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How Pixar made 22 vs Earth, a Soul short inspired by Apocalypse Now

22 vs Earth
(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Soul isn’t a movie you would associate with Apocalypse Now. Sure, Pixar’s most recent animated feature and Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological war epic have both tasted Oscars glory, but that’s where the similarities ended. Until now, that is. 

22 vs Earth, Pixar’s latest short film, is a Soul prequel that ironically owes its funniest moments and subtle references to the dark, mature overtones of the Vietnam War-based flick. 

Ahead of its April 30 release on Disney Plus, TechRadar sat down with director Kevin Nolting to discuss how the short’s best jokes reference Coppola's masterpiece, the process of crafting a prequel to Soul and whether it features any Pixar Easter eggs.

Spirited away 

22 vs Earth

(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Set before Pixar’s Soul, 22 vs Earth reunites us with Tina Fey’s 22, a cynical-yet-witty soul, as she refuses to complete her life badge and travel to Earth to be physically born. Enlisting the help of five other hapless souls, 22 attempts to incite a rebellion that will stop any more souls ‘graduating’ from the Great Before - the realm where souls find their passions - at the behest of this world’s counselors.

Post-feature film related shorts have become a regular occurrence for Pixar. Since 2002 Monsters Inc. short Mike’s New Car, the studio has produced 15 short spin-offs for movies including Toy Story, Up and Cars.

22 vs Earth, then, is the 16th entry in this back catalog - but its creation wasn’t a certainty. To date, 23 Pixar movies have been released, but that figure clearly doesn’t align with the studio’s number of offshoot shorts. As Nolting explains, each short’s development hinges on crafting the ideal plot for the right character and, on this occasion, exploring 22’s backstory seemed like a logical fit.

“It’s always planned to do a short like this after a feature,” Nolting says. “We used to put them on our DVDs as a bonus [and] the idea for this developed throughout the making of the movie. [In Soul], we explored Joe, met his family and learned a lot about his background. With 22, we had her in this time and place when she met Joe, but what brought her there? There were lots of aspects of 22 we could’ve explored, but this one seemed the funniest one to do.”

22 vs Earth’s release on Disney Plus comes just four months after Soul landed on the streaming platform. Given that only 16 weeks have passed since the movie launched, and the pandemic potentially slowing down the short’s production as Pixar staff continue to work remotely, some viewers may find it surprising to see 22 vs Earth arrive so soon after Soul’s release. Nolting, though, reveals that work on shorts takes place immediately after production wraps on Pixar’s features - something that was particularly handy this time due to the complex nature of specific animations.

“I feel bad as we work long hours,” Nolting admits. “[But] as the departments wrap, we're grabbing people and asking them to help on the short for a few more weeks because the work’s fresh in their minds. The Great Before is technically complicated, so we had to have the people who worked on the movie [return for 22 vs Earth]. The learning curve is too high on the lighting and the shading of the world, and the animation of the counsellors, especially, there's just a handful of people who could’ve done that. It's the only way we could have gotten this done.”

Chaotic neutral 

22 vs Earth

(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

22 vs Earth is only five minutes long, but it packs a lot of humor into its brief runtime. Its funniest scene has 22 put her new friends through an educational boot camp concerning her plan before she reveals what the group’s official name is - The Apocalypse.

We won’t ruin the acronym-inspired reason behind that moniker, but it owes its inclusion to Nolting’s favorite TV shows and movies, as well as 22 vs Earth writer Josh Cooley’s inventiveness.

“Originally, the group was going to be called Chaos,” Nolting explains. “One of my favourite TV shows was Get Smart, and [protagonist] Agent 86, played by Don Adams, was always battling chaos. I just felt like it was too much of a connection to that. As we were talking about the story, [story artist] Hyein Park came up with Apocalypse - coincidentally Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies - and then Josh wrote the hilarious acronym.”

Nolting’s Apocalypse Now appreciation extends beyond 22’s rebellious gang. The veteran Pixar film editor, whose credits include the award-winning Inside Out and Soul, confirms that there are two other Apocalypse Now visual-related secrets for film aficionados to seek out, but declined to tease what they were.

As for Pixar Easter eggs, such as the studio’s trademark Pizza Planet truck, Nolting declined to comment. There are callbacks to Soul dotted throughout, but eagle-eyed Pixar fans will have to pour over every scene themselves if they want to find any surprise inclusions.

Despite producing 13 new projects across movies, Disney Plus TV shows and short films over the past four years, Pixar shows no signs of slowing down. The studio’s next feature - Luca - launches on Disney Plus in June, while work continues on 2022 movies Turning Red and Toy Story spin-off Lightyear.

22 vs Earth may be Nolting’s directorial debut, but. Luca, Turning Red or Lightyear won’t be helmed by the former live-action movie editor. With Nolting returning to his first love of film editing, this might be the only time that an R-rated war movie inspires a Pixar production. The studio’s upcoming slate, though, should benefit from Nolting’s expertise as an editor - knowledge that will continue to be hugely beneficial to the studio for Luca and beyond.

“Directing an animated movie is a four-to-seven year period,” Nolting says. “By the time you conceive a movie, pitch it and get everything else done, it’s a long process. I think, at my age, it’s not realistic for me. I enjoyed working on 22 vs Earth, but I love editing so I think that’s the path I’ll stay on.”

22 vs Earth launches exclusively on Disney Plus on Friday, April 30.