From Academy Award-winning films like Coco and Toy Story 4, to Incredibles 2, Onward, and Finding Dory, Pixar animator MontaQue Ruffin has film credits for days. The 30-year-old animator, who grew up in Levittown, is also part of the animation team for the big Christmas release, Soul, which features Pixar’s first Black lead character.
Every summer when Ruffin was young, his father encouraged him to create a vision board and a list of goals. But during the summer of his junior year of high school, “I just wanted to play video games, make art, and chill,” he said on a call from Oakland, Calif., where he now lives. His parents, “had enough trust in me to pursue my interest as long as I was getting good grades.”
That summer, Ruffin visited a GameStop with his father. When the two approached the cash register, Ruffin’s father noticed a book on the counter, Paid to Play: An Insider’s Guide to Video Game Careers. An avid reader, he purchased the book for his son, “and thank God he did,” Ruffin said. “That book really showcased the different disciplines that went into [producing] video games, and me being someone who had an interest in gaming, I was glued to it.”
Ruffin studied computer animation at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He landed an internship with Pixar his senior year of college, his first professional milestone. After completing the internship in Oakland in 2013, he moved to Montreal, where he worked for the Moving Picture Company. In 2015, he returned to Oakland to work as an animator for Pixar.
“I like to say that I fell into animation,” Ruffin said. “I saw Disney’s classic films. I saw The Lion King. I saw Toy Story. I saw A Bug’s Life. But it never occurred to me that being an animator was something that I wanted to do. Looking back, all I had to do was be open to what life presented to me and give myself a chance.”
Soul, which streams on Disney+ starting Friday, follows the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school music teacher who longs for a life as a famous jazz pianist but takes a detour into the abyss between life and The Great Beyond. There, he and a character named 22 (Tina Fey) explore metaphysical questions about life’s purpose and the importance of spontaneity. Angela Bassett voices the character Dorothea Williams, a renowned sax player.
The Inquirer talked to Ruffin about his work on Soul, the daily routine of animation work, and how the film’s themes show up in his own life. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Of all the films you’ve worked on, what stands out about Soul?
Immediately, Joe Gardner, Pixar’s first African American lead. [As a Black person], that was the biggest thing for me, personally, and the subject matter, too. What is purpose? What is destiny? Why am I here? We all think about it at certain points in our lives, and to different degrees. What is that sweet spot? How do I define that? That personally resonates with me.
Which characters in the film resonated with you?
I resonate with Joe Gardner, 22, and Dorothea. I think Joe Gardner and 22 are part of the same riddle. They both complement each other’s arcs, and I can relate to both of them. I can also relate to Dorothea because of the profound statement she says in the third act. I was actually very privileged to animate the shot.
It’s the part where Joe has the best night of his life and he says, “So, what’s next?” And her response, I don’t remember it line-by-line, but the intent behind it was like the fish wanting to go to the ocean even though the fish was already a part of the sea.
That was powerful, because it’s really what you make of the moment. Purpose isn’t like an object, or an idea, or an illusion, per se. It’s just day-to-day life. It’s the gift of life that’s purpose within itself. How she used that analogy delivered that, at least for me. Everybody has their own interpretation of it.
When I see the film as a whole, I can see where I relate to each of the three characters at different points in my life.
What’s your day-to-day like as an animator?
It’s filled with collaboration. You’re at your desk, you’re doing thumbnails, you’re acting out performances and then using that information to transpose into characters. Then when you have that, the collective group of animators go into a room — we call them dailies — and the director is in the room, and you view your work on a theater-sized big screen. And we have a discussion. You put yourself into these characters and we have a dialogue about who this character is, and from there it’s just refinement, refinement, refinement.
What do you think people will take away from the film?
I hope that they are just reminded that whatever they are pursuing or searching for, doesn’t matter how it looks, nothing goes in vain. There’s always a lesson to be learned. So, I guess to be encouraged.
What lessons did you learn while working on Soul?
Life’s a gift. It really is. And people are gifts. I know that sounds cheesy, but I think sometimes we get caught up in, “I gotta do this,” or “I gotta do that.” It’s easy to lose sight that it’s not about you all the time.
You never know what people are going through, and I think what’s powerful about Soul is that it highlights that thing that everybody thinks about, or at least try to figure out, and that’s, “Why am I here?” Life’s a gift. People are gifts, but you are a gift, too. We all can learn from each other.