world, so that has to be apparent from the moment you first see the character, and that’s something we wanted to make sure the audience understands right away.

Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher. When he gets the chance of a lifetime to play with Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett) at the best jazz club in town, he believes his life is finally going to change. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

He really has a jazz pianist’s fingers. There had to be conversation and consideration around that. 

Oh yes, that was actually very important, because these hands were going to be onscreen in close-up. Basically, it’s the working tool of this artist, so it was important to give them enough character that they could be on the big screen. More important for us is they would also feel like the hands of a true African-American pianist. We looked at and studied nearly every famous jazz musician, and studied the way the fingernails are different. We wanted to make sure we were true to the way Joe should be, including the length of his fingers. There were a number of pianists we studied, and we put up their pictures for reference, both contemporary and from the past. Then we did a lot of drawings to guide the animators.

Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There is such a wide variety of Black and Brown skin represented in the characters of Soul. How did you support and help foster that? 

We were very keen on representing a wide variety of skin tones and of people and mixes of people of color, because in New York you have the folks that immigrated from the North and the South, and started a whole Harlem Renaissance from the great migration, but there are also lots of people that came from the Caribbean, and there are lots of Latin influences as well, so that gives you a really great range of skin tones. For Joe, I wanted to inspire artists with what I learned from studying Harlem Renaissance artists of the 20th century. There are some great painters that were really bold with color, and what I learned from studying those paintings was that in order to create the various African American Black skin tones, you actually have to mix a number of different solid colors. I found that so interesting, because it’s like it meant including every color. You get different browns out of mixing yellows and greens and reds and blues. We wanted the picture to feel real, but certainly in animation you can get away with more pushed looks. I wanted to inspire the artists to bring some of that richness into the skin of Joe, so that it has that playfulness, and that variety that I saw represented in those paintings.

Disney animator Milt Kahl’s influence can be seen in the way Joe seems inspired by Roger from 101 Dalmatians, but the influence of British illustrator Ronald Searle can be seen in the character designs as well. 

It’s so great that you noticed that. I haven’t actually discussed that with anybody when I was designing Joe. You have the character Roger in 101 Dalmatians and he is obviously a very classic, white character from a Disney film, but I really wanted to find a new character that could live on the way that character did, so there are certainly some influences there, but the artist I really narrowed my sights on was Searle. He had an incredible eye for representing people’s personalities and their interior persona onto a caricature in a wonderful, masterful way. He hadn’t done that many representations of people of color. Most of his work is of the white people surrounding him in England. We got inspiration from him, but had to find our own way, thinking of his shapes and angles, in creating the diverse characters in the New York cityscape.

The characters in this story are so well developed in both personality and look, and it makes a big difference in connecting to Soul.

I can remember the time in my career when it was very important as an artist to get some interesting shapes on the page, but that’s a given now. What’s more important now is to capture the essence or the soul. If we’ve done our work correctly with this film, people will hopefully say that that we were able to find a connection and a familiarity with the characters, and that they felt like people they knew from their own lives. That would be a wonderful response.

Soul streams on Disney+ starting on December 25th.

This article was originally published in The Credits


YouTube Battles Complex ‘Borderline’ Content While Ignoring What’s Simple – Piracy

A recent Wired article details the algorithmic tweaks that YouTube implemented after the 2017 mass-shooting in Las Vegas sparked a wave of false-flag videos on its platform. The terrible behavior of some of its users following a national tragedy compelled YouTube to embark on nothing less than a “grand… project to teach its recommendation AI how to recognize the conspiratorial mindset and demote it”.

The difficulty of this mission cannot be understated. “Demoting” content is a vastly different endeavor than outright removing content that violates YouTube’s terms of service. The project involved clarifying what is “borderline” – or bad enough to be pushed down in search results and recommendations, yet not bad enough to be outright eliminated. It’s a hugely subjective distinction and one on which it is virtually impossible to find general agreement.

But YouTube went through with its plan anyway – and by early 2019, following a years-long, Herculean effort, the frequency with which its algorithm recommended conspiracy videos began to fall significantly.

Unfortunately, the triumph was short-lived. Since then, conspiracy theorists have learned how to game the system – and continue to reach millions of viewers with garbage that spreads harmful misinformation and undermines democracy. “If YouTube completely took away the recommendations algorithm tomorrow, I don’t think the extremist problem would be solved”, one researcher told Wired. “Because they’re just entrenched”.

It is tempting to look at this problem and think, “You made your bed, YouTube, now you have to lie in it.” But this is a problem that affects all of us. Misinformation, hate speech, pedophilia, and all the other toxic content riddling YouTube poses harm to individuals, communities, and even entire ethnic populations in areas of certain countries. We should all be rooting for YouTube to score victories over this plague wherever it can get them.

Now that YouTube has invested enormous amounts of time and resources in developing an algorithm that can detect extremely subjective borderline content, it should be a relatively simple matter to extend this processing power to remove content that is plainly illegal: pirated copyright-protected works. In fact, YouTube already implemented a suite of anti-piracy tools years ago – but has dithered over who should be granted access to them.

