It’s easy to imagine the wind having attitude or fire being angry. A happy bunch of flowers could absolutely brighten the day of a lonely pot of dirt. And water might be calm and collected one day and in a big hurry the next. “What if the elements we all know were alive?” asked director Peter Sohn.
Disney and Pixar’s newest film, Elemental, opens with two balls of fire huddled together on a boat heading to a new world. They are nervous and hopeful, for themselves and for the small flame they’re carrying with them in their new life. This is a family story and an immigrant story to start. The pair enter Elemental City (ostensibly via an Ellis Island-esque port) but they don’t speak the language and their names are too difficult for the agent to pronounce and in that moment he gives them new ones, Bernie and Cinder. This begins the journey of fire in the world of water, air and earth and how this melting pot of elements mix, and don’t.
For director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur, the voice of Sox in Lightyear), digging back into his childhood and his parents’ journey to the United States (specifically the Bronx) from Korea was always his origin story for the film as a love letter to all parents who sacrifice for their children’s future. Sohn (along with producer Denise Ream) opened the press day I attended at Pixar for the film recently, which featured about 30m of completed footage and scenes, where he talked about being obsessed with the Periodic Table and imagining it like little apartments in New York City. This helped shape what the story of his parents, who owned a small grocery store in a ground floor retail space below their apartment, and Elemental City would look like. According to Ream, more than 100 first- or second-generation immigrants from Pixar came together to speak with filmmakers about their experiences. “It was phenomenal,” said Ream. “Most of us, wherever we are, come from somewhere else. There were so many emotional stories about what people went through to come here—their families’ experiences. I don’t think you can really explain the impact of something like that on a story.”
The idea of elements clashing being a metaphor for an opposites attract romance was born from Sohn’s own experience of his relationship with his non-Korean wife and what culture clashes arose from that. Sohn recalls a moment, that is mirrored in the film for comedic purposes, of his grandmother’s dying wish be that he marry a Korean girl. “I started layering in my relationship with my wife—I’m Korean and she’s American, half Italian,” Sohn says. “I hid the relationship from my parents at first because they—in an old-school way—wanted me to marry someone Korean. My grandmother’s dying words were literally ‘Marry Korean!’” This was the spark that opened his story (and screenplay by Brenda Hsueh, John Hoberg and Kat Likkel) into the one of Pixar’s first real explorations of romance, of course an anthropomorphised version, that had only been hinted at in WALL-E and Toy Story 4. Sohn named romance films like Moonstruck, The Big Sick and Amélie, among others, as inspirations for the relationship between Ember and Wade. And in true Pixar fashion, we get a film that is full of sight gags (a cloud basketball team is called The Windbreakers, a cinema marquee is showing the film ‘Tide & Prejudice’), vivid animation for the kiddos and more than enough over the head humor for adults.
We know that the gestation to creation process for animated films is exponentially longer than with a traditional live action feature and Pixar’s Elemental is no different. In one of the many in-depth presentations, Production Designer Don Shank detailed storyboards that dated back to 2017, as the first embers of the physical story would begin to take shape. Shank and his team referenced a number of locales to capture the essence of Element City. “It was a more difficult challenge than we thought,” he said. “We were looking at big cities all over the world—in particular those based on canal systems like Venice and Amsterdam. And while Peter said it was not based on New York—it’s an immigrant story and New York is his hometown. We all fall back on what we know when discovering our stories.”
“Ember isn’t on fire, she is fire. Wade isn’t wet, he is water.”
Joining Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, the eclectic voice cast includes Ronnie del Carmen as Ember’s soon-to-be retired dad, Bernie; Shila Ommi as Ember’s love-seeking mom, Cinder; Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade’s stormy and Air-Ball-loving boss, Gale; Catherine O’Hara as Wade’s welcoming mom, Brook; Mason Wertheimer as Ember’s admiring earth neighbor, Clod; and Joe Pera as an overgrown city bureaucrat, Fern.
Visual Effects Supervisor Sanjay Bakshi, along with Character Supervisor Jeremie Talbot, underscored that Ember isn’t on fire, she is fire; Wade isn’t wet, he is water, also highlighting that back in the day of the original Toy Story (1995) there were less than 600 render farm computers and for Elemental there were an astonishing 151,000 across three massive rooms. Directing Animators Gwen Enderoğlu and Allison Rutland went further, noting that they animated by considering energy over anatomy in order for movement to have the natural flow of the elements and less a static version that would have made Ember’s flames less fiery and Wade’s water body look more like glass.
While he wasn’t present, it was also revealed that 15-time Academy Award nominee Thomas Newman is the composer of the film’s score and, in fact, had just finished his final touches last week. “It was a dream to work with Thomas Newman,” Sohn said, remarking that he got goosebumps from the first moments of Newman’s score attached to the film’s opening sequence. This is Newman’s first score for a Pixar film since 2016’s Finding Dory, who also scored Finding Nemo and WALL-E for the animation studio, which collectively earned him three of his Oscar nominations.
Also revealed that day was the new Pixar animated short Carl’s Date, featuring the ongoing adventures of Carl (Up) and Dug as Carl navigates the possibility of going on his first date since Ellie’s passing. The short will screen before Elemental, the first since Bao (which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short) screened in front of Incredibles 2 back in 2018.
Disney and Pixar’s Elemental opens only in theaters on June 16. Here is the first full trailer for the film and some more progression and sneak peek images.
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