Skip to Content

Pixar Elemental Filmmakers Discuss Inspiration & Challenges

Pixar’s Elemental Director Pete Sohn and Producer Denise Ream discuss inspiration behind the film, as well as the challenges they faced.

Pixar Elemental Pete Sohn Interview

The Elemental Long Lead Press Days, including a press conference with Director Pete Sohn and Producer Denise Ream in the Steve Jobs Building Theater, from March 26, 2023 to March 28, 2023 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The upcoming Pixar film Elemental follows Ember and Wade as they must navigate the challenges of getting to know one another while being made of opposite elements — fire and water, respectively. Not only does this appear to be Pixar’s first romantic comedy, it addresses different cultures living together. 

During a long lead press day at Pixar Studios. Director Pete Sohn and Producer Denise Ream explain the inspiration behind the film, as well as the challenges that they needed to overcome to make it look as beautiful as it does.

Elemental - Designing Element City

Cultural Inspirations For Elemental

Element City houses water, land, air, and fire people. However, as you can imagine, trying to create a place that is friendly to all of them is difficult. They are opposing elements, after all. In the footage that was shown during the press day, it was made clear the city wasn’t designed with fire in mind, as Ember even states herself. 

He says that the everything goes back to Ember’s journey and how to make a character made of fire feel uncomfortable in a city. “It was a very simple idea,” Pete explains, “Maybe having to get on a water train or having to cross water would make her uncomfortable.” That is when they started to uncover and understand the hierarchy of Elemental City. The Pixar team realized that water would have had to come to this place first, and to have been the first elements to start building it. Of course, the toughest thing for fire would be the water. 

“Understanding this planet was a brain tease for us. The idea of water coming first, and then earth coming second formed the delta, like a river delta where there’s a lot of water meeting earth. From that delta they would build this city. Then air would be the third and then fire would be the last element to come into the city.” – Director Pete Sohn

element city residents in elemental

In terms of the town and the segregation between the elements, Pete confesses Element City isn’t like Zootopia. “There really isn’t segregation in that way in this film. It’s not Zootopia in that world where everything is disconnected from each other. I really wanted a hopeful city.” The hopefulness was expressed when Ember’s parents, Bernie and Cinder, come to the city for the first time. It’s meant to have this feel of a new life, and that their dreams can come true there. 

He does admit that there is a little bit of xenophobia in Elemental. “They walk through an air character that says, ‘Watch it, Sparky’. This little detail is added to talk about truths that I know from growing up and understanding what the prejudices are in this world.”

Everyone is trying to mix well in the city of Element city, but then Bernie has issues with some of the majority that he would start to begin his own uncomfortable connection with water early on. “That becomes a force throughout the movie so that obviously when Ember connects more with water characters, that would be an issue just like it was with my family. But that all supported what we needed the place to be for the story,” Pete says.

Wade Elemental

Challenges In Creating Elemental

Pixar’s Elemental is visually stunning, that much is apparent just from the trailer. However it was not without its challenges. Director Pete Sohn explains that rolling into production, there were still things they had not figured out yet. “It was broken down into performance shots and then effects gag shots or prevent shots. The train specifically, the crowds team would animate a library of motion for how water characters would move and for fire, and for air, and for earth. Then they would start to procedurally place that around in the background.”

He goes on to detail that they would all have to give all the crowd characters a certain level of effects so that they would not look out of place. Producer Denise Ream admits that getting the characters ready, particularly Wade, was the biggest challenge. “We all knew fire would be hard, but we were a little surprised about the water characters being so difficult,” she explains, “As Pete alluded to, we actually did need the effects post animation to be more procedural at a certain point.”

Every shot has an effect in this film, which is crazy to think about. Every character has some form of effect going on and every moment has an effect, which is made it very challenging. Pete says that water was so much harder than they anticipated because of its transparency. Wade’s design original allowed the audience to see the back of his mouth and eyes, so they had to take some liberties with it. Wade’s design of this landscape, of that mouth going everywhere, and eyeball going everywhere.

Pixar's Elemental Footage Details & Reaction

The stadium scene in particular was also a challenge for the team behind Elemental. This was because of all the crowd work that is put into it. There is a game of air ball that is being played in a stadium filled with characters, most of which are background characters.

Producer Denise Ream admits that “Computationally, that thing’s just a beast.” She goes on to talk about how the cloud characters were very hard. “I mean everything was hard, but they were tricky.”

Wade Elemental

Is Elemental A Romantic Comedy?

Except for Wall-E, Elemental is the most Pixar has centered a love story in a film. Director Pete Sohn says that is what he first pitched to Disney, the connection between fire and water, and could they ever connect. Is that even possible? He admits that he is a huge fan of so many romantic comedies like Moonstruck and The Big Sick, and how they bring cities into these stories as well.

He goes on to explain that the idea of the romance is a big part of the movie, but it is also a triangle. “It was that part of my connections that I had with trying to marry someone that was outside my culture. But it’s not just a boy meeting a girl or a girl meeting a boy, it is also a father and a daughter and what that relationship is.”

The initial concept was to try to make something universal that we could have part of that connection with fire and water. But then also understanding the family dynamic and that cultural part of this and to make the film larger. So there are other themes as well, that make the film so much bigger than just a romantic comedy. One example Pete gives is The Godfather, saying that it is not a romance, but there is a family love story that’s going on, and there were many different elements that the Pixar pulled into Elemental.

Pixar's Elemental Footage Details & Reaction

There are certainly romantic comedy aspects, though, as Pete explains when he talks about finding Ember’s design. “When I was first dating my wife, there are very vulnerable moments that you have where you feel emotionally naked. And then all of a sudden we were drawing Ember like a candle light where she got really dim and fragile and 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 could blow me away right now and I would just blow out and die.”

As for Denise Ream, she really loves the father-daughter relationship and that connection and understanding our parents as people. You don’t realize what your parents do for you until you’re so much older. So it is also the love with children and their parents. 

Advance tickets for Elemental are now on sale, so be sure to grab yours for opening weekend, June 16th.

NEXT: Designing Element City & Its Residents

Pixar Elemental poster

About Pixar’s Elemental

Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” an all-new, original feature film set in Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in.

Directed by Peter Sohn, produced by Denise Ream, and featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively.

Elemental will be exclusively in theaters June 16th, 2023.