A “Short” Conversation with ’22 Vs. Earth’ Director Kevin Nolting and a Mini-Review

They may have won the Oscar this year, but Pixar has not lost its “Soul.” That’s right! As we reported recently, this Friday, Pixar is debuting its latest short, 22 Vs. Earth on Disney+. The film is a prequel to last year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Film, and recipient of the highly coveted “Mike Manalo’s Favorite Movie of the Year Award,” Soul. It reunites us with the hilarious Tina Fey as 22, as well as the unborn souls and the Jerrys, prior to 22 meeting Joe Gardner. And to commemorate the return to The Great Before, The Nerds of Color was given the opportunity to participate in a short press event with other members of the press, to speak to the short film’s director, Kevin Nolting.

Nolting has had a long and remarkable career at Pixar, dating back to June 2000, as the second editor on Finding Nemo. Since then, he’s put his keen skills to the test on some of the best Pixar films (heck, some of the best animated films) of all time, including Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, and most recently, Soul. And after 21 years with the company, Nolting is about to finally make his directorial debut with 22 Vs. Earth. Every reporter present was able to ask him their questions, and here’s what he had to say for all of them:

Why this part of 22’s journey? We know in Soul there was so much time we spent in the “pre-Earth” existence. So what made it this moment that you wanted to do a short on?

Nolting: I don’t know the “why” of it so much as we wanted to tell something about her past. As we were making the movie we were talking about what made 22 who she is, and why all the other souls go to Earth and she doesn’t. So this was one idea of many to show an aspect of that.

It’s a really funny short. It’s pretty impressive. This is your directorial debut right?


So how does it feel making the transition from editor to director now for a Pixar movie? You’ve worked there for 20 years and now you’re directing for them. What does that feel like?

It feels great! In one aspect it feels like the continuum of the stuff I do there. With each movie with Pete [Docter], I get more and more involved with the production and the pre-production. So this felt like a natural extension in some respects. In other respects it’s completely different because, as an editor, by definition, we’re very judgmental. And we’re used to having material being given to us and we immediately judge it…And it’s a good exercise for anyone to be on the other side of that. To be the one being judged, and hopefully I look at things in a different light going forward maybe.

Did you draw from any inspirations to create the team of 22 in the short?

Yes, to an extent. You have a challenge when you have all these little souls that look the same, with no distinct personality. A lot of it, I think, is most of the people working on this have young kids. I have a grandson. And you get inspiration from that, obviously. You see little personality traits from them. And then, obviously we just wanted to make it fun, and what’s more fun than a little kid?

Since we knew so much already about 22 from our time with her in Soul, what do you think was the biggest challenge about creating this short?

Yeah, it’s because we knew a lot about her, but I don’t think we knew the “why.” That’s what we were trying to do with the short. As we were making the movie, we talked about it a lot. Why she ended up [this way]. We made up a lot of funny scenarios for it all the time. So this was just a way to explore one aspect of it I guess. But that for me was answering the question “how does a person get to be this way?”

Were there any interesting “sparks” that were rejected from this story? Things you wanted to use that you didn’t end up using?

We sort of toned it down a bit at a certain point. There were one or two others we cut out at the script stage just for length. For example, the one who says, “I love driving,” the original mindset was “I love stealing.” And to me having the negative ones is good because you have different types of people in the world. But having them all be negative sort of goes against that idea too, so we decided to mix it up a bit.

So a lot of the souls 22 brings in to her group have most of their badges filled up, apart from their final badges, which is why a lot of them end up leaving her. Could 22 could have gotten souls who didn’t have such a completed badge set to keep them around longer?

Oh yeah, had we had more time in the short to do that, I would have been open to that. But these things have a certain [length] just for scheduling and the scope of what we could do. We couldn’t do that much. So we had to be economical to try and tell the story as quickly as we could.

In the tradition of the original film, what were you hoping to communicate about purpose, inspiration, and the meaning of life through the short?

