We all know that opposites attract, but Pixar is taking that idea even further in this summer’s Elemental. In the new film, the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – are all different types of residents living together in Element City. Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) is a young fire element, working at a convenience store run by her parents, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), when she meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water element, leading to a surprising connection between the two.
Fandom took part in an early press event for Elemental this week at the Pixar campus in Emeryville, CA, where art for the film filled the impressive lobby of the Steve Jobs Building, named for the company’s late owner, prior to Disney. Upstairs, a gallery of art from the film’s long development process was on display – including a glass case holding figures representing the Earth elements that were made from actual dirt and rocks by Pixar employees, pulled from their backyards during their time working from home during the pandemic.
With the debatable exception of WALL-E, there’s never been a Pixar move to center a love story in the manner Elemental does, though director Peter Sohn noted the film really came about from two different but overlapping thoughts. “This film comes from a very personal place for me. It’s about appreciating the sacrifices our parents have made for us and the unlikely connections that we make in our lives.”
LOVE AND COMPLICATIONS
Recalling the early development of Elemental, Sohn noted, “That connection between fire and water was the first thing I pitched to Disney. ‘Could fire and water ever connect? is that even possible?’ And that hook sort of drove us through.”
Sohn explained, “I am a huge fan of so many romantic comedies, from the Jane Austen films to Moonstruck – ‘Snap out of it!’ – to The Big Sick,” adding that he loved films like Amelie, “and bringing cities into these stories as well.” This felt very apparent in the footage we saw from the film, including a lovely sequence that really sells their connection and burgeoning romance – an expansion of footage shown at D23 Expo last year – where Ember and Wade walk through the city together and both show off a bit of their abilities to the delight of the other, as she changes colors based upon where she’s standing and he floats on top of the water surrounding them.
“The romance is a big part of the movie, but it was also a triangle. It was that part of my connection that I had with trying to marry someone that was outside my culture,” Sohn noted, elaborating how his own upbringing, as the American-born child of Korean immigrants, was a huge influence on the story, including the initial friction caused when he began dating the woman he would go on to marry, Anna Chambers, who is not Korean.
We were shown about 25 minutes of footage from Elemental, including early scenes depicting Ember working for her parents and the not so subtle hints from her family she should find someone to settle down with – and that it should be a fellow fire element. This includes a very funny moment where we see a flashback to her grandmother’s dying wish for Ember and how it’s specifically, “Promise me one thing… Marry fire!’ This is a direct lift from Sohn’s family, as he explained, “My grandmother’s dying words were like, ‘Mary Korean.’ That comes from a real place and it created all these sort of culture clashes growing up.”
With Elemental, “It’s not just a boy meeting a girl or girl meeting a boy, it was also a father and a daughter and what that relationship was. The initial concept was to try to make something universal; that we could have part of that connection with these two, fire and water, but then also understanding the family dynamic, and that cultural part of this, and to make the film larger. There are other themes in this that I hope you guys also get out of it that make the film much bigger. But yeah, we saw so many romance movies.”
Sohn admitted that, much like Wade in the film, he is prone to cry easily, saying it was very much the case when he watches romance movies or movies that could arguably be romance movies. He added, with a grin, “My brother always debates this. Is Sound of Music a romantic comedy? I go, ‘I think it is!’ Even The Godfather, that’s not a romance, but there’s like a family love story that’s going on in there. And so there were many different elements that we sort of pulled into it.”
Said producer Denise Ream, “I really loved the father-daughter relationship and that connection, and then understanding our parents as people. You don’t realize what your parents do for you until you’re so much older. And, you know, sadly, I’ve realized that after my dad was gone, and so it’s the love with children and their parents. And it was fun to do a different story, frankly. That’s what I think our story and edit teams were really excited about.”
The four elements in Elemental are stand-ins for what it’s like to live among different ethnicities or religions and the friction that can sometimes exist between them. However, Sohn stressed that audiences shouldn’t be looking for any direct one to one comparisons as far as thinking each element is representing one specific Earth-bound group.
“When I first started pitching it, there were things of my own life that I would make fun of in terms of like, ‘Oh, I love spicy food. Wouldn’t it be funny if fire food was really spicy?’ and that kind of thing and all that kind of fun. Once people started asking, [of fire] ‘Oh, are they Asian?’ it was like, ‘No, no, they’re not meant to be Asian.’ ‘Is air meant to be this culture?’ And quickly, I would realize, no, these have to be universal.”
Sohn added, “My biggest goal was to try to find and take the element itself and pull from there to make the culture. Obviously, if you go too far, it could become alien, so you do have little grounding [aspects].” He explained that a big approach was what he described as “disruption,” which meant if there was one aspect pulled from a specific piece of culture we know, before it felt like that meant that element was meant to only represent that culture, “the next [aspect] takes you into another place where it’s giving you other values of cultures that we know… But more than anything, it was just saying, ‘Oh, they’re fire people. They eat wood! No earth people eat wood in this way. How can we exploit that? What dish? What kind of plates would they have?’”
