Pixar has given us memorable characters who were everything from toys, fish, monsters, and rats to more ethereal concepts like feelings and souls. But during a press event at Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, CA, several key members of the production team all noted they faced many new and unique challenges working on the studio’s latest project, Elemental.
The film takes place in Element City, a place where the citizens are physical embodiments of the elements, focusing on the burgeoning relationship between one of the Fire elements, Ember (Leah Lewis), and a Water element, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), and the culture clash that comes with this pairing.
Despite all the technical achievements Pixar has accomplished, Visual Effects Supervisor Sanjay Bakshi said there were some pretty daunting obstacles to get past with Elemental, remarking, “This one was pretty crazy. The idea of characters being made up of elements — water, air, earth and fire — is a huge challenge.”
Bakshi also mentioned something several others echoed as well, noting director Peter Sohn had stressed to all involved, “Ember isn’t just a standard Pixar character who we set on fire. She should really feel like she’s made of fire and move like fire. Similarly for Wade [and water]. We had never made a movie like this.”
THE FACE OF FIRE
Pixar are known for their incredible attention to detail and with Elemental, Production Designer Don Shank noted, “There was a lot of back and forth between our art and our technical teams as we discovered together how to make appealing elemental characters that still felt like they had the visceral impact of real fire, water, air and earth.
Early on, Baskhi recalled them trying experiments. For Ember, “We put a cartoony face on realistic fire and it didn’t look right. We realized this has to be a balance between realism and cartoony stylized fire. And we needed a team of experts to help us. So we squeezed artists, animators, technical folks, and production people in a room and asked them to make Ember in the computer. Only it was a virtual room because the pandemic had hit.”
Though Pixar’s films are computer animated, it’s not uncommon for development work to be drawn, but here, Baskhi said, “We knew we would do this work in the computer. Drawing, it wouldn’t give us the answers we needed. Fire is too dynamic. So is water. The clues for water are only when it’s in motion. So we sprint it. Every three weeks, we challenge ourselves to come up with a new version of Ember, so many versions, each learning from the last and applying ideas to the next. We did the same thing for Wade, starting with more realistic water and slowly tuning the balance between realism and stylization.”
Characters Supervisor Jeremie Talbot showed us examples of Ember in motion in the film, pointing out how she changes shape and form in each picture, along with the quality of her flame – going brighter or dimmer depending on her mood. As Talbot put it, “Her fiery personality is shown through her whole character, the way the fire behaves, the way she acts, everything. Pete told us at the beginning that elements are not human. As Sanjay said, how can we make fire and water express? That was our biggest challenge. They’re not flesh and bone. Ember IS fire. She’s not something on fire. That was a key part of Pete’s pitch to us. Wade IS water. He’s not something wet. And Ember is not a piece of coal that’s on fire, she actually is fire and if you pass your hand through her, it would behave like fire.”
A 3D hologram of Ember, created by Looking Glass
Talbot added this meant these characters needed to be very malleable and fluid, showing another brief clip he especially admired. “I love it because it’s a subtle shot. But notice Ember’s fire dimming and reappearing as she leans forward. There’s little pops in the heat of her face, [and she] leaves behind little trails of fire.”
Directing Animator Gwen Enderoglu reiterated how unique everyone at Pixar found Elemental, saying, “Amber and Wade are unlike anyone we’ve ever animated before. They’re composed of organic matter with no structure. So that offers an animator so much freedom and flexibility. But we still also had to capture the subtle, thoughtful performances of these two.
Her fellow Directing Animator, Allison Rutland, explained, “We identified things such as weight, flexibility and fluidity to create a different feel between the elemental characters. Fire was looser, lighter and more gaseous which gave Ember the freedom to change scale and volume more easily. There’s a softer, drifter quality to her motion, and she has an upward drafting energy.” In contrast, Enderoglu added, “Water is a much heavier force that retains its volume and mass. So that downward gravity made Wade more grounded in his contact and it gave him lots of fun and playful opportunities for sloshy, watery overlap.”
They even had to rethink what it meant to have a character simply standing and listening as another spoke vs. how they approached it with previous Pixar characters, with Gwen Enderoglu explaining, “We learned really early on that if the movement was too human or still, Ember would feel like a statue on fire rather than being made a fire. So we had to re-tune our level of ‘keepalive,’ which is sort of the ambient motion of a person at rest.”
Allison Rutland used some pre-production test animation for Ember to point out some amusing specifics, stating, “Notice how Ember’s eyes drift around her face because there’s no skull or eye socket. Animators had to think about and animate all these details to keep these characters feeling fluid and non-human.”
We were shown more examples from the film of how Ember’s fire alters and emotes with her state of mind, including when she’s calm (and thus her flame is calm) along with another image showing, “A more expressive moment of anger. Ember’s fire becomes larger and more active and also changes color to help connect her emotional state with her visual look. We relied on a kind of fake science to create consistency and logic for our choices throughout the film. A change in brightness could help sell the intake of oxygen for a fiery laugh. Or we could increase or reduce the speed of embers flames to match her emotional energy.”
Of course, as malleable as the main characters are, it’s also important the audience can always quickly identify them, especially in the larger Element City crowd scenes. As Effects Supervisor Stephan Marshall put it, “Ember should always look like Ember. Fire can’t deviate too far as to distort her look. Ember has a very specific three fire cones design for her head which always needed to be readable, so we recognize Ember in a crowd. Wade also had an iconic hairstyle that needed to be recognizable. It needed to flow like water, but always attempt to find those three hair shapes. This is an important element of the characters’ design, so they always needed to preserve this.”
THIS LAND IS OUR LAND
Beyond the characters appearing to actually be those elements, the Elemental team wanted to make sure the world they occupied felt derived from those elements as well.
As Shanks explained, “We discovered unique options by imagining how elemental characters would have naturally evolved, but the way that they build their world, our environment should feel inspired by the elements that created them. For example, fire would use materials to build with that they give rise to, like ceramic, metal, terracotta, glass…”
He added, “For the fire town, we use things like cooking pots and stove burners, gas lamps and fireplaces to create new takes on familiar buildings like apartment buildings and shops that you would find in a city neighborhood. Our structures are assembled out of a combination of related object types and only rarely do we use a single object like say a teapot as a building by itself.”
Shanks said that water received the same explorations, pointing out “a city tower inspired by water dams with majestic arcs of water cascading down the sides. And sometimes an object itself would inspire a translation.” This included, “A Galileo thermometer, which when I saw it, I imagined that each of the little bubbles inside was a floating apartment. The Water District is very upscale and we had a lot of fun mixing elegant stylishness with playful pool features.”
Elemental opens June 16. Tickets are now on sale.