‘Elemental’ Preview: Pixar Breaks New Animation Ground In Rom-Com

During IndieWire’s visit to Pixar, Sohn talked about how his parents’ immigrant history and passion for chemistry led to his film Element City.


“Elemental” (opening June 16) has achieved several milestones for Pixar. It’s the studio’s first rom-com and its first immigrant story about family struggle and sacrifice. And it’s the first Pixar film where VFX touches every shot.

It takes place in Element City, where despite their fundamental differences, fire, water, air and earth coexist. A friendship ignites unexpected sparks when the fiery and fierce Ember (Leah Lewis) meets the watery, flowy Wade. (Mamoudou Athie). Because the character design and world-building of “Elemental” are inextricably linked to the primal elements, the film essentially strips animation, storytelling, and identity down to their bare essentials.

But for director Peter Sohn ( The Good Dinosaur ), it’s a very personal story about paying tribute to his parents, who emigrated from Korea to the Bronx in the early 1970s, opened a grocery store and started a family.

“Family heritage is a big part of this journey, as a lot of people talk about their past and their family tree, and we’ve discovered those pieces from our crew,” Sohn told IndieWire at Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters in March. 27 sneak peeks from about 30 minutes of footage.

Sohn had two other personal components driving his “elementalism”: his marriage to a non-Korean, which broadened his cultural awareness, and his lifelong fascination with chemistry, particularly the periodic table of the elements. “Cultural clashes and contrasts attract my north star,” he added.

The genesis of the film began with the periodic table that Sohn scribbled in high school as an early form of expression. “There was a funny drawing that I remember discovering like a fire and water character,” he continued, “and it sparked all kinds of ideas and I just couldn’t stop drawing these new little things.

Fire and water in the Pixar film Elemental


Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“And then I drew little fire characters on ships making long journeys and how difficult and scary fire could be in the middle of the ocean. And so these themes just started to connect. Then my relationship with my wife (results) is that I made funny drawings when our family got together for dinner for the first time. Fire dinner drawings were made of the aquatic character eating spicy, warm food for the first time.

Crucial to making “Elemental” happen was that Pixar first crack the chemical codes, starting with fire and water. After all, Ember wasn’t burning, and Wade wasn’t wet—it was literally fire and water. As a result, the journey was a process of reverse engineering in which Pixar had to first define the appearance and behavior of the characters before embarking on the massive world-building. Modeled after New York, Element City is a series of integrated neighborhoods made of organic materials that complement (and outlive) individual elements. For example, Fire Town was built with ceramic, metal, and brick.

Elements of the Pixar film Elemental


Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

According to production designer Don Shank, “design ideas inspired new technology, which inspired new design.” In terms of animation, this meant striking a balance between the logic of physics and the appeal of cartoons. But Ember’s journey has driven the hierarchy, testing the limits of Pixar’s technology teams and building a new pipeline for earlier and closer collaboration across all departments.

A series of complex simulations of fire and water were created with new tools for capturing and manipulating characters. After polishing the physics-based animation, the artists dialed it back to make the faces and silhouettes more readable and the performances more human. The result is sophisticated sculpting with 2D outlines and some classic squash-and-stretch. Ember’s first major test was the appearance of a paper airplane. Next came the procedural look of the flame, with foils built into it.

“It’s almost like this multi-plane camera came from the head, where when it moved, you’re like, wow, wow… there’s the dimensionality,” Sohn said. “Then there was a walking cycle that was just a firecracker walking in step.” His leg ignited, the flame moving backwards like a torch being passed down the hall. Candlelight was another milestone where the flame shrunk and she became vulnerable.”

Fire and water in Pixar's Elemental


Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

However, water was even more difficult to master. Wade had all kinds of reflective and refracting features that obscured his features. “It was so unmanageable,” Sohn added. “And he always looked so weird. I kept pushing the water and going over the line just because I couldn’t see it, but his movement played into it. How easily he could turn into Jell-O if he slows down the ripples a bit, or how quickly he can turn into a “soul” character when the ripples don’t appear. There were only so many ways he could switch very quickly, and that would surprise us all.”

In terms of storytelling, Sohn enjoyed the rom-com element between Ember and Wade and their families, drawing inspiration from “Moonstruck” and “Amélie.” “I liked the idea of ​​this inter-elemental couple and the holes in their lives that have to be filled in order for them to connect with each other,” he said.

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