Director Peter Sohn on the Technical Challenges of Creating the Main Characters of ‘Elemental’

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” 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. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Disney and Pixar groundbreaking work in animation will once again be on display in Elemental. Beginning with 1995’s Toy Story, the animators at Pixar have been innovators and problem solvers as they continue to create visually stunning films. Their 27th film, Elemental, is no different as the creators laid out a huge challenge for the animators: bring fire and water to life to create the film’s two main characters, Ember and Wade. The animators were asked to keep in mind that while they were working with something recognizable, they were also creating something that had never been seen before: “Ember is fire, she is not on fire. Wade is water. He’s not something that’s wet.

Director Peter Sohn envisioned the characters and dreamt up the world they’d inhabit. At the global press junket for the upcoming film, Sohn explained some of the challenges the artists faced while trying to create characters who looked, behaved and reacted to situations in ways that are consistent with how fire and water would.

The main challenge of fire honestly was, could we get something balanced that could be appealing and still exploit the element? That was the main challenge. We had tried fire that was really realistic, I know you guys saw a part of the presentation. That was just a tip of the
iceberg of the reference, meaning we tried real, like realistic eyes. We tried, you know, we tried all sorts of things and they looked terrifying. I wish you could see more of it. We could make a good horror movie from that footage, honestly. But then there were 2D versions of Ember that were much more flatter.

Peter Sohn
ELEMENTAL, Disney and Pixar’s all-new, original feature film releasing June 16, 2023, features the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively. In a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, this fiery young woman and go-with-the-flow guy are about to discover something elemental: how much they actually have in common. “Elemental” is directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

As you might imagine, a task of this magnitude, even for some of the world’s greatest animators, wasn’t done in a day. As Sohn explained, it took time for the artists to find the right “balance” for the character of Ember.

And every time we saw the movements, you didn’t feel like it could touch anything or burn anything or it didn’t feel hot, you know, like where it was emanating, you know, the heat. But some of our artists found this balance between the two that I’m very proud of what they had
accomplished to get to that, absolutely. That was a really hard challenge and I thought they found a great balance.

Peter Sohn

As tough as Ember was, it turns out Wade was even tougher. “He was just so unmanageable and he looked so weird all the time,” explained Sohn. “I just kept pushing the water, and I went over the line just ’cause I couldn’t see, but the way he moved played into that. He so easily could turn into Jell-O just by slowing some of the ripples down a little bit, or how fast he could turn into a ‘Soul’ character if the ripples didn’t appear. There were just so many avenues that he could shift into very quickly and that would surprise all of us.”

Ultimately, as production designer Don Shank–whose work with Pixar dates back to 2004’s Incredibles–explained, the animators’ “design ideas inspired new technology, which inspired new design” creating one of Pixar’s most beautiful films to date. You can check out the fantastic work done by the artists at Pixar when Elemental hits theaters June 16th.

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