Jake Kaplan was proud to put his heart and “soul” into the latest film by Pixar, the legendary animation studio.
That movie, titled Soul, was released on Christmas Day and is currently streaming on the Disney+ subscription-based streaming service.
Soul is a family movie directed by Academy Award winner Pete Docter (Inside Out, Up). It follows the story of Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher and jazz musician.
While celebrating getting a gig with Dorothea Williams, a famous musician he has idolized since he was a child, he stumbles down a manhole, putting him into a coma, and thus, thrusting him into The Great Before—a place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.
While he’s there, Joe embarks on a journey where he learns the true meaning of life while helping a soul named 22, who has never understood the appeal of the human experience.
Kaplan, who lived in Ewing for 19 years from infancy, had two roles working on the movie. For the first year and a half, he worked in the art department, which produced character designs, set designs and more.
His job as a coordinator was to take in inventory that comes in from the story department, identify what needed to be designed, and distribute the inventory among his team. At one time, he had anywhere from 5 to 20 artists on his team. Once completed, he would pass his team’s finished projects onto the next department.
Kaplan’s second role for the last few months working on Soul was as coordinator within the sets department.
“What we did in the Sets Department was we would use those designs that came from the art department, and we would build all of those New York streets, that Soul landscape with all of the personality pavilions that activated when the baby souls went through them,” Kaplan said. “Anything you saw in the background as a set piece had to be built.”
As a sets coordinator, Kaplan decided who built each of the sets, as well as how each project was handed off to the lighting department to bring the beautiful landscapes together. Through working in both departments, he got to see how the animation came together.
“I got on the film very early in production,” Kaplan said. “We didn’t even know what it was going to look like. I got to work with the art team as they built what it would look like. It was crazy to watch how it evolved.”
Kaplan and those working on the movie embark on many adventures to help educate themselves on the introspective and thoughtful storyline, as a way to produce a more authentic movie.
They experienced guided meditations, learned about anesthesia, and even which colors derive from which notes in relation to music. Even some of the normal conversations that take place in the art and set reviews were unique to Soul.
“These art reviews and set reviews that we normally have are just, ‘Isn’t it pretty? What would you change?’” Kaplan described. “But with “Soul,” they were more, ‘Does this capture what it means to embody the meaning of life?’”
When he was younger, Kaplan always saw himself working in smaller Indie studios, producing smaller productions and movies. He never imagined working under the Disney umbrella, or as a coordinator, especially for a movie quite as big and as popular as Soul.
“I had no clue,” Kaplan said. “I had no idea I would work for Pixar one day, but I’m happy I do.”
Even after his incredible experiences with Pixar in Oakland, California, Kaplan still speaks highly of New Jersey. He continues to love his hometown in Ewing, even without any relatives remaining in the Garden State.
“I love the little New Jersey circle we live in,” Kaplan described. “It feels like family. It feels like home.”
Kaplan was a resident of Ewing for 19 years. He moved there in 1994 when he was an infant, and lived in town until 2013. He attended Lore Elementary School, and after that he went to Chapin School in Lawrence Township.
After his years at Chapin, he transferred to George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Kaplan attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he earned a degree in animation.
As early as elementary school, Kaplan loved animation and art. Inspired by animated TV shows and movies, he began to draw at a young age.
“Ask any of my elementary school teachers,” Kaplan stated. “They’ll tell you I was always doodling cartoons all over every test and paper.”
Kaplan’s father worked as a line producer for MTV and America’s Most Wanted, while Kaplan was growing up, which was one of the reasons Kaplan went into entertainment, although the decision to pursue animation was made because of his passion.
“My father was a huge influence on why I wanted to go into entertainment,” Kaplan said. “Animation was something I was particularly interested in from watching it on the TV every Saturday.”
Kaplan worked as a social media intern at the Office of Communications for the School of Visual Arts during his senior year of college. While he was there, he found out that Pixar was visiting another department at the school, but managed to get a meeting with one of the recruiters. This led to an internship right out of college, which led to his current job as a coordinator for Pixar. The first film he worked on at Pixar was Incredibles 2.
From his time spent at Pixar, Kaplan speaks highly of the company. He described the company as “alive,” due to the high numbers of people working on projects. Along with his job, he participates in many activities through the student resource groups.
“There’s always something exciting happening at the studio,” Kaplan described. “It’s so much fun. It’s a really great place, and the people are what makes it incredible.”