‘22 vs. Earth’ has an evolved storytelling for 22’s character, says director Kevin Nolting

The editor of Oscar-winning animated film ‘Soul’, Kevin Nolting discusses turning director for the prequel short film ‘22 vs. Earth’, and why Tina Fey and Richard Ayoade are a director’s dream

Those who feasted upon — and still occasionally nibble on — animated feature Soul (which won the Academy Award this year for Best Animated Feature, Best Original Score and Best Sound) starring Jamie Foxx as the ever-patient jazz teacher Joe Gardner and Tina Fey as strong-willed soul 22, will be delighted at the dessert offerings of the prequel short film 22 vs. Earth, by which time audiences have already connected with the fiesty character.

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The editor of Soul (as well as Inside Out and Up), Kevin Nolting beams from ear to ear — over a video call from his Los Angeles home — as he says becoming a director for 22 vs. Earth boiled down to “being in the right place at the right time”. He praises his long history with Oscar-winning director Peter Docter (Soul, Inside Out and Coco), as well.

He adds, “These shorts usually go to the Head of Story, who was actually in the development stages for another project.”

In under seven minutes, we see the quick-witted 22 (played by Tina Fey) standing up to the rules of ‘The Great Before’ (where souls get training before venturing to Earth as people), and refusing to go to Earth. She recruits a rag-tag team of five new souls but her gang’s activities lead to unforeseen results, and 22’s revolutionary plot may actually lead to a surprising revelation about life.

Fond of this storyline and how it has come out, Nolting chats with MetroPlus about directing for the first time and shares his thoughts about a sequel for Soul.

Edited excerpts:

Was it challenging directing 22 vs. Earth in that you did not want the film to come across as deleted scenes from Soul?

Yes, it is challenging in that respect as we know 22 and what she is. We don’t have time to explore a whole lot more and we have to be true to the feature film. Because we did not explore 22 as much as Joe in the film, we started talking about what made her this way and the specific incidents that led up to this 22 we see in Soul.

The short was a perfect way to explore one aspect of that.

What was it like carrying forward 22’s cynicism, and its personality and legacy into the next generation of souls that are definitely a contrast in terms of their innocence and willingness to do anything and 22’s cynicism?

Film Editor Kevin Nolting is photographed on August 7, 2014 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, USA | Photo Credit: Deborah Coleman / Pixar

I loved that contrast, and I loved exploring how much influence a person like that has on innocent people. You are bound to get one or two along with you, maybe. (laughs) But at the centre of it, we were exploring what made 22 the way she is.

In 22 vs. Earth, there is more evolved storytelling as I want to hear the conversations and interactions with her mentors, and still a fun and less complex story to tell. In Soul, we got to see a lot of her one-line gags.

While working on Soul, was the concept of 22 vs. Earth already on the makers’ minds?

Not at all. We usually do a little short connected to the feature films and in the past it was like a bonus on the DVD feature. So it was always there that this might happen but the specifics we do not get into until the end of the feature film.

What was it like working with Tina Fey and Richard Ayoade (as Counsellor Jerry), both great storytellers in their own right? Were there any spontaneous moments during recording sessions that made its way into the films?

Actors like that who also write and produce are one step ahead in a sense. They are already thinking and talking about storyline and characterisation in their own ways. And because they had done the characters before, I was lucky in that respect as a first-time director.

As for spontaneity, this was more in Soul. Both Tina and Richard were amazing at ad-libbing and Peter loves to work with actors like that, including Amy Poehler during Inside Out. He has these comedic writing sessions to get their take on the characters. Richard came up with most of the funny, dry-humour lines you see his character say in Soul; it’s not all scripted.

Does being an editor make it easier to put together a short?

Yes, I’m always surprised that more editors don’t become directors. There have been some great editors such as Hal Ashby. But it’s more the exception than the rule itself; you have to be drawn to it. Because editors are hands-on from the very beginning to the very end, you know everything that has gone into the process and why.

Filmmakers who haven’t delved into making short films… are they missing out?

I don’t know if ‘missing out’ is the thing.

A lot of filmmakers, editors, and DoPs have done advertisements, but I have seen it is may be a money motivation. In my case, I love doing shorts because we work on these feature films for four or five years at a time. While during that time you have leeway to turn around at a dead-end point but it gets tedious at parts.

I have done some of these 48-hour shorts where on a Friday night you get a set of parameters and by Sunday you have to deliver the finished film. You have to use this whole other part of you and your brain where you trust your instincts.

Any hopes for a Soul sequel?

(laughs) I don’t think too much about that. I’m actually really happy with the resolution of the story.

22 vs. Earth streams on Disney+Hostar Premium from April 30

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