Its Content ID system, for instance, is a robust and effective content protection tool, matching all uploaded content with a copyright database and alerting copyright owners when their works have surfaced without permission. The owner can then decide if they want the asset removed, monetized, or left as is. They also have the powerful option to automatically flag uploads that match previously identified copyrighted work.

Unfortunately, the tool is available to just a small number of companies and individuals. YouTube has the sole power to decide who has access to it, and its selection process is anything but transparent.

Smaller-scale rightsholders might instead be granted access to YouTube’s Content Verification Program, which gives users access to a navigation panel in which they can search for their copyrighted works and quickly act upon any pirated versions that turn up. But, again, there is no transparency as to whom YouTube does or does not provide access, or the reasons why.

Another rung down the ladder, some copyright owners are offered access to Copyright Match, which can only locate full uploads of their videos (and does not help at all with music piracy). The tool is also only available to creatives whose channels have amassed “more than 4,000 valid public watch hours in the last 12 months” and have more than 1,000 subscribers. The millions of creatives who do not meet this threshold are not given access even to this tool.

All of these restrictions imposed by YouTube ensure that the vast majority of creatives lack any of YouTube’s content protection tools at all. Instead, they are left to locate misappropriations of their work themselves, on their own time, then file individual takedown notices using a cumbersome webform. The process is arduous and subject to counter-notices that can delay the takedown, while the illegal upload continues to rack up views. If the offending video does get taken down, it can be immediately re-uploaded somewhere else on YouTube – in which case, the creative must file a takedown notice all over again. On a platform that receives more than 500 hours of new video content every hour, this task is untenable for any human being.

At a recent hearing reassessing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – the decades-old law that set the template for this highly inefficient takedown process – filmmaker Jonathan Yunger (Co-President of Millennium Media) professed to finding more than 200 pirated versions of his movies on YouTube, which include franchises such as The Expendables and Hellboy. “These films had been viewed more than 110 million times. In just one month!” he said. At the time, Millennium Media had no access to any of YouTube’s anti-piracy offerings, and had been left to police their own copyrighted works on the platform.

Yunger’s plight is more than enough evidence that YouTube is rife with stolen content, adding to a streaming piracy problem that is already costing the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion per year, and at least 230,000 jobs. Moreover, YouTube has the means to put a major dent in this dire statistic immediately. It could have made its content protection tools widely available years ago – but for some reason, it has not. Why?

It could be because the safe harbors afforded by the DMCA simply give YouTube no incentive to do so. Under the law, as long as YouTube responds to each individual takedown notice, it has no obligation to take preemptive measures to clean up piracy for good.

Or, it could be something more sinister. After all, YouTube does collect ad revenue from pirated videos for their duration, and Google’s own executives have called the platform a “pirate” site. Perhaps the money generated by stolen content is too important to YouTube’s bottom line for it to take any meaningful action.

Whatever the reason for YouTube’s neglect of this problem, it does not change the fact that piracy is low-hanging fruit compared to its vastly more difficult battle against toxic content. If YouTube would just reach out and pluck it, that would give an immediate boost to millions of Americans who work in the creative industries (film and television alone employs more than 2.6 million people), and who see their works pirated every day.

With a growing pile of challenges bearing down on YouTube and its parent, Google, the platform could use an easy win so it can move on with the more difficult content management challenges. With piracy, it has one. Will YouTube take the W?

This article was originally published in CreativeFuture.

Industry Interview

Lights, Camera, Action … The Show Must Go On


Madison Hamburg on His One-Of-A-Kind HBO Doc “Murder on Middle Beach”

As the title suggests, Murder on Middle Beach, the four-part HBO documentary, revolves around a tragedy. On March 3, 2010, Barbara Hamburg was found stabbed to death outside her home in Madison, Connecticut, an unassuming beachfront town. An unlikely victim, police were unable to find a suspect. But what makes this unsolved murder story even more compelling is that it is being told by Madison Hamburg, Barbara’s son.

Madison was 18 years old at the time and a film student in college. Ultimately, he decided to make a documentary about his mother. He spent years interviewing his father, sister, aunt, other relatives, and law enforcement searching for answers about who his mother was and why she was killed. What he ultimately discovers is how little he knows about his family.


Framing this unsettling sojourn is a haunting title sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come. As James Lavino’s eerie theme plays, the camera pivots upward past a series of miniatures buried deep within the earth. In total, five unique dioramas detail the story arc. Intermixed are jarring flash cuts of family photos and home movies. The shot finishes on a model recreation of the house where the murder took place.

“I have a habit of skipping title sequences and wanted to create something that was more a storytelling element than a backdrop for credits,” says Hamburg. “There was intention behind every minute detail of this sequence, down to the color, shot design, and even the clothes that the subjects are wearing.”

The model for the opening was created by Thomas Doyle, an artist known for his striking miniatures. His work has appeared in galleries around the world and graced the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time. Hamburg originally reached out to Doyle to explore the idea of using miniatures to recreate scenes that couldn’t be captured on film.

Murder on Middle Beach. Mock Up Painting. Courtesy Thomas Doyle/HBO.