For me it’s all about, Joe Gardner, from an early age, knows what he wants to do, and he targets that. For people like me, I relate much more to 22, who has a harder time finding that, who isn’t born with this thing she wants to do, and that’s part of her problem. It is not clear to her and she questions it. And I think there’s a lot of us like her that can relate to that. So that for me was just to explore that a little bit. To be the person who isn’t just born with this drive to do one thing.

What is the takeaway for those who watch the short?

My thing about creating anything like this is to get people thinking and talking about something. And so just the fact that you said that, that I succeeded, I hope. I don’t have any great message to impart. It’s more about getting people to ask questions, I guess.

Were there any plans for more allusions to the original movie? Or was it meant to be something completely separate?

With a short like this, we have this tough conversation early on about how much the audience assumes about the world. So my answer to that is I’m sort of tasked with making a 5-6 minute short. And the biggest challenge on the feature was setting up the world and setting up the rules of the world in an entertaining way, so the audience isn’t confused as the story unfolds. So to do that in a five min short is sort of out of the question. I came in with the assumption that you’ve seen the movie before and you know a certain amount about this world. And that’s how I approached it.

We’re getting to some highly anticipated movies from Pixar directors that really cut their teeth with shorts. Enrico has Luca coming up. Domee has Turning Red. Are you interested at all at in also expanding to the world of features, and directing something that gives you a 60-120 minute length time to explore themes and messages?

Part of me, definitely yes. But the realistic part of me knows I’m at a certain age where it takes a decade to get a film-an animated film – developed and shot by the time you’re done. So if I were to continue directing it would be in the short realm. I think that would probably be more realistic. And I’m also really happy as an editor, so I have that too.

How was it working with Tina Fey? I’d love to hear about her reaction coming back to this story, and what unique elements she brought to this project that surprised you or that you really appreciated?

She was more than willing to do it, which is great, since coming off the feature she did not have to do this. She was great about it, and very enthusiastic. I was part of all the recording sessions during the feature so I knew her to a certain extent, and knew what to expect. This [short], we recorded it two weeks into quarantine, so that added a whole other element to it. And she was great, and she always brings ideas…It was nice, because we got to see a more human side to a star, because she was recording from home and her daughter was home from school too, and had to do Zoom classes during the session. Fortunately her husband has a recording studio, so she had a good mic already. That went very smoothly and was great.

Are there any other burning questions you want to answer in another short for 22?

I would love to explore her mentor relationships a lot deeper than in the feature. That’d be great, that’s for sure. I’d love to hear some of those dialogues.

It was great speaking with Kevin, who did an absolutely killer job in his directorial debut. Which brings us to my mini-review of the short:

22 Vs. Earth is a worthy addition to the Soul story. It’s not particularly necessary. And I completely stand by my statement that Soul is a perfect movie on its own without any further spin-offs, sequels, or prequels. Though I will always be seriously dying to know what happens to 22 following the movie, the mystery and open-endedness of the film’s ending is pitch perfect and does not need a direct answer. So I’m so very glad, this is a prequel.

The funniest scenes in Soul explored 22’s problems in The Great Before prior to Joe arriving, and to get 5-6 mins more of funny gags is a treat all on its own. And I definitely found myself laughing pretty hard at a lot of the gags in this one. I don’t necessarily agree that it answers any sort of “whys” about why she’s the way she is, but as Kevin mentioned, that was explored in the original film all the same.

The animation and score are just as top notch in the short as they are in the original film, which makes sense because it looks like two-time Oscar winners Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor returned to do the short as well. As discussed above as well, Fey turns in another hilarious and engaging performance, further proving why I thought she was the best thing about the original film. And it’s nice to see Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade return as the Jerrys too!

All in all 22 Vs. Earth is inconsequential, but it’s cute and hilarious. It’s definitely a good, short time, and a well produced short in the grand tradition of classics like Mike’s New Car, Jack-Jack Attack, or Riley’s First Date. Do you need to watch it? Perhaps not. But should you? Absolutely! If you loved Soul, you’ll love this as well!

Overall Score: B+

22 Vs. Earth hits Disney + this Friday, April 30! But you can also check out a new clip of the short here: