Recently, I had the chance to travel to San Francisco, where I was able to visit Pixar Animation Studios as they prepped for the theatrical release of their latest film, Elemental. Coming from The Good Dinosaur‘s Peter Sohn (who you may have heard as the voice of Sox the cat in Lightyear), the film takes place in Element City, a place where the four elements, water, earth, air, and fire, live in harmony – or close. The concept for this is pretty interesting, as the city is shown to be populated by residents who fall into each of the four elemental categories. It’s challenging to explain exactly what they are as they’re not “fire or water people” but rather individuals that are actually made of the element they represent. They interact with each other as such.
The city itself is a hopeful place where the elements live together, but given how they interact on a physical level, they tend to live somewhat separate lives. The story revolves around a young fire resident, Ember (Leah Lewis), whose parents are first-generation immigrants to Element City and pillars of their fire community. Ember unexpectedly makes a connection with Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who works as a city bureaucrat and cites Ember’s family store for numerous citations that jeopardize their shop. While initially at odds, Ember and Wade start to develop a connection complicated by the fact that, as elements, fire and water don’t really mix.
On the press day, we saw the movie’s first act, as well as a show-stopping 3D sequence from later in the film, and indeed it looks like Pixar’s best movie since at least Coco. Like many of their most influential films, Elemental pushes the envelope in terms of what we’ve seen in animation, with the style used to animate the different characters hard to describe. Ember doesn’t look like a person made of fire. She looks like fire, with the intricate animation conveying that she doesn’t have a traditional “body” (nor do any of the elements), and the effect is startling, especially in 3D.
While we have an extended interview coming with director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream, here are some interesting facts we learned about the movie at the press day:
- Director Peter Sohn is the child of Korean immigrants, and the film is deeply personal to him, as it tells a story that directly relates to his own experience. This is not only because, as Korean-born, he had to assimilate from a young age as an American but also because he married outside of his community, which created a bit of a culture clash at first.
- Producer Denise Ream also related to the concept, with her grandparents coming from Ireland. Both she and Sohn say that the film is meant to be universal. We all come from somewhere.
- It’s a love story in two ways. Part of the film is almost a romantic comedy, with Ember and Wade unexpectedly starting to fall for each other. But it’s also a family love story, with the relationship between Ember and her father being one of the film’s most potent themes. To Ream, this was especially significant, as she said it was only through her father’s sacrifices that she could pursue her dream and have the success that she’s had.
- Both Sohn and Ream worked as director and producer on The Good Dinosaur, but while they inherited that project to a certain extent, Elemental is one they’ve been with from the beginning. Ream explained that in the ten years she’s been at Pixar, she worked on three movies, and seven of those ten years have been spent on Elemental.
- The casting was done in a way that didn’t opt for stunt casting. As with other Pixar movies, they went with who they thought could properly play the roles, with Sohn wanting to cast Leah Lewis after seeing her in the Netflix film, The Half of It. For Mamoudou Athie, his performances on the TV show Cake and the series Uncorked convinced Sohn he was perfect for the role.
- Sohn says that, at first, he had the notion of having Ember do superhero-type things, like being able to shoot flames out of her arms. But Sohn realized this didn’t touch him emotionally and found that making her vulnerable was much more interesting. Indeed, this makes Elemental feel much different and, in many ways, more sophisticated than similar movies.
- The film’s design is very intricate, as they’re trying to convey that the elements arrived in the city in different order. Water and earth came first, so the city caters to their needs, while air came forth and fire came last, leaving them the odd man out in specific ways.
- Unlike Zootopia, which is more about segregation, Elemental doesn’t go down that route. Ultimately everyone, regardless of their element, is presented as essentially well-meaning, even if the interactions are awkward.
- Catherine O’Hara plays Wade’s mother. Water residents are shown to be highly emotional, with them constantly crying puddles of tears. If you’ve seen O’Hara play Moira on Schitt’s Creek you’ll understand why she’s perfect to play Wade’s often hysterical mother. Ember is shown to have a bit of a temper, and when she gets angry, her flame changes color to signify how “hot” she’s getting.
- Movement was highly challenging, as the elements couldn’t be shown to walk like people. They aren’t people, after all – they are elements.
- For Pixar, the film is considered one of their big landmarks. Other landmarks for them: Toy Story was a big one, but Monsters Inc was also massive as they had to illustrate fur, and then, in Finding Nemo, they had to animate water.
- In terms of computers, to animate Toy Story, they used 290. For Monsters Inc, they used 672. For Finding Nemo -923. For Elemental, they used 151,000.
- They’re really pushing the 3D aspect in a way they never have with Pixar before. All involved are trying to make this a must-see in the format, and indeed the footage they showed us was mind-blowing. It’s not a post-conversion job. 3D was part of the process the whole time. They wanted to make something that demanded to be seen on the big screen.
Elemental hits theaters on June 16th. Much more to come from our time at the Pixar Animation Studios campus coming up.
Originally published at www.joblo.com