The fire element also has its own language we hear Ember’s family use, dubbed “Firish,” which was created by David J. Peterson, the man behind the fictional languages in projects like Game of Thrones, The 100, Thor: The Dark World, and Dune. Sohn praised Peterson and his collaborators, who were tasked with taking the sizzles and pops and other assorted sounds you might hear coming from a fireplace and then coming up with a language based off that.
We were shown the very beginning of Elemental, which shows Bernie and Cinder arriving in Element City prior to Ember’s birth, where — in a very immigrants at Ellis Island touch — their names are changed because their Firish names aren’t easy to understand for the immigration agent they’re dealing with.
Bernie and Cinder ultimately have a successful business and a loving family in Element City and Sohn stressed, “I really wanted a hopeful city. When Bernie and Cinder come to the city for the first time, it’s meant to have this feel of ‘Oh, we could have a new life here! Our dreams can come true here!’” That being said, he noted he felt it was important to include “A little bit of xenophobia. They walk through an air character and he used to say ‘Watch it!’ but then I had it be, ‘Watch it, Sparky!’ These little details that just talk about truths that I know growing up and understanding what are the prejudices of this world. I think everyone is trying to mix well in Element City, but then Bernie is having issues with some of the majority and he would start to begin his own sort of uncomfortable connection with water early on. And then that would become a force throughout the movie where, obviously, when Ember connects more with water characters, that that would be an issue, just like it was with my family.”
It’s established that water were the first to settle in Element City, followed by earth, with those two really establishing how the city functions and also representing a hierarchy of sorts – in another sequence we saw, when Ember meets Wade’s family (including his mom, voiced by the ever-awesome Catherine O’Hara), she takes note the wealth he was raised in. Said Sohn, “Everything goes back to Ember, what Ember’s journey is, and how to make a character of fire feel uncomfortable in a city. And so it was a very simple idea of maybe having to get on a water train or having to cross water or be sprayed on, it always would make her uncomfortable. And so that started helping us understand the hierarchy of this place.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
While Pixar has cast many big stars in leading roles, Elemental forgoes this by putting relative unknowns Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie at the center.
Sohn recalled his first drawings for Elemental were very basic, essentially, “a campfire and a bucket of water,” but as he began to hone in on the characters, he had some core thoughts such as, “fire would be a smoky voice and then water would be a cooler voice,” even as that evolved to add more aspects. Both of his eventual leads impressed Elemental’s filmmakers in other projects, with Sohn singling out Lewis’ work in the Netflix movie The Half of It.
“She performed on all these levels that were really interesting, where she could be really hot-tempered but still very appealing. And then she had a vulnerability in her voice but also she could staddle that with being so sincere and authentic. But the whole time, it was this smoky voice, and she could sing. And so it was like, ‘holy cow!’ You know, there were some moments in that film where she was talking to her father, and it was so tender, but at the same time, she could have a force behind it that I thought was perfect for [Ember].”
As for finding Wade, Sohn noted, “I was always drawing him crying. I am a sap, full on,” explaining more of his own propensity to cry and admitting he’s the guy who will break down at any emotional YouTube video of a big family moment. Athie had starred in a series called Oh Jerome, No and Sohn recalled a scene where his character has gone through a breakup, “And he did this cry that was so sincere but hilarious. The amount of crying that Wade does, it can get so painful, but Mamoudou had such a compassionate soul that when he was crying, you just went with him in it.” On top of that, Sohn also saw Athie in the movie Uncorked and loved a scene where “he was flirting in this really nerdy way that I thought really was Wade.”
Elemental has been in the works for seven years and Ream noted, “We took a while before we cast those roles… We listened to a lot of people, but they both really did stand out pretty quickly, once we were ready to cast the roles.” Ream added that the long road for Elemental has also meant though, that despite being cast years into the process, “They’ve been with us for a lot longer than the average [Pixar cast member]. You know, we’ve been recording with them for a couple of years. We’re very fond of them.”
Sohn said he loved how the characters and their physicality can reflect their emotions and the process of falling for someone, recalling that while developing the film, there were times where they had created art of Ember “doing superhero kind of powers where she would throw flames, and immediately, you were just like, ‘I don’t feel anything from this.’” He added there still are aspects of those abilities seen in the film but that he felt the most powerful moments came from more relatable traits.
The director remarked, “When I was first dating my wife, there are very vulnerable moments that you have where you feel emotionally naked. And then we were drawing Ember like a candle light, where she got really dim. All of a sudden, I’m like, oh my God, I’m totally feeling what that feeling is, when you’re in those places with somebody that you’re just like ‘You could blow me away right now. I would just blow up and die.’ And that became sort of like the driver. We can use the elements to support things that we feel… That was a coloring that really helped us understand how to build off of these characters.”
Elemental opens June 16, 2023.