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The Natural Chemistry of Disney-Pixar’s ‘Elemental’

Director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream talk about the hard work and incredibly supportive collaboration that produced Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new, 3DCG feature about a fiery young woman and a fun, go-with-the-flow guy, who together couldn’t be more different – or could they (?), premiering in theaters June 16.

What do you get when you put together a quick-witted and fiery young woman, a sappy, go-with-the-flow guy, and the inevitable complications that arise from a rigidly ordered society? If you said a classic Howard Hawks film, you wouldn’t be wrong, but in the current instance, the answer is Elemental, an all-new 3DCG feature produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, slated for release in theaters on June 16, 2023. Directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream, who previously collaborated on Pixar/Disney’s The Good Dinosaur (2015), Elemental is distinguished by the fact that its central characters aren’t just like fire and water or surrounded by fire and water – they are fire and water, which makes the ensuing complications especially complicated.

Sohn started working on Elemental shortly after completing The Good Dinosaur, which, one can quickly calculate, means he’s been at it for something like seven years. Based in part on his experiences growing up as the son of Korean immigrants in New York City in the 1970s, the film explores the kind of cultural and ethnic diversity typical of big-city life, as well as the problems that can arise in the face of these differences. In the case of Element City, where the film is set, the residents are as fundamentally different as you can get, comprising as they do the four basic elements of nature – fire, water, earth, and air. Yet despite being literally unable to touch each other, fiery Ember (Leah Lewis) and watery Wade (Mamoudou Athie) wind up discovering just how much they have in common.

Written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, with a story by the three writers and Sohn, Elemental features a voice cast that includes Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Mason Wertheimer, and Joe Pera.

We spoke with Sohn and Ream about the creation of Elemental, including the rigors and technical difficulties of production, their approach to its sensitive themes, and, most strikingly, the support Sohn received from the team when he suffered personal losses during production.

AWN: When did you first feel sure that, while you still had a lot of work to do, you were definitely going to be able to make the film that you wanted?

Denise Ream: For me, it wasn’t until last September.

AWN: Seriously? That late in the production process?

DR: Seriously.

Pete Sohn: I think it was our first audience preview for me.

DR: Which was a little bit earlier. That was the end of April of last year.

PS: It was less about technical issues, but more about, will audiences feel the characters, and feel what they're going through, and have a good time?

DR: Yeah, I was very happy about that, but I was still not 100 percent sure if we were going to be able to do what we wanted. I didn't believe that until September.

PS: I just remember that it was the largest audience that I had been with in a while. Because of COVID, you weren’t able to have that theater experience. And so, hearing people laugh and get emotional, and gasp and everything, you're just like, "Oh my goodness, this is feeling so good. This is what this is meant for."

DR: That collective experience, sitting next to people.

PS: There was still a long road ahead with technical challenges, for sure, but boy, I remember that.

AWN: How did you approach the immigrant experience, which, whether they want to admit it or not,  is not that far removed from most people's experience? How did you make it universal enough that everybody can relate to it, and yet make it personal at the same time?

PS: For me, it was very simple. It was a very personal experience, meaning watching my parents go through it, hearing their stories, and then my own journey to understand living in the same city that treated them differently than it did me. So, it was starting from a very authentic place and building off of that. But since that would only be truthful to a specific experience, we did a lot of interviews with our crews, and brought in other bits and pieces that felt authentic.

Of course, it's an interesting game with the elements, because, if you get too specific, it gets so alien because they're not human. There are weird moments where you need to ground it, so that people can understand the concept. But, at the same time, there's specificity like, "Oh, they don't speak the language very well," for example, when the fire people speak with a fiery sound effect. And then, when you get deeper into the story, there are issues that I've literally had with my parents. I shared that with another artist on the show, and they were like, "Oh, I've had that same experience." All of a sudden you start to realize, "Oh, this is universal."

DR: I would say that was my biggest connection to the movie – Pete's experience with his parents and seeing what they sacrificed. You look back as an adult and it's like, "Yeah, God, my dad did kind of the same thing." As far as immigration, we're not all that far removed. We're so much closer to it than you realize. That was the thing that was striking when Pete was talking with the crew – how many people at our studio are first or second generation. And I think that’s representative of a lot of places.

AWN: In the excerpts we saw, there was an intimation of conflict between different elements, including a bit of class conflict. But not seeing the whole film, we don’t know how deep you explore such issues. You can think about them, write them, storyboard them, but, at a certain point, until they become a bit more real, how do you negotiate them and figure out how far you take that in the story?

PS: There’s an old adage of [writer-director] Andrew Stanton’s: You are never going to know what you don't know until maybe the last eighth of making a movie, when you get all your answers. What I learned from Andrew and other directors is that you have a North Star that helps guide you through the film. For me, that North Star was thanking our parents and understanding their sacrifices.

