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‘Elemental’ Director Peter Sohn on His Personal Connection to the Pixar Film, Honoring His Late Parents

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From The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn comes Elemental — Pixar’s upcoming venture into the vibrant animated world of fire, water, land and air.

On Thursday, Pixar released the film’s teaser trailer, which gave audiences a look at the metropolitan Element City, where fire, water, land and air residents live together.

Sohn’s seven-year journey with Elemental is a personal one, closely tied to his relationship with his family. “I am quite emotional about getting the characters and the story out for sure,” Sohn tells The News84Media. “This movie is about thanking your parents and understanding their sacrifices. My parents both passed away during the making of this thing. And so, it is hugely emotional, and I’m still processing a lot of it.”

The trailer also introduces the film’s heroine Ember (Leah Lewis), a twenty-something tough and quick-witted fire element trying to find her place in a world where she doesn’t quite fit in. When she meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a fun, go-with-the-flow water element, their friendship challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. In the teaser, Ember can be seen hooded with her headphones in, making her way through a crowded train.

Sohn has worked on several Pixar films over the years including Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, Incredibles 2, Ratatouille, WALLE-E, Luca and more. He also has voiced characters such as Remy’s brother Emile RatatouilleSquishy in Monsters University and Sox in Lightyear.

THR caught up with Sohn to discuss all things Elemental, from the process behind crafting the teaser trailer to the technical challenges that went into the film’s special effects.

Read on for the full interview. Watch the teaser trailer below.

The Good Dinosaur came out back in 2015. Since then, how long have you been working on Elemental?

Boy, it must be seven years since the development, when the idea first started. We started having those conversations around then. But it’s been a while in terms of the actual build up of it. Before anyone came on, it was a while, and there was that sort of lonely. “Does this idea have any value?”’” Once production hit, it’s just been trying to figure out new technology, trying to figure out how we get characters to look like fire but not be terrifying, like fire when it can be. And then water, when you go full transparency, you just see right through it, it just looks like glass. And so to find that balance has been quite difficult and challenging.

Having been working with this idea for seven years, how does it feel to finally have it out in the world?

It’s been a personal story, so I am quite emotional about getting the characters and the story out for sure. It’s a technically very difficult movie, just because everything effects and the characters are moving constantly, especially the fire, water and air characters. But this movie is about thanking your parents and understanding their sacrifices. My parents both passed away during the making of this thing. And so, it is hugely emotional, and I’m still processing a lot of it. But at the same time, there’s so much amazing work that the team has done that I’m quite proud of what they’ve accomplished.

The teaser trailer gives audiences just a taste of what to expect from Element City. What elements of the film did you want to come through most in that first look?

There was a practical part of just trying to set the world up in terms of [our] four elements — there’s earth, air, water and fire. And so when you walk into the train, you get a glimpse of the types of cultures that we’ll be able to play with. And then obviously, our main character Ember and this relationship that she will have with this water guy, and trying to tease the possible sparks of chemistry between these two was the goal.

And like you said, the trailer sees all the elements, going about their daily lives. What was it like brainstorming all those little details for each of these cultures?

Yeah, it’s such a funny balance. Definitely a lot of gag sessions, where you’re just coming up with what bits could work. … It’s this balancing act of gags, but effects are also very expensive. So, you have to balance, how many effects can we actually do in here?

ELEMENTAL Poster

ELEMENTAL

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

It seemed like Ember was the only fire element that was walking around, and she’s sort of hiding herself under her hood. What can you tell us about her character?

Ember is a twenty-something. She was born in the city, but she grew up in a fire town — the neighborhoods are sort of split up in different ways. And she knows that the city was started by water. That’s what we loved about trying to set up that the train was built on a canal, there’s a water infrastructure. They were sort of the dominant way that the city was built, and fire really wasn’t taken into consideration at that time. So, it’s a little tougher for fire to kind of navigate that world. That was part of why she’s in the hood, and to make sure that it feels like, “Oh, she doesn’t quite belong just yet.”

You mentioned that the theme of this story centers on family and thanking your parents for their sacrifices, but there’s also this close relationship between Ember and Wade. What about these characters made them the beating heart of the story?

Well, there’s two pieces to that one. First, it was based off that I married someone that wasn’t Korean, and the sort of cultural clashes that had happened with the families. So that was one aspect of their characters that was a foundation. The other foundation was just exploiting fire and water. Fire is connected to tempers, to passion, to light. And water is connected to transparency, going with the flow. So they’re already these personalities that generically started, and then building off of that to form Ember and Wade, and what chemistry they may or may not have was sort of the game. I hope audiences really vibe into what it means to be fire and means to be water, you know? And the Venn diagram of where they sort of overlap.

You’ve been at Pixar for nearly 20 years. What projects were the most influential for you in creating Elemental?

The first thing I had worked on was Iron Giant at Warner Bros. [The director] Brad Bird, and the way he trusted his crew, and the passion for movies that he had, greatly influenced me through my years at Pixar. And then working with the other directors from Nemo and [Andrew Stanton] to Up and Pete Docter, and a lot of other friends — their dedication to the craft and their love for animated movies is part of the tribe. I totally grew up feeling those same ways about animated films, and I feel like that’s been the way each one of these films were made in terms of how personal they were, or how technically challenging they were and how everyone sort of dealt with those challenges. , was greatly influential, for sure.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film next year?

I hope they think about their loves in their lives and how they got there. I hope that under the umbrella of the loves in their lives, a big part of it is our parents. And when you start seeing your parents as people. For me, it was in my twenties when I started seeing them as people and really understanding that, oh my goodness, they made a lot of sacrifices that I took for granted. And when I became an adult, getting a job, that really hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, holy cow, they did this with no English, they did this with no money. So those sacrifices became very real for me, and I hope people who enjoy the movie can have some of that.

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Elemental is set for release on June 16, 2023. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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