“He got in touch with me because he liked my work and wanted advice about what’s possible — get the lay of the land,” remembers Doyle. “It certainly sounded like a great project. So by the end of the call, we were talking about going forward and working together.”

Concluding that recreations weren’t feasible, Hamburg conceived the idea of building a title sequence around miniatures.

“We wanted to parallel this overarching theme of duality between the outward ‘American idyllic’ setting and the darkness that lay beneath, prevalent throughout all of the major story arcs,” continues Hamburg. “Miniaturizing helped to push that idea, especially when it is done with such detail that it blurs the lines of reality. ‘Is what I’m looking at real or fake?’”

Thomas Doyle’s miniature recreation of the Hamburg house. Courtesy HBO.

For inspiration, Hamburg turned to one of Doyle’s works — Distillation. A series of miniatures depicting families and homes in various stages of disarray, it evoked the feeling the filmmaker wanted.

“Madison and his producer Solomon (Petchenik) put together a teaser reel with my work and the flash flutter cuts as a way to sell the idea. ‘It could look like this,’” says Doyle. “They brought that to me and I just fell in love with it.”

In an effort to draw viewers in, episode one opens without the title sequence. “Then, when people see episode two, they start to make the connection of things they’ve seen — like there’s a tiny birthday cake in the model that represents the first episode,” explains Doyle.

The initial plan was to only display objects. But it became apparent that the sequence would be more impactful with human figures. Model railroad shops, toy stores, and architecture kits are Doyle’s typical go-to places for figures. But since the ones here needed to evoke the documentary’s subjects, there was extensive cutting, sculpting, and painting to arrive at the Murder on Middle Beach miniatures.

All the objects were created from scratch. Doyle felt that they were so prominent in the story that they needed to be precise. “The team provided me with tons of background material, photos, the home movie imagery,” he says. “I spent a lot of time looking at that to recreate the look of her wedding dress, her computer, that mailbox. I focused on the details to that level.”

Thomas Doyle’s miniatures. Courtesy HBO.

Materials came from anywhere and everywhere. Any household item is fair game in Doyle’s mind. A lobster pot in the first scene is the top of a Chapstick tube painted silver. “There’s a lot of picking through the trash as well,” he jokes. “Don’t throw that away, it could be used for something.”

By Doyle’s estimate, the model stands over six feet tall. The dirt underground spans between four and five feet. He built it this past spring in his Westchester, New York studio. Separated by the pandemic, Doyle chronicled each step photographically and sent it to the production team. Together, they added and deleted pieces to shape what is finally seen.

“We wanted to lean into the feeling of nostalgia and familiarity,” adds Hamburg. “We wanted the compositions to feel inexplicably familiar, but not so much so that they would be discernible.”

“Obviously an artist in his or her studio is free to run off in whatever direction. In this case, we all had an understanding of what we wanted to create,” explains Doyle. “So it’s collaborative in that way and really wonderful to get feedback day to day as I documented — and then see this big thing come together.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 2 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

The final image — the house — was also built completely from scratch. “I wanted to recreate that exact house down to the mullions of the windows,” says Doyle. “Every piece of clapboard, all the siding was laid in because I wanted to be true to that house. I stuck to it very closely.”

Sharp viewers will notice subtle changes to the home as the series progresses. By the last episode, the windows are broken, there are holes in the roof. The trees are overgrown and the lawn is filled with rubbish.

Thomas Doyle’s miniature recreation of the Hamburg house, now smashed and absued. Courtesy HBO.

“The idea was to see it erode over time as Madison dives a little deeper into the family history and the secrets around that house,” says Doyle. “Some of the artwork I created evokes the sense of the house being a character. As you get to the reveal, you see the emotional toll that’s being taken on the house.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 3 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

The title sequence shoot took place at MoSoMos in Brooklyn. Knowing the pitfalls of transporting fragile art pieces, Doyle was keenly aware that eventually, his model would need to make a road trip. So he planned accordingly, designing it so that it could be broken down and packed in his car.

MoSoMos’ Bil Thompson served as cinematographer. Because of the pandemic, the crew was kept to a minimum. Doyle assembled the model, added the smaller pieces and decayed the house as needed. Hamburg was on hand to confer with Thompson. “Just to kind of talk lenses and make sure we had the moves right,” says Doyle. “I was really happy to have him there on set so he could frame things like the composition of the trees.”

MoSoMos’ specialty is stop motion animation. Thompson shot the sequence using a motion control rig. “Shoot raw images and then move the camera, shoot and move, shoot and move,” continues Doyle. “You get very high quality because you’re shooting in raw digital images. It looks like a fluid shot.”

Murder on Middle Beach marks the first time Doyle’s art has been featured in a TV series. He couldn’t be more pleased that it’s on HBO. The network’s iconic 1980s opening featuring a miniature cityscape was a big influence on his work.

“Watching that sequence as a kid was what made him want to explore the world of miniatures,” says Hamburg, remembering his first telephone conversation with Doyle. “At that moment, I knew, no matter how we incorporated miniatures into this story, Thomas was going to do it.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 4 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

This article was first published in The Credits