A Confab With Pixar Co-Founder Ed Catmull And Composer Harold O’Neal: VR & The Future Of Storytelling

I’d like to share a bit of magic. As 2020— a challenging and opportunity-charged year— wound down, I was blessed by a Zoom trialogue with Pixar co-founder and former President of Disney Animation Studios Ed Catmull, and master storyteller, composer and pianist Harold O’Neal.

We explored storytelling, virtual reality, personal responsibility— and how the universe intervenes.

Chance Encounters

“Never leave serendipity to chance,” has been my maxim for years. Harold and Ed’s creative philosophies illustrate this notion, as does the manner of their meeting.

On his first visit to Pixar’s campus, O’Neal joined our mutual friend Peter Sims, founder of BLKSHP, and Elyse Klaidman, then-Director of Pixar University and Exhibitions. During their tour, Klaidman and Sims both shared with O’Neal their creative reverence for Catmull, but warned not to expect to meet him that day.

Pixar’s building cosmically intervened. Steve Jobs designed the building for collisions. As Catmull explained, “You can’t avoid running into people.”

While O’Neal and friends de-briefed in Pixar’s Exhibition Gallery, Catmull appeared around a corner. Their collision led to an open door. O’Neal related, “with a twinkle in his eye, Ed said, ‘Pete should talk to you,’”—referring to Pete Docter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer.

Two weeks later, O’Neal returned to Pixar for an unrelated appointment. As he spelunked in the gift shop, Catmull materialized again, “in the Toy Story section, I believe,” O’Neal recalls.

Their conversation landed on Soul, a film then under development. Like O’Neal, the protagonist was a jazz pianist in New York. Catmull invited O’Neal to participate as a creative expert. Soul dropped this past Christmas Day on Disney+.

Soul Is Music

Soul isn’t just about music. It is music. The film exhibits a musical structure with variations and development. Themes of purpose, death and life, enlightenment and the interconnectedness of experience. It even sends the protagonist back for a D.S. al Coda on life (for all of you musicians).

Soul is about “finding your spark,” recognizing the artistic flow in all things— and about not going gently into that good night. It’s also more philosophical and reflective than any Pixar film to date.

Having loved O’Neal’s work for years— which The New York Times acclaimed, “sits somewhere between Ravel… and Duke Ellington”— the film reminded me of his distinctive, improvisational flow. As a creative expert to Soul, O’Neal invoked dimensions of his musical and life experiences.

O’Neal’s musical journey began in toddlerhood in Tanzania. He first learned music playing his powder blue Kermit the Frog piano while watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. When he was two, his family returned to Kansas City to live with his grandmother, Florene. She was a formative influence and had attended primary school with legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

“Find Something You Didn’t Know”

Recruiting O’Neal into Soul development was a natural act for Pixar. To ensure authentic viewing experiences, Pixar develops stories through real-world exploration. From deep-diving with sisters for Frozen to child psychologists for Inside Out.

With Finding Nemo, the Pixar team explored a sewage plant to discover whether a fish could make it through city plumbing to the sea. (“The answer is yes”, says Catmull… and no fish were harmed in the process!)

“You don’t want to draw from stereotypes,” Catmull admonishes. “We ask people to go out and find something they didn’t know. In the case of Ratatouille, the team had a tough task— to go to Michelin Star French restaurants.” They didn’t stop at tastings. “The trick isn’t to go to the restaurant, it’s going into the kitchen.” The question is, “what takes place in a high-end kitchen? If you bring real elements into [the film], people may not know if it’s true, but they sense it’s real.”

For Soul, the challenge was not only to craft an authentic Manhattan-based jazz story, but to “get in the kitchen,” of the transcendent experiences to which musicians aspire. To truly convey a life in, of and for music.

Virtual Reality & The Future Of Storytelling

Few individuals bring Ed Catmull’s breadth and depth to the art, science and business of animated film. He literally had a “hand” in one of the earliest examples— a short film he created for his graduate work in 1972 entitled A Computer Animated Hand. As Library of Congress scholars later articulated, “Catmull worked out concepts that would become the foundation for computer graphics that followed.”

This in mind, I queried Catmull on our emerging realities—Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality (VR+).

As of yet, he laments, “storytelling with Virtual Reality all went bust.” Referencing 50 years of experimentation, “It always sucked.” While we’re rapidly overcoming technological constraints, storytelling with VR+ still suffers from “fundamental problems unrelated to technology.”

Catmull describes how Oculus resolved the lag between a user’s interactions and experience. While an essential advance, “it didn’t make the storyteller’s job any easier. It just got rid of the cognitive problem of lag. People misread the implications.”

Catmull elaborated. “Storytelling is a crafted, artistic experience.” For instance, in a traditional film, “the gifted storyteller is telling you where to look. In VR, you don’t know where to look.”

As a result of this curatorial and attention conundrum, Catmull asserts, “VR introduces a barrier as opposed to what people would think—‘you’re in the world.’ You’re actually more separated from the world.”

Without question VR+ offers transformative opportunities for storytelling. We just don’t yet understand how to manifest them. “VR is a new artform, and we haven’t worked out the language for it yet.”

Virtual Paths Forward

When in the ‘real world’, you direct your attention, and thus what you ignore. When viewing a traditional film, you’re accepting the framing, dialogue, visuals—everything—as curated by the filmmakers. You’ve surrendered to the film.

In VR+ space, you have far more degrees of freedom and responsibility. We’re just beginning to understand how to capture and focus attention in virtual environments, whether as artists or viewers.

The three of us mused that the next phase of VR+ storytelling will arise from some synthesis of the artistic, curatorial role of filmmakers and the participative role of viewers. Artistically crafted, viewer-active, collaborative, emergent experiences. VR+ films— whatever we’ll call them— could evolve via interactions between the artists, the audience and the ‘piece’ itself.

As an avid gamer, O’Neal offered, “It might be a combination between storytelling and gaming.”

Through the fog, Catmull offered a very Pixar path. “If you’re doing something new, you can’t know it ahead of time…. You let artists play with it and at some point somebody just surprises you.”

Even Chance Takes Work

Speaking of surprises, a montage toward the end of Soul reflects my favorite word, Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity. We see that all is interconnected, that serendipity masquerades as chance. (Perhaps Soul is It’s a Wonderful Life—the jazz edition.)

As fortuitous as serendipity can be, O’Neal reflected that early in his career he left too much to chance. “Part of that was fear. I realized eventually that I had to act.” O’Neal and Catmull agreed that telling meaningful stories with impact takes exceptional internal work. O’Neal holds a black belt in Kenpo Karate and Catmull commits to annual silent retreats.

O’Neal reasons, “I believe I have a responsibility through storytelling to help people see what’s true on a human level. To do that, I first have to do that with myself.”

Sincere thanks to Ed and Harold for deciphering a bit of our world’s magic. Serendipity, indeed.