As you get deeper into trying to understand all of these answers, you get lost. You get lost in the weeds going down some technical avenue, or a story avenue that you thought was really important, but then ultimately, it's something that you need to excise. But it’s just like, you're going to get lost because you are not going to have all the answers, and you won't get those answers until way too late. And anytime I did lose objectivity, it was just a matter of taking a step back and simply remembering why I was doing this.

AWN: Speaking of Andrew Stanton, when you're trying to make a decision about something, do you ever think, "What would Andrew do?" Or, "What would Pete [Docter] do?"

PS: Yeah, I feel like I’ve learned something from every director that I've known or read about; I feel like it's just in the Rolodex. Andrew is one of our biggest critics, in order to keep the bar as high as it can be. And Pete's understanding of the heart and pathos, and Brad Bird’s love for the cinema. These are all directors that I've worked with, and they're all in there because we were in the trenches together, and you're on the sidelines watching them learn. I’ve jumped around in a lot of different departments, going from art into story, into animation, doing some voice work. So watching Andrew direct something in editorial, you learn lessons. From watching Brad direct you as a character in a movie, you learn how they're getting their performances.

So I’m running on those lessons, but, this time around, a new voice started to appear, which was my own voice, saying, "Yeah, I know Brad wouldn't do this, but my gut is telling me to try this thing out." And then people still push on it. There's moments in this movie that have been pushed on. Before, I would've been like, "I will do what you say. Let me take out that moment." But, in this film, I was stubborn, and I was like, "No, I believe in this idea, even though the effects are going to be expensive, and you don't see it quite yet. Just trust me."

AWN: Denise, are you often conflicted as a producer, because it’s your job to keep an eye on costs? And was that a big factor on this film?

DR: Yeah, I think, on this one, I had to do a lot more of that than I was used to – which was, frankly, an uncomfortable position to be in, because we didn't know for so long if we could do it. So it was one of those things where you don't want to pull the rug out from someone creatively, and so I felt like I was constantly, "Well, maybe." More than I've ever had to do in the past. This is, far and away, the most complicated project I've ever worked on, and that includes a Star Wars movie. And so that was a really uncomfortable place to be in, because it's just so much more experimental, so much more technology. But we fought our way through. There were good times, there were bad times, and then, ultimately, we ended up having this incredible team that always does more than they say they will.

PS: I just appreciate that it's all here in this one house. There's not a lot of animation studios anymore where it's all being made in one place, and I take great pride in that. Even though so much of it was on Zoom, towards the back end, we were just here in the theater all the time. And that experience of being together, making something, no one gets that anymore.

AWN: Is there any pressure at Pixar to make an original story, rather than a sequel?

PS: No, the pressure is always trying to make something great, and what can really work as a movie, whether it’s a sequel or an original. I don't know if there's any discussion about, "Oh, this one has to be original. This has to be a sequel, let's do sequels." In my experience, they all form organically. But there definitely is pressure to make it universal and relatable, and of a high quality. That pressure is in every department.

Pete Docter is our executive producer, and I know how proud he is of this film, and I know how proud he’ll be of whatever sequel that comes in the future. But there’s always been a kind of brain trust here, and there’s always been a rigor about trying to make every film the best it can be. Outside factors can change the life of a film, but that rigor has always been essentially beat into us. I've been here 23 years, and the major pressure that I always feel is to do the best that I can.

AWN: In talking to filmmakers on films like this – where there's so many people putting in so many hours for so many years – I’ve learned that you're as much a parent and a cheerleader and a coach and a friend as being the one who says, "This needs to be like this, and this needs to be like this." What have you learned in making Elemental that you will take to your next project? And what was most difficult for you during the production?

PS: I get emotional thinking about this, but I lost both my parents during the making of this thing. Elemental isn’t an autobiography, but there are a lot of moments in the film that are truthful experiences, that all of a sudden remind me of my parents. Sometimes, in the middle of a meeting, I'll have to stop and just go, "I'm sorry." The team would support me in ways that I never expected. They all knew what we were doing this for. It was to show appreciation for these people in our lives, these connections in our lives. They understood that I wasn't just the guy who says, "No, it has to be this." There was a resonance with the crew, and I know that this will always be this very special experience because of these things that happened. I don't know if it counts as lessons as a director, but that was a huge thing for me, of understanding what vulnerability is when you're working with a crew this large, and the crazy compassion that can form within the team.

DR: I think that's just beautifully put.

It's such a cliche, but what I learned is that every production is different. I've worked with the same director twice at Pixar, and I thought I was going to be way more intuitive about what he needed. But we were dealing with a completely different set of challenges. That was my big lesson. It just reinforced my belief that production just changes constantly.

AWN: Well, you guys are in a wonderful position. The studio believes in you and is willing to make big investments in your films.

DR: I feel really lucky that we actually got to do this. This was a big movie, and hopefully we'll make more.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.